Friday, July 30, 2010

Disappointment "Under the Dome"

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

To say that the ending to Under the Dome is anticlimactic is an understatement. To say, moreover, that it is sophomoric is to put the matter mildly. It is both a letdown and a disappointment.
King’s characters have suffered, most of them greatly; many of them have died. Were they real, flesh-and-blood people, the survivors would be traumatized, probably for life, by the death and destruction they have seen. Their friends, neighbors, and families, children included, are dead; their homes and businesses have been destroyed; their lives are in ruins. Why? What has caused this wholesale loss?

It could be argued that much of the death and destruction stems from the machinations of the greedy, self-serving, power-mad, criminal Big Jim Rennie and his cohorts. In the guise of doing what is best for the town, Big Jim has caused more than a good deal of mischief. He has abused his constituents, neglected the community’s real needs, and capitalized by pandering to the townspeople's weaknesses and fears. He has profited from the manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine; he has ordered others to commit arson and violence; he has encouraged the incitement of a riot; he has murdered people with his own hands and has covered up the murders of others by his son. He has set friend against friend and neighbor against neighbor. His ordering of a raid against the drug addicts who hold hostage the propane tanks that he stole from the local hospital and other businesses to fuel his illegal drug operation resulted in a conflagration that decimated the homes and businesses of the thousands who also perished in the inferno, burned alive. Throughout the crisis that began with the descent of the dome and the many others that he himself created, Big Jim prospered while others suffered and died.

The townspeople are not blameless; both as children and as adults, they, too, have participated in the evils that befall themselves and others. Even the heroes and heroines of King’s novel have past sins for which to atone.

There are few true innocents under the dome, apart from infants such as Little Walter Bushey and the canines Horace, Clover, and Audrey.

Some citizens are guiltier than others: Big Jim Rennie, Junior Rennie, Pete Randolph, Georgia Roux, Frank DeLesseps, Melvin Searles, Carter Thibodeau, Stewart and Fern Bowie, Roger Killian, Joe Boxer, Phil Bushey, Lester Coggins, and Sam Verdreaux.

A few, the children, are innocent or relatively innocent: Joe McClatchey, Norrie Calvert, Benny Drake, Judy and Janelle Everett, Ollie and Rory Dinsmore, Alice and Aidan Appleton. However, as Julia Shumway’s account of the “watershed moment” in her own girlhood indicates, even children are capable of cruelty and evil.

Other characters are not developed enough for the reader to determine their guilt or innocence: Rose Twitchell, Anson Wheeler, Marty Arsenault, Rupert Libby, Stacey Moggin, Ron Haskell, Ginny Tomlinson, Dougie Twitchell, Gina Buffalino, Harriet Bigelow, Jack Cale, Johnny Carver, Lissa Jamieson, Claire McClatchey, Alva Drake, Tony Guay, Pete Freeman.

Finally, still other characters are guilty not because of corruption or meanness, but because of personal weaknesses or a significant, but lone, moral failure: Andréa Grinell, Andy Sanders, Dale Barbara, Angie McCain, Dodee Sanders, Freddy Denton, Piper Laurie, Rusty and Linda Everett, Romeo Burpee, Samantha Bushey, Stubby Norman, Brenda Perkins, Thurston Marshall, Carolyn Sturges.

King is careful, in most cases, to indicate his characters’ various moral offenses or failings, which include drug addiction, alcoholism, child abandonment, sexual promiscuity, adultery, henpecking, negligence, a reluctance or unwillingness to involve oneself in social and political conflicts and the duties of citizenship, assault (physical, sexual, and verbal), murder, malfeasance, theft, arrogance, a greater concern for economic advancement than for ending human suffering.

King suggests a practical means of distinguishing good from evil. Moral actions help others (or, presumably, oneself); immoral actions hurt others (or, presumably, oneself). In addition, in quoting Jimi Hendrix, the author suggests another, more nebulous criterion for determining what behavior is good and desirable and what behavior is bad and undesirable: “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the earth will know peace.” For the most part, his characters’ deeds and misdeeds fit into one or the other of these classification systems. Clearly, Big Jim’s actions are motivated by a love of power rather than by the power of love; likewise, his behavior has a harmful, more than a helpful, effect on others, including his son (and, ultimately, himself). In other cases, the classifications are not as clear cut, but the moral theory that King suggests seems applicable to their conduct, nevertheless. Human behavior’s effects, whether good or evil, desirable or undesirable, right or wrong, continue beyond individuals' lives, effecting the lives of their posterity. Police Chief Howard Perkins’ collection of evidence against Big Jim certainly influenced the events that transpired in the town long after his own demise. Likewise, the lesson in humility that Julia Shumway learned when she was abused as a child by her classmates at the Commons’ bandstand had a definite effect upon her behavior in begging the alien child for mercy at the end of the novel and was critical in the salvation of the remnant of the townspeople.

In his exploration of moral and immoral behavior and the effects of both upon the human community, both present and future, King’s novel offers penetrating insights and a good deal of food, as it were, for thought and is a rewarding read. The story itself is also a fairly suspenseful, almost always intriguing, and entertaining experience. Like most of King’s other novels, this one is apt to stay with the reader, to become part of who he or she is. This is certainly a test of effective, even of good, literature.

The test, perhaps, of which characters King finds worthy of salvation is indicated in his catalogue of final survivors, which appears on page 1066 of his novel. If this is true, one can extrapolate from what the omniscient narrator and the characters themselves have revealed concerning these characters’ past deeds and misdeed:

(On page 997, according to the omniscient narrator, “on Saturday morning. . . “just thirty-two” survivors remained of the town’s population:
  1. Aidan Appleton
  2. Alice Appleton
  3. Dale Barbara
  4. Harriet Bigelow
  5. Gina Buffalino
  6. Romeo Burpee
  7. Little Walter Bushey
  8. Ernest Calvert
  9. Joanie Calvert
  10. Norrie Calvert
  11. Ollie Dinsmore
  12. Alva Drake
  13. Benny Drake
  14. Linda Everett
  15. Janelle Everett
  16. Judy Everett
  17. Rusty Everett
  18. Pete Freeman
  19. Tony Guay
  20. Lissa Jamieson
  21. Piper Libby
  22. Thurston Marshall
  23. Claire McClatchey
  24. Joe McClatchey
  25. Big Jim Rennie
  26. Julia Shumway
  27. Carter Thibodeau
  28. Ginny Tomlinson
  29. Dougie Twitchell
  30. Rose Twitchell
  31. Sam Verdreaux
  32. Jackie Wettington
By page 1066, seven others (Aidan Appleton, Ernest Calvert, Benny Drake, Thurston Marshall, Big Jim Rennie, Carter Thibodeau, and Sam Verdreaux) have died, bringing the total number of survivors to twenty-five. 
  1. Alice Appleton (child)
  2. Dale Barbara (Army colonel; cook)
  3. Harriet Bigelow (elderly woman)
  4. Gina Buffaloing (volunteer nurse)
  5. Romeo Burpee (department store owner)
  6. Little Walter Bushey (baby)
  7. Joanie Calvert (mother)
  8. Norrie Calvert (child)
  9. Ollie Dinsmore (child)
  10. Alva Drake (mother)
  11. Linda Everett (police officer)
  12. Janelle Everett (child)
  13. Judy Everett (child)
  14. Rusty Everett (physician’s assistant)
  15. Pete Freeman (news photographer)
  16. Tony Guay (sports reporter)
  17. Lissa Jamieson (librarian)
  18. Piper Libby (pastor)
  19. Claire McClatchy (mother)
  20. Joe McClatchy (child)
  21. Julia Shumway (newspaperwoman)
  22. Ginny Tomlinson (nurse)
  23. Dougie Twitchell (nurse)
  24. Rose Twitchell (restaurant owner)
  25. Jackie Wetting ton (police officer)
Barbie did not stop the torture of war prisoners that his team was interrogating in Fallujah. Romeo is an adulterer. Initially, Linda was willing to believe false testimony and bogus evidence against Barbie. As a boy, Rusty tortured ants, burning them alive. Piper still preaches, although she has become an atheist. As a child, Julia was arrogant toward her classmates, thinking herself superior to them. The other adults are unlikely to be blameless (what adult is?), but the narrative does not provide enough information concerning their backgrounds to identify any specific wrongdoing on their part. As the abuse that Julia suffered at the hands of her classmates shows (and as the torture of the residents of Chester’s Mill by the young alien also indicates), children can also be guilty of wicked, cruel behavior, but, again, the reader is not made privy to enough information regarding the children who survive to know exactly what wrongs they may be guilty of having committed. Because of Julia’s humiliation, she learned humility, and she pleads with the young alien who has imprisoned her and the other residents of Chester’s Mill under the dome to release them so that they may live out their “little lives” in a scene reminiscent of both her own abuse (as punishment for her arrogance toward her fellow students) and Rusty’s realization that ants have “little lives” that should not be wantonly destroyed any more than any other life. The alien’s sparing of them may be regarded as a sort of redemption for them, a pitying, if not a forgiveness, of them. Just as one of Julia’s tormentors returned and gave her a sweater to wear home, the extraterrestrial child removes the dome to allow her and her fellow survivors to live out their “little lives,” an act that the novel’s protagonist attributes not to love, but to pity: “Pity was not love, Barbie reflected. . . but if you were a child, giving clothes to someone who was naked had to be a step in the right direction” (1072).

