Stephen King returns to the small towns of Maine for his latest novel, stomping grounds he’s made a living in for the past three and a half decades. Chester Mills has a population just south of 2000, though that number will be drastically reduced by the end of Under the Dome. On a gorgeous fall afternoon, an invisible shield surrounds the town, impenetrable on either side. The first victims are a woodchuck and a flying instructor and pilot as they crash into the dome’s surface. The carnage mounts as shortly thereafter as the townspeople panic once they realize they’re trapped and cut off from the rest of the world.
King sets up an interesting experiment with this latest novel. The residents are in essence ants trapped under a magnifying glass for the author and readers entertainment. He keeps the novel in high gear as there’s rarely a lag in the action-the whole story takes place in less than a week. King also explores political and environmental questions in his latest work. Despite all the messages we have about recycling and conserving energy, by and large most people believe we live in a world with infinite resources. When the Dome goes around Chester Mills, its residents must confront a reality where food, water and power have a fast approaching finite limits. The most important question after “When will the Dome be removed?” is “what happened to all the propane tanks that power our generators?” King explores two sides of how we view natural resources. Some come together to pool what they have, firm in their belief that everyone needs to band together in a time of crisis. The majority take the view that possession is nine tenths of the law, as they grab, scrounge, loot and horde anything not nailed to the ground.
Politically King’s novel serves as an indictment of the Bush administration. King reduces their eight years in office to the scale of small town politics and the bully pulpit that thier ilk so often reperesent. Standing in for George Bush is Chester Mills’ first selectman Andy Sanders. Andy is a nice enough guy, the kind of person you’d slap on the back at the town BBQ, but ultimately he’s a dupe and a puppet for the town’s real power. That man is Big Jim Rennie. Jim is the town’s second selectman and owner of the town’s used car lot (You’ll Be Wheelin’ cuz big Jim is Dealin’!). Big Jim has effectively manipulated the first selectman for years and everyone knows he’s the real power behind the town. He’s a religious hypocrite, fond of consoling constituents whose loved one have perished that they’re “Eating dinner with Jesus tonight. Roast Beef and mashed with apple cobbler for dessert”. Like Dick Cheney, Rennie is interested in one thing-power. When the dome goes up, Rennie sees it as an opportunity to seize control over the town once and for all, constitution or Presidential orders be damned. Behind the scenes, he’s able to orchestrate chaos amongst the townspeople, and he turns them against anyone that doesn’t fall in line with his plans. He appoints what would otherwise be small town bullies to run a Gestapo-like police force that plunges the town further into chaos. And of course, unknown to all but a few, Big Jim’s running the world’s largest Meth lab behind the town’s gospel station. Those who challenge big Jim’s authority quickly find themselves on the mortician’s slab. Loaded with poisonous gas and an atomic bombs worth of explosive liquid propane, the lab is a disaster waiting to happen.
In the past decade, King seems to have turned away from supernatural horrors, focusing more n the terrible things we seem perfectly capable of inflicting on one another. While he still relies too much on the Deus Ex Machina technique to wrap up his third act (the science fiction reveal and how it’s used to eventually lift the dome is a stretch) Under the Dome remains an essential read for horror fans. King describes in minute and explosive detail how a town full of mostly good people can lapse into murder, rape and anarchy in less than a week. King’s devil is in the details, and it’s a fascinating journey watching a town wiped out not by the Dome closing down over them, but by their own reactions in pulling that invisible noose tighter around their collective necks.