Under the Dome – Stephen King

This epic boxset-like novel features a huge cast of characters and dissects, like little else, the intricacies of small town politics – and the dangers we face as the world’s resources become more limited.

It begins when a mysterious see-through dome descends on the small town of Chester’s Mill, killing birds, animals and humans as it does so, and trapping the town’s population. The US government begins looking into the causes and possible solutions, but it’s clear very quickly that the dome dwellers are on their own.
We meet an array of Chester’s Mill residents. Rennie, a small time politician who sees this as his chance to hold power, finally. He engineers situations – like a food riot at the supermarket – to justify more police and greater police violence, eventually recruiting some of the most horrible twenty-somethings to police the town. It turns out he’s a big time criminal who is brewing crystal meth, and is in fact stealing the dwindling town supplies of propane to keep the meth factory going.
We meet his unstable and ill son, Rennie Jr, who is in the midst of a horrific killing spree, which would have happened regardless of the dome, but whose mental and physical ill health is exacerbated by the the dome.
We meet Barbie, an army veteran cooking in the town diner, who is in fact leaving town when the dome comes down following a run-in with Rennie Jr and his pals. Blocked by the dome, an army official from the outside – Colonel Cox – asks him to lead the town, a suggestion that Rennie does everything in his power to stop.
And we meet Julia, the local paper’s editor who is intent on speaking truth to power, not least to Rennie and his gang of thugs, even as her paper and her life are constantly threatened by Rennie.
From here ensues hundreds of pages about the politics, intrigue and terror of a small town population trapped in a confined space with limited resources and growing despair about being freed, as a small few try to turn the situation to their advantage.
In short bursts of 3 or 4 pages, King takes us through the lives and emotions of probably nearly a hundred people – and it’s truly gripping. You start to connect to loads of them. Andy Sanders who turns from a naive politician to a gun-toting meth addict after his family dies. Sam Bushy who is horrifically raped by the new police recruits and kills plenty of them in return. Rusty, a medical assistant who becomes the town’s surgeon after the only qualified surgeon dies.
And as the story goes on, gradually there are less and less of them – very few in fact. So few that the apparent hero at the start – Barbie – appears far from that by the end, not because he’s turned away from heroic but because events conspire against him and the other good guys almost entirely.
I can’t help feeling that the final 100 or so pages, where King tries to bring a supernatural explanation and finale to the dome, are a bit of a let down. It’s the townspeople, their relationships, the insight into how terrified and cornered people behave, that are so mesmerising. You can’t help making the jump from this story to the impact of climate change, and thinking it does not bode well for us.

“At first nothing crossed his mind. He was in that mostly empty-headed state of grace which is sometimes fertile soil: it’s the ground from which our brightest dreams and biggest ideas (both the good and the spectacularly bad) suddenly burst forth, often full-blown. Yet there is always a chain of association.”

Stephen King, Under the Dome

‘Salem’s Lot – Stephen King

This is classic horror, pure and simple. A great, haunting novel that satirises rural America.

The first few hundred pages tells the story of Jerusalem’s Lot, introducing us to the people, the closeness, the closedness of this small New England Town.

The two incomers to the town are Ben Mears who grew up there and is now a successful novelist. He returns to write a story about the imposing Marsten House, a building with a terrible history that stands above the town – and one where he had a terrifying experience as a child.

The other is Straker, an elegant gentleman who is supposedly opening a new antique store and has taken residence at Marsten House with his partner, as yet unseen, Barlow.

As well as the day to day of small town life going on – arguments, affairs, drunkenness – odd things begin to happen. A dog’s head is found spiked on a railing, a child called Danny Glick dies – then his whole family – and gradually more and more people appear to be hollowed-out and zombie-like.

A cohort gradually understand with horror, and some shock, what’s happening – that Barlow is a vampire who is turning the whole town and they attempt to fight him, losing all the people they love – and for most of them their lives – in the process.

Ben and a teenager called Mark Petrie are the lead of a band of heroes, alongside Ben’s old teacher Matt, doctor Jimmy Codie and priest

Father Callahan, with support from Ben’s girlfriend Susan Norton. The characters, the big ones and the bit players in the town,are brilliant, so well written.

What I love about this book is partly how classic it is – the small town, the band of defenders, the nods to the traditions of horror and vampire literature, and the kind of modern day vampire and zombie stuff we see in the likes of Walking Dead.

And what I love too is how it parodies small town life – where Stephen King says he grew up. The minutiae of daily life, the gossip, the sense of isolation, the way everything is closed up after dark meaning anything can happen without being noticed. 

There’s a great bit in King’s afterword to the edition I read where he says his Mum would have chainsmoked her way through the last 100 gripping pages before declaring the book trash, but good trash. I know what he means: this book is trashy vampire horror, but of the highest, well-written and meaningful quality. 

Revival – Stephen King

A readable story of one man’s life, a gradual piece of horror and a psychoanalytic revelation, this book shows why Stephen King is such a popular author.

It begins when Jamie Morton is a young boy in small town America and the Reverend Charlie Jacobs is the new and well-loved minister in town. He experiments with electricity and manages to heal Jamie’s brother’s muteness through some weird science channeling ‘secret electricity’. But after a fatal accident involving his family, brilliantly described by King, Jacobs turns from God, blasting out a blasphemous sermon in the pulpit before leaving town.

Flash forward twenty or so years and Jamie, a musician now, is in a bad way, hooked on heroin. He meets Jacobs randomly who, using his alternative methods, cures him of his addiction. From there Jamie’s ambivalent relationship with Jacobs begins; he tracks him, now a healer preaching with a ‘carny’ show, bring in lots of money through incredible acts of electric healing that have cured hundreds maybe thousands of people. But Jamie discovers that there are often psychological aftereffects to a healing by Jacobs, sometimes lethal, often disturbing.

It comes to a head when Jamie joins Jacobs at a final experiment to discover what lies beyond the living, which they do in an page-turning scene on top of Goat Mountain, where flashes of lightening power Jacobs and he connects with a dark world beyond ours, one that haunts Jamie for the years he las left.

It’s a fantastic allegory for the kind of tumult and horror that resides just beneath the thin veneer of ‘reality’ and is almost psychoanalytic in its revelations, though whether King would see it like that I don’t know. The contrast between the realism of much of the novel – which reads at times like something by Richard Ford or someone – and the supernatural horror of the culminating scenes has an odd effect, though it’s this which ultimately makes it so readable and so disturbing.