King’s morality (helping others = good; hurting others = evil) is a survivors’ morality. It does not depend upon God or love or anything else but the assumption that helping others is morally proper, whereas hurting them is morally improper. All of the survivors, despite the horrific experiences they have undergone and whatever their faith, if any, may be, or their philosophy of life, may agree to accept this most basic definition of righteousness. It is virtuous to help and depraved to hurt others. King’s characters pass or fail the morality test depending upon whether they help or hurt their friends, neighbors, and families. In quoting Jimi Hendrix (“when the power of love overcomes the love of power, the earth will know peace”) and in suggesting that, while it is not love, pity for another is “a step in the right direction,” King implies that, beyond the simple morality of survivors, there is a deeper, more mature standard for determining right and wrong, or good and evil, which is whether one loves and is loving; he also suggests that, for the majority of human beings, who are morally immature, such an understanding awaits the humility and wisdom that may follow from horrific and traumatic suffering.

The disappointment is the cause of the dome or, at least, of its descent. Earlier in the novel, several possible causes for this phenomenon were suggested, including that the dome was a living entity, that it is the invention of rogue scientists, that it is a means of terrorist attack, that it is a government experiment using the Chester’s Mill residents as guinea pigs, and that it is the work of extraterrestrials possessed of superior technological sophistication. It turns out to be a toy of sorts, and the ones who use it, children. Granted, they are children of extreme intelligence, but children, nevertheless, with no more compassion or love for the human beings whom they torture than children who set fire to anthills have for the ants they thereby kill. The problem with this premise is that it creates a context--a dome, if one pleases--in which adult behavior is perceived by immature, alien beings. They are cosmic creatures, but without the wisdom and love of the omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent God in whose existence Piper Libby comes to disbelieve and, finally, to deny, accepting, in its stead, a belief in the aliens:
Piper Libby. . . was thinking of all those late-night prayers to The Not-There. Now she knew that had been nothing but a silly, sophomoric joke, and the joke, it turned out, was on her. There was a There there. It just wasn’t God (934).
The absurdity of a pastor rejecting the traditional idea of God for one in which the deity is a group of extraterrestrial “kids” is ludicrous. For greater minds than that of King’s own, such as those of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Karl Barth, Soren Kierkegaard, and Paul Tillich, to mention but a few, such a revision of faith would be not only ludicrous, but also blasphemous. By reducing the complexity of human behavior, predicated as it is, to some degree, upon free will, to conduct that parallels the simple, instinctive, and probably completely determined behavior of ants is itself ridiculous, but then to make human existence a plaything of amoral and sadistic (albeit cosmic) children is to vacate any suspension of disbelief the reader is capable of extending to the author’s work. A belief in the God of the Jews, the Christians, or the Muslims is a basis for understanding human nature; substituting extraterrestrial children for such a deity is simply incredible and silly. Under the Dome is an entertaining novel, to be sure, but, one may be confident in the belief that neither William Golding nor T. S. Eliot need fear having their work confused with King’s novel, the master of horror’s allusions to their respective novel and poem notwithstanding.

NOTE:  Be sure to visit Chester's Mill's website!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Survivors “Under the Dome”

Copyright 200 by Gary L. Pullman

The “Survivors” section of Stephen King’s latest novel, Under the Dome, starts on an ominous note:

Only three hundred and ninety-seven of The Mill’s two thousand residents survive the fire. . . . By the time night falls. . . there will be a hundred and six.

When the sun comes up on Saturday morning. . . the population of Chester’s Mill is just thirty-two (997).
Ollie Dinsmore, equipped with a tank of oxygen and an oxygen mask takes refuge inside his farm’s potato cellar from the firestorm sweeping through the dome.

Sam Verdreaux, also equipped with oxygen, makes his way toward the McCoy cabin atop Black Ridge, lamenting his role in initiating the riot at Food Town and breaking Georgia Roux’s jaw.

Big Jim Rennie and Carter Thibodeau wait out the firestorm inside the Town Hall’s bomb shelter. Carter’s fawning admiration for the selectman has changed. Although the special deputy doesn’t voice his defiance, he thinks it. In the wake of the disastrous raid on the methamphetamine lab and the firestorm it has caused, a definite rift has opened between the politician and his surrogate “son” and bodyguard.

Sam joins Barbie and his party. Dialogue between Barbie and his newfound girlfriend Julia Shumway reveals that the military intends to try a “pencil nuke” against the dome on Saturday.

While policing the area outside the dome near the Dinsmore farm, PFC Clint Ames hears someone knocking on the interior of the dome and relays the news to his superior, SGT Groh that “There’s somebody alive in there!” and calling for fans.

Sam tells the group of people atop Black Ridge that he’d fainted as he approached their location, but, upon awakening, he was attracted to the McCoy cabin by the “fans” and :lights” (1017) he saw there. While he was unconscious, Sam dreamed of Julia, naked, but “covered with. . . . issues of the Democrat,” as she lay “on the bandstand in the Commons,” crying (1017-1018). Colonel Cox, on the other side of the dome, is interrupted by the news that the Army has found “a survivor on the south side” (1018) of town.

Carter decides to kill Big Jim so that the bomb shelter’s oxygen supply will last him, the sole survivor, longer than it would if he had to continue to share it with the selectman. After replacing a spent canister of the propane that fuels their air supply, he upholsters his Beretta.

At the McCoy cabin, Ernie Calvert dies of a heart attack. Colonel Cox calls with bad news: the pencil nuke “melted down” before it could be deployed to Chester’s Mill. A replacement won’t be ready for deployment for three or four days. The Everett girls’ golden retriever, Audrey, also dies. These deaths are reminders that many others will also expire under the dome, as this section of the novel indicated in its opening paragraph.

Before killing Big Jim, Carter allows the politician a final prayer. When Big Jim starts to sob (or pretends to do so), he asks Carter to turn out the lights, claiming that it is unfitting for Carter to see him cry. Carter places the muzzle of his pistol against the selectman’s neck and extinguishes the light. “He knew it was a mistake the instant he did it,” the omniscient narrator remarks, “but by then it was too late” (1028). Big Jim stabs Carter, “pulling the knife upward s he rose” from his knees, “eviscerating the stupid boy who had thought to get the best of Big Jim Rennie” (1028). Carter falls to his knees and then onto his face, and Big Jim finishes Carter off with a bullet to the brain stem--delivered by Carter‘s own dropped Beretta--after imparting a final bit of advice: “Never give a good politician time to pray” (1029).

Ollie’s condition is much worse, despite the fan’s forcing of air through the dome, and SGT Groh believes him to be near death. He and PFC Ames keep a death vigil. Word comes that another child, on the north side of the dome, has died: Aidan Appleton.

At the McCoy cabin, Benny Drake and Joe McClatchey’s mother Claire seem feverishly hot, and Joe shares his concern with Barbie that they--and the rest of them as well--will die. There is no deliverance for them from outside the dome, he says. Julia, half-asleep, wishes that the extraterrestrial children who the party believes created and maintain the dome as a sadistic game, wishes the aliens would tire of their pastime or be called away by their parents to ear. The others raise some disturbing possibilities: maybe the aliens don’t eat and don’t have parents ands maybe “time is different for them” (1033), moving much quickly, so that, for them, the week the town has spent under the dome seems only seconds.

Atop Black Ridge, Thurston Marshall dies, and almost all the members of Barbie’s group are near death. Their condition is juxtaposed to an earlier catalogue of the everyday activities they and other residents of Chester’s Mill routinely performed on Saturday night, the normal and customary making the horrible all the more horrific and life, measured against death and dying, all the more precious. In an earlier scene, King’s omniscient narrator implies that Julia may be devising some sort of solution to their predicament, a resolution being pieced together, as it were, by her unconscious: “Julia was looking toward the box with its flashing purple light. Her face was thoughtful and a little dreamy” (1033). The narrator repeats this suggestion in this scene: “Julia . . . is once more looking in the direction of a box which, although less than fifty square inches in area and not even an inch thick, cannot be budged. Her eyes are distant, speculative” (1035). The author ends this scene with paraphrases of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland (“October is the cruelest month, mixing memory with desire” and “there are no lilacs in this dead land. No lilacs, no trees, no grass” (1035). It is obvious that King wants to associate his novel’s apocalyptic theme with the faithlessness of godless modern life that Eliot’s poem depicts. The question of whether he succeeds in doing so by making a couple of allusions to the poet’s work is a matter for each reader to decide for him- or herself, as is the question of whether King’s allusion to William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies has any more significance than its representing a rhetorical device.

In the next scene, Big Jim’s heart goes haywire again, just as the generator’s alarm sounds, indicating that the canister of propane that fuels it has become depleted. Struggling, the politician arises, stumbles over Carter’s corpse, imagining that his former aide’s sightless, staring eyes move. Shocked and frightened, Big Jim feels for a pulse in the special deputy’s throat, finding none. Reassured, he moves forward in the bomb shelter, toward the generator. Behind him, he hears a sound, imagining that it may be “the whisper of a hand, perhaps, slipping across the concrete floor” (1037). As Big Jim removes “one of the four remaining tanks” of propane from the “storage cubby, his heart went into arrhythmia again. It subsides, but Big Jim drops his flashlight (a second time) and the lens breaks, leaving him in total darkness. The generator refuses to restart, and Big Jim fights down the panic that threatens to rise inside him. His prayers seem to go unanswered. Disoriented in the darkness as he searches for batteries for the flashlight or a book of matches, Big Jim stumbles over Carter’s corpse and bangs his head. He crawls onto the couch and calms himself. As he experiences pain along his left arm, he fears he may be having a heart attack, and his sanity begins to slip away as he imagines that Carter is breathing--that several others are breathing as well: his other victims, Brenda Perkins, Lester Coggins, and his son Junior. The dead begin to speak to him, recalling the omniscient narrator’s declaration, earlier in the novel, that the dead coexist with the living but most living people cannot discern the presence of the dead. Terrified, Big Jim flees the bomb shelter. The stagnant air outside is too much for his failing heart, and he dies of a heart attack. This scene includes both humor and horror. One of the humorous portions is King’s omniscient narrator’s description of Big Jim, which compares the selectman to one of the used cars that he sells:

Big Jim jumped and cried out. His poor tortured heart was lurching, missing, skipping, then running to catch up with itself. He felt like an old car with a bad carburetor, the kind of rattletrap you might take in trade but would never sell, the kind that was good for nothing but the junk heap. . . (1036).
On Sunday morning, Julia awakens Barbie with the news that Benny Drake has died. Julia says she wants to go to the dome generator, but Barbie reminds her that the air is so stale away from the fans that they can’t travel more than “fifty feet” (1043) and the dome generator is a half mile from them. However, Sam tells them that he knows a way they can take, offering to show them.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Crowd Control "Under the Dome"

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

After he and Julia consummate their newfound love for one another, Barbie telephonically communicates with Colonel Cox, asking for two helicopters to be sent to the dome.

In the methamphetamine lab behind WCIK radio, Phil (“The Chef”) Bushey and Andy Sanders make plans to resist anyone that Big Jim may send against them, The Chef advising the selectman to aim for their enemies’ heads, since they are apt to be wearing body armor. The Chef has donned the white cross on a rawhide string that Julia saw in her hallucination at the dome generator.

Ollie Dinsmore awakens to a quiet house. Outside, cows in need of milking sound their distress. Ollie cannot find his father, Alden, anywhere, until he approaches the closed door to the room in which Ollie’s grandfather, suffering from the late stages of cancer, died. A note on the door reads, “Sorry. Go to town, Ollie. The Morgans or Dentons or Rev . Libby will take you in” (925). Inside the room, dead father lies supine on the same bed in which Ollie’s grandfather died. After getting sick, Ollie feeds the cows. Then, he decides he will go to the dome and pitch rocks against the invisible barrier. Later, he will return to the farm and bury his father’s corpse near his mother’s grave.

Following Big Jim’s orders to locate Barbie and his supporters, Special Deputy Carter Thibodeau ascertains that Piper Libby Pete Freeman, Tony Guay, and Rose Twitchell are all absent and unaccounted for. He wants to determine whether Rusty Everett is also missing, so he stops by the Everett house. Thurston Marshall is in the backyard, playing with the four children, Alice and Aidan Appleton and Judy and Janelle Everett. Carter viciously twists Linda’s arm behind her back, demanding to know Rusty’s whereabouts. She finally convinces him that she doesn’t know where her husband is, and, after sexually assaulting her, Carter leaves Linda.

Piper allows Norrie Calvert to make contact with the dome generator, and the girl verifies what Barbie has suspected: the aliens who have imprisoned them under the dome and who observe them over a distance of light years, are sadistic extraterrestrial children. Although the aliens hear Norrie when she asks them why they are keeping them prisoners and observing them, the townspeople’s captors, she says, didn’t bother to answer her question because they “just didn’t care” (935). As Piper and Norrie discuss the extraterrestrial youth, the helicopters requested by Barbie arrive.

Troops unload the helicopters’ cargo: “dozens of Air Max fans with attached generators” (936). Colonel Cox is unable to transport any fans to “the [Highway] 119 side” (937) of the dome because the aircraft cannot enter the airspace above the barrier. Barbie briefs Colonel Cox as to what is happening under the dome.

As Linda Everett and her charges, Judy and Janelle and Alice and Aidan, wait for Thurston Marshall to snip sections from the lead roll behind Burpee’s department store, “a police loudspeaker” announces a new restriction upon the townspeople: “CARS ARE NOT ALLOWED ON THE HIGHWAY! UNLESS YOU ARE PHYSICALLY DISABLED, YOU MUST WALK” (942). It seems that daily, and even more often, the freedoms that the people of Chester’s Mill take for granted are taken away, without due process, as Big Jim Rennie and his cronies continue to take advantage of the crisis represented by the descent of the dome. Again, the parallels to the Obama administration’s continuing power grabs, although probably unintended by King, are hard to miss. Thurston insists upon leaving the metal snips at the scene, in case others need them, but he forgets to do so, stuffing them into his belt. Remembering Carter Thibodeau’s sexual assault against her, Linda, exasperated at Thurston’s slowness, jerks the shears from his belt to return them to their hiding place herself and, as she does so, “a vehicle slid in behind the van, blocking access to West Street, the only way out of this cul-de-sac” (943). At first, because Linda has been afraid of Carter or other police officers cutting off their escape from town, the reader assumes that the vehicle may be a police car; however the vague way in which the omniscient narrator describes the means of transportation (as a “vehicle,” rather than as a police car) implies that there is no cause for such an assumption.

As the townspeople walk toward the Dome Visitors’ Day meeting place, Carter joins Big Jim in the selectman’s air-conditioned Hummer, and, as the politician characterizes the people he serves, his contempt for his constituents and fellow citizens is as plain as his arrogance (an arrogance, one might add, that seems more typical than not of many actual elected officials and bureaucrats): “They want food, Oprah, country music, and a warm bed to thump uglies in when the sun goes down” (944). Carter’s new status is demonstrated when Big Jim invites the police chief, Peter Randolph, who passes by, to join them, but to sit in the back, not the front, seat.

The vehicle that cuts off Linda and her passengers is the hospital’s ambulance, van driven by Douglas Twitchell. Rusty has telephoned the medical staff and told them to abandon the hospital and get out of town. Accompanying Rusty are Ginny Tomlinson, Gina Buffalino, and Samantha Bushey’s baby, Little Walter--more of King’s remnant of the townspeople, his chosen ones who will help to defeat the human evildoers who have corrupted Chester’s Mill and the sadistic aliens (if aliens they actually are) who have isolated the town under the dome so they can watch the horror show. When she’s told that Main Street is impassible, Linda says she has no intention of driving down that artery, because it passes the “cop shop” (947) and specifies her route, which will be via West Street to Highland. The reader wonders whether Linda’s conveying of this information will be significant or whether it is just the sort of idle chatter in which human beings, under stress, sometimes engage.

Chief Randolph insists upon leading the attack against the methamphetamine lab, to which Big Jim agrees, although the politician insists (several times) that he attack the site by way of the access road that leads through the woods, so as to be able to blindside The Chef and Andy Sanders. (The reader immediately anticipates that Chief Randolph will not do so and will consequently jeopardize his mission). The reader also learns, as he or she probably surmised much earlier, that Big Jim plans to replace Pete Randolph with Carter Thibodeau as the new police chief. Indeed, Big Jim hopes that the present police chief will be killed in the raid.

With Carter’s mention of the stale air as he entered Big Jim’s Hummer (“The air smells like a frickin ashtray” [943]), King reminds his reader of the worsening atmosphere under the dome, and he does so again, as Linda and her passengers, leaving town, almost encounter Big Jim, and she swerves off the street: “She parked on someone’s lawn, behind a tree. It was a good-sized oak, but the van was big, too, and the oak had lost most of its listless leaves” (949).

Once Big Jim and Carter return to Town hall to watch their fellow citizens congregate at the Dome Visitors’ Day site, Linda speeds out of town. Big Jim has ordered Carter to instruct Thurston Marshall that he is forbidden to leave town, and Carter hopes that he may also have another opportunity to sexually assault Linda, but, as his quarry escapes, he will be too late to accomplish either Big Jim’s or his own mission.

As the townspeople gather at the Dome Visitors’ Day site, it is apparent that many are unprepared for a day in the sun. They fail to bring protection from the sun’s rays, to bring drinking water, and to refrain from eating foods that will make them thirsty later in the day. Big Jim’s failure to provide portable toilets or emergency medical personnel, equipment, and vehicles is also apparent. The day is shaping up for catastrophe, just as Big Jim hopes and intends. Still, Special Deputy Henry Morrison does his best to keep order and provide needed services, even dispatching Special Deputy Pamela Chen to the school for a bus to use to transport the sick and lame, if not the lazy, back to town at the end of the day. The lack of crickets’ “singing” (958) advertises, once again, the devastating effect that the dome is having on the town’s enclosed atmosphere.

As they watch the townspeople assemble at the Dome Visitors’ Day site, The Chef and Andy Sanders, armed with military assault rifles and hand grenades, make last-minute plans to stand off and defeat the attackers they believe will come to shut down the amphetamine lab. The Chef will hide inside “the Christian Meals on Wheels truck” and engage their attackers if they arrive by way of the access road, as he suspects they may, while Andy will keep watch “out front” (960). If either of them whistles, the other will run to his aid.

Barbie and the others atop Black Ridge watch the townspeople trek toward the Dome Visitors’ Day site and observe the hospital ambulance as it makes its way up the mountain, toward the McCoy cabin. Barbie, Joe McClatchey, and Julia Shumway say that they can feel the aliens watching them.

Big Jim and Carter also watch, on television, as the crowd surges forward, crushing the ones in front against the side of the invisible dome. Special Deputy Morrison and his fellow lawmen fire their pistols into the air, restoring order, as they order the crowd to spread out along the side of the dome rather than to bunch up against it. Stephen King’s favorite news source, CNN, and three of his favorite journalists, Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, and Candy Cowley (Dome Visitors’ Day is such a huge event that it takes all three reporters’ talents to cover the story properly, it seems), report the happening.

On the outside of the dome, the soldiers are unable to prevent the arriving family members and friends from “stampeding” toward their trapped loved ones, and “one” visitor is “killed in this stampede and fourteen. . . injured, half a dozen seriously” (964). Others, implanted with “various electronic medical devices” are killed by the dome itself.

King’s omniscient narrator’s description of the nearly riotous manner in which both the dome’s visitors and victims act, stampeding like wild cattle, or sheep without a shepherd, recalls Big Jim’s characterization of his constituents as “ants” or “sheep” that need to be taken care of by more responsible leaders, or “shepherds.” In his depiction of the men and women inside and outside Chester’s Mill, King seems to agree with Big Jim’s assessment of human beings. Many of his characters arrive without water or proper protection from the sun. They have given little thought to the best foods to bring. Overcome by their emotions, they rush forward, crushing or trampling one another, when there is no need to behave in such a mindless and injurious fashion. Possessed of a mob mentality, they react only to gunshots and profanity. Without someone, whether it is Deputy Henry Morrison or Big Jim Rennie, many of the townspeople would be unable to take care of themselves or their families. It is only the few, King implies, who are able to fend for themselves: cunning, but self-serving and unscrupulous men of audacious daring, such as Big Jim; those who have police or military training, such as Barbie, Henry, and others; those who have the love and compassion that it takes to put the needs of others, such as family members and friends, ahead of their own safety and welfare; and, curiously, those who, like Ollie Dinsmore, have endured great suffering. It is as if having lost his family, Ollie’s eyes are opened to the absurdity of life, both in big and small matters. When he sees seventeen-year-old Mary Lou Costras carrying her infant son to the Dome Visitors’ Day site, Ollie “wonders if she’s insane, bringing a kid that small out here in this heat, without even a hat to protect its head” (953), a point that is seconded by Henry:
“I think there’s a Red Sox hat in the back of my car,” Henry says. “If so, would you take it over there?” He points to the woman Ollie has already noticed, the one with the bareheaded baby. “Put it on the kid and tell that woman she’s an idiot” (954-955).
In viewing the congregating townspeople, Ollie’s loss and grief also allow him a detached, if not entirely objective, rather resigned and, perhaps, cynical view of Dome Visitors’ Day: “Ollie thinks what a slow, sad walk they are going to have once the hoopla’s over” (953). He then returns “to the job at hand,” the burial of his father, who committed suicide last night or early this morning.

King may well be right in his assessment of crowd psychology; both psychologists and other writers, including Mark Twain (in his portrayal of the mob that Colonel Sanders turns away in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), offer similar observations. He may also be right in declaring that some judge others by themselves, as the rather foolish Police Chief Pete Randolph does in having assumed that Deputy Freddy Denton would be angry at him for assuming command of the methamphetamine lab raiding party, a tendency that, King suggests, is illogical, given to error, and potentially risky: “He has expected grief from Freddy for taking over the head honcho role but there is none (Peter Randolph has been judging others by himself all his life), but there is none)”; instead, the wily Freddy thinks, “This is a far bigger deal than rousting skuzzy old drunks out of convenience stores, and Freddy is delighted to hand off the responsibility” (965). Again, King is on the money in this observation , too, but it’s one that he doesn’t apply to himself, apparently, because his fiction is littered with references to pop culture experiences, artifacts, and events that he seems to believe his readers have also experienced and either enjoyed or not, as King himself has enjoyed them or not, and, of course, he is stridently insistent that CNN is the best (and maybe the only authentic) news source in America, if not the world, and that Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, and the rest of the CNN team can deliver the story better (and, of course, more truthfully) than any other reporters on the planet. Of course, an author must judge others--his characters--by his own personal attitudes, beliefs, emotions, ideas, values, and biases, because he or she is the one and (usually) only individual on hand with whom to consult as he or she writes a novel. The “others” whom he or she thus “judges” are, after all, mere creations of the author’s own imagination, including his or her evaluations of real persons’ conduct and speech, since fictional persons are always based, to some degree, on actual human beings. When King, in “judging others by himself” gets it right, he’s a masterful psychologist; otherwise, he tends toward self-indulgence and personal prejudice. The fact that he gets it right only part of the time is what will probably prevent his acceptance by scholars as a truly great writer, although, on the other hand, it’s doubtful that many of them would classify him as a mere hack. King is more like Edgar Allan Poe was judged to be, by James Russell Lowell, “three-fifths genius and two-fifths sheer fudge” (A Fable for Critics), and, as such, will likely occupy the middle ground between the extremes of the literary genius and the literary hack. Still, in all, that’s not a bad place to be for a writer who admits that his work is “the equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.”

An interesting point about the Dome Visitors’ Day scene, which occupies much of the space from pages 950 to 968, is that there are clear divisions of the action , discernable by which group of characters and which settings occur as the narrative’s action progresses: Special Deputy Henry Morrison, at the site itself; Ollie Dinsmore, burying his father on the family farm; Barbie and his coconspirators at the old McCoy cabin atop Black Ridge; Marta Edmunds watching TV in her Uncle Clayton Brassey’s farmhouse, while the deceased homeowner’s corpse keeps her company; The Chef and Andy Sanders at the meth lab behind the Holy Redeemer Church, awaiting the police’s raid; Chief Randolph and his deputies planning their raid before watching the Dome Visitors’ Day events unfold on TV at the police station (on CNN, of course); the police in transit to the church, having forgotten their helmets and Kevlar vests. To this point in his story, King has tended to subdivide such action into relatively brief, numbered scenes, rather than to include the such potentially stand-alone segments in one, continuous narrative block. One of the effects of this decision is to unify the action while keeping various settings and casts of characters before the reader’s mind, emphasizing that, although divided in purpose, behavior, attitudes, beliefs, attitudes, and perspectives, the townspeople are one community, living in one town--for the present, at least. There is every indication that this solidarity is superficial rather than real and that the threat to Chester’s Mill will soon fragment the town.

King uses the same divide-and-separate tactic with regard to the two platoons of police officers who approach the methamphetamine lab behind the Holy Redeemer Church, where The Chef and Andy Sanders are waiting to ambush their attackers, keeping the reader apprised now of what is happening with one or another of the advancing teams of officers and now of what is occurring with regard to either The Chef or Andy. As a result, the pace is kept brisk and the suspense mounts. King is surprisingly good at describing fight sequences, although, one suspects, he has seldom been in physical altercations and has certainly never participated in either police or military combat operations. The power of the imagination is a wonderful thing, especially when it is bolstered, as King’s often is, by expert consultants and research. The ranks of the advancing police officers are quickly thinned as first The Chef and then Andy decimate their numbers with fire from their AK-47 assault rifles. Among the casualties are Chief Randolph (killed by Andy) and Deputy Freddy Denton (slain by The Chef), the force’s two veteran officers and onsite leaders. They die with the same cowardice that has caused most of the special deputies except Aubrey Towle to flee for their lives. As writers of tales of the wild West are fond of pointing out, it takes a special sort of man to face another armed man--someone like Wyatt Earp or Doc Holliday. There’s a big difference such writers point out, between shooting at unarmed targets or wild animals and facing an armed man who can shoot back an, in doing so, possibly kill his adversary. Courage under fire is a prerequisite to such conflicts that neither Chief Randolph, Deputy Denton, nor most of the special deputies can boast: “They weren’t cops at all, Chef saw; just birds on the ground too dumb to fly”:

With this homily and call to judgment, Chef opened fire, raking them from left to right. Two of the uniformed cops and Stubby Norman flew backward like broken dolls, painting the high trash grass [sic] with their blood. The paralysis of the survivors broke. Two turned and fled to the woods. Conree and the last of the uniformed cops booked for the studio. Chef tracked them and opened fire again. The Kalashnikov burped a brief burst, and then the clip was empty (974).

Frederick Howard Denton, aka Baldy, wasn’t thinking about anything when he reached the back of the WCIK studio. He had seen the Conree girl go down with her throat blown out, and that was the end of rational consideration. All he knew was that he didn’t want his pictiure4 on the Honor Wall. He had to get under cover, and that meant inside. There was a door. Behind it, some gospel group was singing “We’’ Join Hands Around the Throne.”

Freddy grabbed the knob. It refused to turn.


He dropped his gun, raised the hand which had been holding it, and screamed: “I surrender! Don’t shoot, I sur--”

Three heavy blows boxed him low in the back. He saw a splash of red hit the door and had time to think, We should have remembered the body armor. Then he crumpled, still holding onto the knob with one hand as the world rushed away from him. Everything he was and everything he’d ever known diminished to a single burning-bright point of light. Then it went out. His hand slipped off the knob. He died on his knees, leaning against the door (975).

He [Andy Sanders] killed both Bowie brothers and Mr. Chicken with his first fusillade. Randolph he only winged. Andy popped the clip as Chef Bushey had taught him, grabbed another from the waistband of his pants, and slammed it home. Chief Randolph was crawling toward the door of the studio with blood pouring down his right arm and leg. He looked back over his shoulder, his peering eyes huge and bright in his sweaty face.
. . . “Please don’t kill me! Randolph screamed. He put a hand over his face.

“Just think about the roast beef dinner you’ll be eating with Jesus,” Andy said. “Why, three seconds from now you’ll be spreading your napkin.”

The sustained blast from the Kalashnikov rolled Randolph almost all the way to the studio door (978).

Aubrey manages to wound The Chef, but is killed by Andy. As Melvin closes in on the drug addicts, they detonate the explosives by pressing a button on the garage door opener that The Chef has rigged as a detonator.

The explosion sets off another, tremendous explosion, this one of the ten thousand gallons of propane that Big Jim and his cronies had stockpiled at the church for use in making methamphetamine. Barbie, watching with the others of his group, think, “Now we’re under the magnifying glass” (982). King’s townspeople turn their attention to the godlike reporters of CNN for word as to what has just happened, but, for once, even “America’s news stars,” Anderson Cooper, Wolf Blitzer, Candy Crowley, Chad Myers, and Soledad O’Brien, are unable to fathom what has just happened--it’s that huge. The firestorm that results from the explosion rolls across the town, blackening the sky under the dome and catching fire to the town and countryside. Pamela Chen recommends that the townspeople who have congregated at the dome board the bus so that they can speed through the advancing firestorm. Although Special Deputy Morrison doesn’t share his colleague’s optimism, he agrees to her plan.

King’s omniscient narrator devotes a length paragraph to describing the vast damage the raging firestorm does to Chester’s Mill. Peace Bride is “vaporized,” the walls of the police department implode before its bricks shower into the air. The statue of the town’s founder is “uprooted,” and “the buildings along Main Street explode one after another,” incinerating Food Town and “rolling down main roads, boiling their tar into soup” (987) as it spreads everywhere under the dome. Big Jim and Carter have taken refuge in the Town Hall’s bomb shelter, but many other residents have nowhere to ride out the fury of the firestorm. The sky is dark with birds trying to escape the inferno, and animals flee, colliding against the transparent barrier, “the lucky animals” dying, “the unlucky ones” lying “sprawled on pincushions of broken bones, barking and squealing and meowing and bellowing” in agony and terror (988).

Ollie Dinsmore helps himself to the oxygen in his father’s death chamber and takes refuge in his farm’s potato cellar.

Barbie and the others atop Black Ridge return to the McCoy farmhouse, Barbie understanding that the firestorm may exhaust the air supply available toy the under the dome.

With “about a dozen townsfolk” aboard the bus, “among them. . . Mabel Alston, Mary Lou Costas. And Mary Lou’s baby. . . . Leo Lamoine” (990), Chaz Bender, Pamela Chen, and Henry Morrison at the wheel, the bus rams through the firestorm’s wall, but, before it clears the fire, “the windows implode and the bus fills with fire” (991).

Barbie and his party reach the dome, where they ask the soldiers to turn on the huge fans the helicopters had transported to the scene, and the fans force a “faint breeze of clean air. . . through the barrier” (994), as the fire continues to burn “behind the,,” its fury unabated.

Whatever could go wrong has gone wrong. In the last fifty pages, King has thrown a Western-style shoot out between a posse and a pair of outlaws and a cataclysmic firestorm at his trapped characters; death and destruction appears everywhere, and the air inside the dome is barely breathable. Even the plants and the animals have not been spared, but lie dead or dying in terror and agony, and, with seventy-seven pages left to read of the story, the reader suspects that the worst is yet to come.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A "Watershed Moment" "Under the Dome"

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

On their way up Black Ridge, King’s characters deduce, as best they can, the nature of the situation in which the descent of the dome has involved them. They surmise that the radiation belt, like the animals’ cadavers, is but window dressing, meant to discourage human trespass upon the area in which the dome’s generator is located. It didn’t stop Joe McClatchey and his friends Norrie Calvert and Benny Drake because they are kids. Barbie, finally doing something useful after cooling his heels in the local jail for roughly a third of the novel, employs a teleological argument of sorts, but one geared toward aliens rather than toward God: the existence of the dome generator implies the existence of its creators, an extraterrestrial “they” who are technologically sophisticated enough to keep “the whole world out of Chester’s Mill” and, therefore, capable of preventing their party from trespassing upon the dome’s sanctuary, should they have wished to do so. Therefore, it seems likely that the aliens want them to enter the area: “If they wanted to keep us away from their box, why not put a mini-Dome around it?” (887) Others suggest other deterrents that the dome’s inventors could have opted to use, including “a harmonic sound that would cook our brains like chicken legs in a microwave” (Rusty Everett) or “radiation” (Ernie Calvert). (None of the characters rebuke Ernie for bringing up radiation as Colonel Cox censured the FOX News correspondent who asked about the possibility that the dome was being protected in this manner.)

Rusty, who suddenly seems a more primitive thinker than he has been shown to be in the past, asks why a barrier of any kind is needed to protect the dome generator, recalling that he’d been unable to lift or even move it. (Has Rusty forgotten about machines such as cranes? the reader wonders.) Jackie seems a bit more astute: “If they’re protecting it, there must be some way of destroying it or turning it off.” Instead, the aliens appear to want them to approach the “box.” They seem, in fact, to be “pointing to it,” Barbie says, rather than protecting it (888). Finally getting with the program, Rusty adds that it appears almost as if the aliens were daring them to approach the dome generator: “‘Here it is you puny earthlings,’ Rusty said. ‘What can you do about it, ye who are brave enough to approach?’” If the reader hadn’t thought of this eventuality, he or she does now, thanks to King’s characters’ making the question clear.

After they pass through the “glow-belt” that surrounds the mountaintop upon which the dome generator is located, Jackie Wettington undergoes a seizure during which she cries out, in italics, “He’s holding up a cross and everything’s burning!” and “The world is burning! THE PEOPLE ARE BURNING!” When she comes out of the seizure, she says, “everything was on fire. It was day, but it was dark. People were b-b-burning” (889). She also offers more details about the man with the cross: “A big white cross. It was on a string, or a piece of rawhide. It was on his chest. His bare chest. Then he held it up in front of his face” (890). Ernie also had an erotic vision of his wife on their honeymoon. No doubt, in Jackie’s case (and perhaps in Ernie’s as well), these hallucinations will foreshadow future incidents in the story’s action. Foreshadowing by way of hallucination: the reader must hand it to King; the master storyteller knows how to add glamour to the most mundane purposes of his plot.

For the reader who likes to keep a headcount, King creates a reunion scene as Barbie, Rusty, Ernie, and Jackie arrive at the once-abandoned McCoy cabin, joining up with their confederates, who have now been joined by the two former employees, Pete Freeman and Tony Guay, of the defunct Democrat newspaper: Romeo Burpee, Julia Shumway, Piper Libby, Lissa Jamieson, Joe McClatchey, Norrie Calvert, Benny Drake, Claire McClatchey, Rose Twitchell, Joanie Calvert, and Julia’s Corgi, Horace. Unless there is a Judas Iscariot or a Benedict Arnold among the company, this small group represents King’s traditional chosen ones, the elect who will sacrifice much, including their lives, if need be, to save the day and to reestablish the status quo. As is typical in King’s fiction, they make up a cross-section of their community, respectively, an Army colonel (and former cook), a physician’s assistant, a retired supermarket manager, a former deputy, a former news photographer, a former sports reporter, a department store owner, a former newspaper owner and editor, a pastor, a librarian, three kids, a mother, a restaurant owner, a grandmother, and a dog. These are the salt of the earth, the just plain folks, who, in King’s fiction, are the true heroes of their community. It is upon them, rather than the United States government or its economic, political, and military capabilities, that the fate of the world depends. If, to use an analogy that some of King’s characters used earlier in the story, a town may be thought of as a body, Big Jim Rennie may be the community’s head, but this band of citizens are its blood, muscles, nerves, bones, and internal organs, the entrails of freedom and the innards of democracy.

While waiting for Barbie, Rusty, Ernie, and Jackie to arrive, the rest of the party, almost rapturous, had gone to the dome generator, where they’d seen a never-before-seen symbol and had visions of the extraterrestrials, whom Julia describes as “faces without faces” and as “high faces,” although she does not reject Rusty’s description of the extraterrestrials as “leatherheads,” either, saying, “Yes, I suppose you could call them that” (891). Rusty is ashamed as he recalls how he and his friend Georgie had used Georgie’s magnifying glass to set fire to ants. He and Georgia later fought over Georgie’s wanting to set more ants afire, and Rusty broke his friend’s magnifying glass. Ernie says that Rusty need not agonize over something he did as a child, recalling, without sharing his recollection with the others, as Rusty does, how he and his friends had set fire to a cat’s tail, just to watch the animal run. However, Rusty sees a parallel between the story he tells and the situation he and the rest of Chester’s Mill face: he broke the magnifying glass “on purpose,” he says, “the way I’d like to break that box [the dome generator], if I could. Because now we’re the ants and that’s the magnifying glass” (893). Rusty’s confession makes the others remember cruel acts they had committed against others, and Barbie says he wants to see the dome generator “for himself” (892). Rusty accompanies him.

The title of this section of the novel is “Ants,” and, alerted by Rusty’s confession of having tortured ants with his friend’s magnifying glass to the similarity of the ants’ situation and that of Chester’s Mill’s residents, the reader may expect that this section (pages 885-937) will focus, rather like sunlight concentrated into a single point, upon the suffering that results from the townspeople’s captors’ cruelty. The aliens seem to be intent upon causing as much pain and suffering among the populace they have trapped under the dome as possible. The dome is a magnifying glass in that it enlarges the view of human suffering both by condensing it and by intensifying it on an isolated and confined sample of humanity. The townspeople of Chester’s Mill are specimens. The dome also magnifies humanity’s inhumanity of, by, and to itself by its own members, showing the effects of their isolation from civilization, larger society, and culture. The dome may also represent horror fiction, in a sense, for the horror writer, like the inventors of the dome (the horror genre) often trap an isolated group of people in a dire situation that leads to their anguish, suffering, grief, despair, and death, for the entertainment of readers with a monstrous appetite for such entertaining fare. It is fun, the child thinks, to watch the death agonies of ants which one has oneself set afire with sunlight brought to an incendiary point by a magnifying glass held over a colony of their victims. King suggests that we humans are also ants when we are fried alive beneath the lens of horror fiction. Therefore, the dome, which is a metaphor for both the earth and the human condition, as it exists in and of itself, in its natural state, may also be regarded as a metaphor for the very experience that results from the writing and the reading of horror fiction. The writer places the dome; his characters struggle beneath the transparent barrier; and the reader is amused by the spectacle of the characters’ agony.

Having been notified of his son’s murder, Big Jim Rennie cradles Junior’s head on his lap and sings a lullaby to his son’s corpse. He intends to pin Junior’s death and the deaths of the other police officers on Barbie. He thinks that he loved his son, despite the fact that he had been prepared to “sacrifice” Junior for his own ends, comparing his decision to do so to God’s sacrifice of his own son, Jesus, on the cross. Big Jim’s comparison of Junior to Jesus and of himself to God the Father shows how mad he has become, although he sees nothing amiss in his comparison. His heart continues to splutter and to stutter, and Big Jim reminds himself to visit Andy Sanders’ pharmacy to get the medication that he needs for his heart as soon as he gets a chance to do so, although, he believes, more important matters require his attention at present. Now that Junior is dead, Big Jim informally adopts his bodyguard, Carter Thibodeau as a surrogate son.

Carter gives Big Jim the file of incriminating evidence against the selectman that the special deputy retrieved from the Town Hall meeting after Andrea Grinnell was killed, telling the politician that he wants to be Big Jim’s “guy.” The two men agree that Chief Randolph is a “joke” (897), and the chief has just offended Big Jim by stopping by for orders as to how to control the crowd at the press conference scheduled for tomorrow’s Dome Visitors’ day without paying him the respect of offering his condolences regarding Junior’s death. It seems that the chief may soon be out of a job (and possibly dead), replaced by Carter, Big Jim’s bodyguard and most trusted lieutenant. Big Jim and Carter return to the Town Hall, where they plan to burn the documents in the file.

At the dome generator, or “box,” Barbie has visions of the aliens who, he believes, have created the dome, believing that they are light-years away from Earth, on their own planet, enjoying the spectacle of the townspeople’s grief and suffering. The aliens are laughing at their pain. The scene in his vision switches to “the gym in Fallujah,” where he sees himself, the leader of an interrogating team, abusing prisoners who planted improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that killed Barbie’s fellow soldiers. During the interrogation, questioning is replaced by torture, which results in one of his men’s killing one of the tortured. He leaves the scene, badly shaken, agreeing with Rusty that the sadistic aliens may be children of their species. Rusty asks Romeo Burpee whether any of the lead rolls from his department store remain available. Rommie tells him that there are more on hand.

Grief-stricken over the loss of his student-girlfriend, Carolyn Sturges, who was shot to death during Big Jim’s speech at the Town hall, Thurston Marshall visits Linda Everett, who is taking care of both her own daughters, Judy and Janelle, and the children, Alice and Aidan Appleton, for whom Thurston and Carolyn were caring.

After telling Thurston of Junior’s death, Linda also informs him of the rescue of Barbie and Rusty, of the dome generator, and of the conspirators’ hiding out in the abandoned McCoy residence atop Black Ridge, suggesting that, after stopping at Burpee’s department store to pick up a lead roll, they join the others there, the next day, with Judy, Janelle, Alice, and Aidan.

All those among the men, women, and children at the McCoy residence who have had hallucinations (most of them horrific) during seizures or at the dome generator recall what they had seen or heard. Clearly, something terrible seems to be forecast for Halloween, which, Barbie suggests, may be coming earlier than the thirty-first, which is, as Claire points out, “still five days away” according to the calendar (905). A Freudian explanation is offered, by Rusty, for his having seen the same dummy that Lissa Jamieson displayed at the library: “‘Relax people, I probably saw the dummy before all this happened, and my subconscious just coughed it back up.” However, when Piper asks him whether he recalls seeing it before his hallucination occurred, Rusty admits that he does not, declining to “add that he hadn’t picked up the girls at school,” which is opposite the library, “since very early in the month,” when it is unlikely that Halloween decorations or displays would have been in place (904).

At the Town Hall, Big Jim burns the incriminating files and has Carter stuff the empty envelope with blank photocopy paper. They will say that Andrea Grinnell, had been hallucinating during her withdrawal from her addiction to pain pills, about her having proof of Big Jim’s criminal activities and that the envelope she’d waved around at the Town Hall meeting had contained nothing but blank sheets of paper. As Junior inventories the propane tanks stored in the Town Hall’s bomb shelter, Stewart Bowie telephones Big Jim, offering him his condolences and promising to do his utmost in preparing the selectman’s son for burial. Big Jim confirms Stewart’s guess that the raid on the methamphetamine lab behind the Holy Redeemer Church is still going forward at noon tomorrow, as planned, and that Stewart, his brother Fern, Deputy Fred Denton, Roger Killian, and Special Deputy Melvin Searles will carry out the operation against Phil (“The Chef”) Bushey and selectman Andy Sanders.

After Big Jim lays out plans for how Chief Randolph should conduct police operations during tomorrow’s Dome Visitors’ Day, he asks Carter Thibodeau whether “the Bushey girl. . . was good” (911), referencing Carter’s participation in her rape. This question, like many of the other seemingly peripheral or incidental comments by Big Jim remind the reader of how truly diabolical this self-confessed man of God is, a technique of characterization that King handles with his usual narrative adroitness. Especially since the reader has come to sympathize with Samantha, who turned out to be a likeable character despite he weaknesses, Big Jim’s insensitive question, followed by Carter’s sexist response and the selectman’s raucous laughter further alienate the reader from the antagonist, the grudging admiration for whom, the reader is apt to find, slowly but surely continues to evaporate. However, this question-and-answer bantering, like Carter’s declaration of his admiration for Big Jim and his methods, probably further solidifies the bond between the now-childless selectman and his surrogate son.

Romance (of a sort) blossoms between Barbie and Julia Shumway as they sit side by side in the woods outside their hideaway cabin, the colonel’s hand upon the newspaperwoman’s breast, talking about morality, extraterrestrial life, the joys of sadism, and “watershed moments,” or turning points, in people’s lives. Julia tells Barbie about one that happened in her own life, during fourth grade: a conscientious girl who planned to attend Princeton University to prepare for taking over her family’s newspaper business, she was the envy of her peers; one day, after tattling on another student, four girls ambushed and took her to the bandstand, where they insulted, spit on, beat, and stripped her. Later, one of her attackers, Kayla Bevins, returned and gave Julia a sweater, telling her to “wear it home; it’ll look like a dress” (917). The beating and the humiliation she felt made her feel “smaller. . . and smaller.. . and smaller. Until the bandstand floor was like a great flat desert and I was an insect stuck in the middle of it. Dying in the middle of it” (916) Julia took Kayla’s advice, wearing the sweater home, where her parents, worried, were awaiting her late return from school.

During Julia’s account of her “watershed moment,” Barbie asks her whether she’d felt as if she were “an ant under a magnifying glass” (916), and she replies, a bit later, “I am not an ant” (919). The incident changed her life. She continued to excel, she tells Barbie, but not in as blatant manner, and she cultivated the friendships of other girls from less economically stable backgrounds than her own--or her father’s own--even purposely throwing her appointment as her class’ valedictorian by reducing the level of her academic work “just enough to make sure Carlene Plummer would win instead of me” (919). She also went to Bates University instead of Princeton. She never told on her attackers, she tells Barbie, because she thought she had “bought and paid” for their treatment because of her prim and proper calling attention to herself and her need to stand out from, and to be considered superior to, the other girls in her school. It was because of this incident, she says, that she became, “in large part,” who she is today (919), a defiant, courageous, woman of the people who demands truth and justice, even at great personal risk and suffering, and who insists upon exposing corruption and wrongdoing, political and otherwise. The scene closes with Barbie and Julia making love, an act which signifies their political and personal compatibility and seals their intimate bond with one another. If Barbie and Julia had seemed a bit one-dimensional and even unfeeling up to now, they take on greater depth and humanity in this scene. Julia’s response to her humiliating beating suggests the difference between the “ants” of whom Big Jim speaks, when he uses this metaphor rather than that of humans as sheep, and human beings, too: overcoming adversity and trauma by a defiant regard for truth and justice that may be costly to oneself and require a change in personal conduct but allows one to transcend the moment by helping, rather than hurting, others.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Moving Chess Pieces "Under the Dome"

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Much of the next section of King’s novel is dedicated to moving his chess pieces into place in preparation for the coming showdown between the forces of good and the forces of evil. In a series of usually brief scenes, he sets up the action to come.

The friends of Barbie gather at the Congo Church for their planned meeting. As they pray, the pastor, Piper Libby, who is “no longer sure just who” (or even whom) she is “talking to when” she herself prays, surveys the faithful, who make up the village that King so often finds it takes to thwart the threat that has raised its ugly head in his novel; all are present but Colonel Barbara and physician’s assistant Rusty Everett:

. . . two recently fired lady cops, a retired supermarket manager, a newspaperwoman who no longer had a newspaper, a librarian, the owner of the local restaurant, a Dome-widow who couldn’t stop spinning the wedding ring on her finger, the local department store tycoon, and three uncharacteristically solemn-faced kids sitting scrunched together on the sofa (807).
Twelve are present and to others are absent, making those who will spearhead the attack on evil, represented by Big Jim Rennie, Chief Randolph, and their cronies in one camp and Phil (“The Chef”) Bushey and Andy Sanders in another (and possibly the extraterrestrials or whoever created the dome in a third). The small party recalls such traditional storylines as Moses against Pharaoh, David against Goliath, or Samson against the Philistines. Except for the combat skills and military knowledge of Barbie and the police experience of the two former police officers, the underdogs don’t seem to have much going for them except their love of their community, a love of freedom, a belief and trust in God, and a willingness to fight for their values and faith. They seem hopelessly outmatched by the resourceful, efficient, and determined criminal Big Jim Rennie and who- or whatever invented the dome. The reader is interested in seeing how (not so much whether) the small band of citizens will succeed.

The fellowship fills one another in on the situation as they are able to piece it together, and former deputy Jackie Wettington offers a possible cause for the aberrant behavior of Big Jim and Junior, suggesting that they share “the same wild strain of behavior--something genetic--coming out under pressure” (808). As they discuss their plans, an intimacy develops among the conspirators, and they ask one another to call them by their first names. A feeling of solidarity emerges among them that is as strong, if not stronger, the reader suspects, as the solidarity among Jim Rennie’s supporters. After springing Barbie and Rusty from jail, the conspirators decide to use the abandoned McCoy residence atop Black Ridge, where the dome generator is, as their safe house so they can protect the generator from Big Jim, should he try to gain access to the device. Joe McClatchey recommends that they find a way to return the Geiger counter to the town hall’s bomb shelter so that, should Big Jim and his men attempt to attack the McCoy place, they will be frightened away by the Geiger counter’s warning, ignorant of the fact that the radiation at the Black Ridge site is “just a belt” through which they “could drive right through. . . without any protection at all and not get hurt” (813)

Julia’s dog Horace, left with Andrea Grinnell, again hears the voice of the dead Brenda Perkins, urging the Corgi to take the incriminating file concerning Big Jim’s illegal activities to Andrea. The selectman recalls the newspaperwoman’s earlier visit and opens the envelope so that “most of Big Jim Rennie’s secrets” fall “out into her lap” (816).

King surprises the reader by Andrea’s choice not to reveal to Julia that Horace found the file of evidence that Brenda’s husband, Police Chief Howard (“Duke”) Perkins had been compiling against Big Jim. Instead, Andrea loads a pistol, intending to murder her fellow selectman as soon as she gets the chance to do so.

Junior, having awakened in his hospital room is so sick that even he is aware of it, despite the fact that he is not suffering from one of his many, frequent headaches:

There was a suspicious weakness all down the left side of his body, and sometimes spit slipped from that side of his mouth. If he wiped it away with his left hand, sometimes he felt skin against skin and sometimes he couldn’t. In addition to this, there was a dark keyhole shape, quite large, floating in the left side of his vision. As if something had torn inside that eyeball. He supposed it had (824).
Junior hallucinates, and he is not always able to recognize these breaks with reality, As a result, he comes to believe that his father, Big Jim, has conspired with Thurston Marshall to poison him. Paranoid, Junior thinks only Alice and Aidan Appleton are trustworthy; everyone else is out to get him. He plans to kill Barbie and his father before kidnapping and becoming the caretaker for the Appleton children. Once he becomes their surrogate father, Junior believes, God will extend his lifetime, preventing his death from “thallium poisoning” (826). Better yet, he decides, he will take the children to the McCain pantry, in which he’d stored the bodies of Angie McCain, Dodee Sanders, and Lester Coggins.

Awakened by pain caused by the injuries she’d sustained during the food fight at the Food Town supermarket, Henrietta Clavard, released from the hospital to finish recuperating at home, hears the lamentations of her neighbor’s dog, Buddy. She is joined in her investigation of the incident by Douglas Twitchell, who is passing by, and they discover Henrietta’s neighbors (Buddy’s owners) dead; like an increasing number of other Chester’s Mill residents, the elderly couple has committed suicide.

Big Jim, having checked out of the hospital, meets with several of his lieutenants at Sweetbriar Rose: Police Chief Peter Randolph, Deputy Freddy Denton, and Special Deputies Melvin Searles and Carter Thibodeau, his bodyguard. Once again, for a character who is modeled upon Dick Chaney and George W. Bush, Big Jim seems a great deal like Barack Hussein Obama: “he had already started drafting a list of executive orders, which he would begin putting into effect as soon as he was granted full executive powers” (832). During their luncheon, Big Jim sets up the raid on the methamphetamine lab. Colonel C ox calls to deliver the news that there is radiation atop Black Ridge.

Claire McClatchey wants to accompany the others to break Barnie and Rusty out of jail. Her son and Jackie Wettington dissuade her.

As Rose, Ernie, and Norrie, drive to Jim Rennie’s Used Cars, King’s omniscient narrator reminds the reader that the environment under the dome is continuing to deteriorate:

“The air smells so bad,” Norrie said.

“It’s the Prestile, honey,” Rose said. “It’s turned into a big old stinky marsh where it used to run into Motton.” She knew it was more than just the smell of the dying river, but didn’t say so. They had to breathe, so there was no point in worrying about what they might be breathing in. . . (836).
After Ernie steals a van from Jim Rennie’s Used Cars, he, Norrie, and Romeo load it and Romeo’s Escalante with supplies: rifles, lead rolls, food, masking tape, and other items.

Ollie Dinsmore, tossing rocks at the dome, laments his mother’s suicidal death.

Junior Rennie leaves the hospital. Instead of killing his father first, Junior, thinking more clearly and feeling better (his limp has vanished and the keyhole shape in his left eye is smaller), decides to kill Barbie first instead, since Big Jim’s speech will provide “good cover” (849). He is still hallucinating, though: he sees a wolf in the house he shares with his father and imagines that he is now the wolf, having become a werewolf. His limp returns, too. He leaves the house, laughing at a joke he never understood and the punch line to which he’s forgotten.

Carolyn Sturges packs sandwiches for her charges, Alice and Aidan Appleton, who want to attend Big Jim’s speech.

Andrea’s appearance is much better, although she hasn’t finished undergoing her withdrawal from pain pill addiction. She stows her .38 and the file of incriminating evidence against Big Jim in her purse, intent upon killing the villain “in front of this whole town” (852).

The townspeople begin to arrive for Big Jim’s speech. Linda, with her police radio in a pocket of her dress, sits with Andrea. The Appleton children introduce themselves to the women and vice versa.

Big Kim gives Chief Randolph and Special Deputy Thibodeau instructions as to how to enter the stage and what to expect concerning the agenda: prayer, National Anthem, speech, and vote, concluding “This is going to be fine.” King’s omniscient narrator overrules Big Jim, though, announcing “He was certainly wrong about that” (856), providing foreshadowing that maintains--indeed, to a degree, increases--suspense.

As the Star-Spangled Banner begins to play inside the Town Hall, Barbie’s rescue team swings into operation, Rose Twitchell, Claire McClatchey, Joe McClatchey, Norrie Calvert, Benny Drake, Lissa Jamieson, and Joanie Calvert taking Rose’s car and the Sweetbriar van to the McCoy cabin atop Black Ridge while Ernie Calvert serves as the “wheelman” (857) for Jackie Wettington and Romeo Burpee, who use the van that Ernie stole from Big Jim’s used car lot as the getaway vehicle after the former deputy and the department store owner have liberated Colonel Barbara and physician’s assistant Rusty Everett from the Chester’s Mill police station.

During his speech, after reminding his audience that Barbie has been arrested “for the murders of Brenda Perkins, Lester Coggins, and . . . Angie McCain and Dodee Sanders,” Big Jim explains the origin of the dome (not, of course, that his explanation is likely to be trustworthy):

“What you do not know,” Big Jim continued, “is that the Dome is the result of a conspiracy perpetuated by an elite group of rogue scientists and covertly funded by a government splinter group. We are guinea pigs in an experiment, my fellow townspeople, and Dale Barbara was the man designated to chart and guide that experiment’s course from the inside!” (860)
Big Jim also informs pins his own methamphetamine operation and identifies Colonel Cox as an impersonator who is really a part of the conspiracy of “rogue scientists” and “government splinter group” members. His speech has the desired effect; it enrages his audience. Then, Big Jim tells them that, should they want Barbie shot, it will be by “police firing squad,” not by lynching (861).

Junior starts for the police station, to kill Barbie.

Big Jim warns his listeners not to believe whatever Colonel Cox says during the Dome Visitors’ Day tomorrow, cautioning them that the supposed military man may even say that Big Jim himself headed the methamphetamine operation, to which Andrea Grinnell declares, “You did” (862). She presents Big Jim’s audience with a challenge of sorts, arguing:

“You people need to put your fears aside for a moment. . . . When you do, you’ll see that the story he’s telling is ludicrous. Jim Rennie thinks you can be stampeded like cattle in a thunderstorm. I’ve lived with you all my life, and I think he’s wrong” (862).
When Big Jim orders her evicted from the town meeting and escorted home or to the hospital, the people surprise him by insisting that she be allowed to speak, too, since “she’s a town official, too” (863). Andrea holds the file of incriminating evidence against Big Jim aloft, so the audience can see it, but as she starts to explain the envelope’s contents, she gets the “shakes” (864), her revolver falls from her purse, and she is shot to death by Special Deputy Thibodeau, who also steals her envelope, hiding it under his shirt. Carolyn Sturges is shot and killed by Deputy Freddy Denton.

At the police station, Junior shoots his way past the deputies on duty, killing all three--Rupert Libby (Piper’s cousin), Stacey Moggin, and Mickey Wardlaw, reloads using Stacey’s ammunition, and goes downstairs, to the cells, to kill Barbie.

On his way to Barbie’s cell, Junior notices Rusty Everett. Before he can kill the physician’s assistant, however, Barbie calls to Junior, taunting him by saying, “I got you, didn’t I? I got you good!” and flipping him off with both middle fingers. As Junior shoos round after round of ammunition at Barbie, the colonel manages to dodge the terminally ill assassin’s aim, taunting him all the while. As Junior closes in for the kill and Barbie remembers the knife he’s hidden inside his mattress, Barbie hears Rusty cry, “Get him!” (877) and the soldier wonders which side the physician’s assistant is on.

Although Rusty came across as brave in the earlier scene in which he relocated his own dislocated fingers, he is terrified of the mad, monstrous Junior. Shamefully, “Rusty stepped backward, thinking that perhaps Junior would miss him on his way by. And perhaps kill himself after finishing with Barbie.” Rusty is ashamed of himself for thinking these thoughts: “He knew these were craven thoughts, but he also knew they were practical thoughts. He could do nothing for Barbie, but he might be able to survive himself” (871). Certainly, the reader loses some respect for Rusty, because of his display of cowardice, but the reader also realizes that the physician’s assistant, unlike Barbie, is a civilian, not a military man trained in survival tactics and close combat skills. Unlike Barbie, Rusty has never served in the military, much less in combat. Therefore, his fear is understandable, whereas Barbie’s own fear (he sweat and shook when Deputy Ollie Ortega had threatened to shoot him) is less forgivable, as is his “forgetting” about the knife he’d hidden inside his bunk’s mattress. It seems most unlikely that a man with blacks ops training, hand-to-hand fighting training, and combat experience would forget such a vitally important fact. King’s soldier does, however, and this forgetfulness could easily have cost him both his life and Rusty’s.

Fortunately, during Junior’s attack, Jackie Wettington and Romeo Burpee entered the police station and, seeing the dead deputies, hastened down to the cells, where the former deputy shoots and kills Junior before the selectman’s son can assassinate Barbie. It was to them, unseen by Barbie, that Rusty had been shouting “Get him!,” meaning Junior, not Barbie, of course.

Deputy Freddy Denton and Special Deputy Melvin Searles enter the police station just as Romeo Burpee comes upstairs. Holding the bogus lawmen at gunpoint, Rommie orders them into a cell downstairs.

Barbie, Rusty, Jackie, and Ernie wave to police officers outside the Town Hall as they drive their stolen van out of town, “headed toward Black Ridge” (881).

King’s omniscient narrator keeps the reader reading by concluding many of these brief scenes with a sentence or two that foreshadows imminent violence, conflict, or catastrophe:

. . . at least if she’s with the rest of the town, she’s safe.

That was what he thought before the gunfire started (859).

Later she would wonder how many lives might have been saved if she had told Rommie okay, let’s roll (862).

In the pandemonium, no one heard the shots from next door (867).

“Ah, Jesus,” Rusty said. “We’re in trouble.”

“I know,” Barbie said (867).

“Hello, Baaarbie,” he called down the stairs. “I know what you did to me, and I’m coming for you. If you’ve got a prayer to say, better make it a quick one” (870).

“Close your eyes, Fusty,” Junior said. “It’ll be better that way” (871).

Before the next gunshot came, Barbie had just time to think, Jesus Christ, Everett, whose side are you on? (877)

What his collapsing body revealed was Dale Barbara himself, crouching on his bunk with the carefully secreted knife in his hand. He never had a chance to open it (877).

“Let’s get out of here while we still can,” Everett said (880).
By the way, and for the record, Barbie, who was jailed on page 533 of the novel, finally gets out of his cell (thanks to his rescuers) on page 877 or thereabout, making him Jim Rennie’s prisoner for an approximate count of 344 pages, or 32 percent of the entire story! During this large portion of the novel, Rusty Everett has filled in as the protagonist, apparently, because King’s omniscient narrator (or maybe it’s the voice of the extraterrestrial invaders who may be the inventors of the dome and the cause of all the mischief) declare, when they state as much when they observe that “for the time being, these two men--our heroes, I suppose--are sitting on their bunks and playing Twenty Questions. It’s Rusty’s turn to guess” (802). The existence of two “heroes,” alternating as the story’s central and most important characters makes them both, in effect, protagonists, a feat that seems impossible, even for Stephen King, since, according to the very concept of the protagonist’s being the story’s main character suggests that he or she must also be the only such type of character in the story, for “main” means “chief,” and there is only one chief in any enterprise, a work of fiction included. King’s wanting his reader to believe that there are two “main” characters in his novel betrays another of the narrative’s problematic and confusing elements.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Universal and the Particular “Under the Dome”

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

After smoking more methamphetamine, Andy Sanders has a seizure, during which he sees two orange trucks approaching WCIK radio station and the meth lab that he and Phil (“The Chef”) Bushey occupy behind the station. Whether the prophetic hallucination is the result of the drug or the dome is questionable, but The Chef accepts the vision as intelligence, and he and Andy plan to resist the approaching men’s attempt to take more propane from the site, murdering them, if necessary.

Earlier, through Linda Everett, Stephen King announced one of the themes of Under the Dome. He had her say that there are sides and that everyone needs to decide which side he or she will serve. He reiterates this idea, emphasizing that no one is exempt from this choice: “they were all involved, weren’t they? Under the Dome, involvement was no longer a matter of choice” (793), Claire McClatchey thinks, and, later, the omniscient narrator declares, “Claire opened her mouth to say she didn’t want to get involved, then didn’t. Because there was no choice” (794).

The “sides” of which she spoke were those of law and order versus lawlessness and disorder, but King, in commenting upon his apocalyptic novel’s title, suggests that the same is true for each and every reader, for each and every American, for each and every human being: “We’re all under the dome,” since we are alone, as far as anyone knows, on the planet Earth. We’re all in it together, he implies, and we all have to decide which side we will join in the battle against--what? Law and order versus lawlessness and disorder? Good versus evil?

Law and order versus lawlessness and disorder would be dichotomies large enough to support a 1,074-page novel, but King’s either-or is more pedestrian, more localized, and more ideological. His characters and his omniscient narrator, as his spokespersons, have time and again pointed out the enemies and the heroes. The villains are corrupt, unscrupulous, self-serving, and hypocritical politicians like Big Jim Rennie who use their strengths and talents to hurt, not help, their fellows, and his heroes are those who use their strengths and talents to help, not hurt, their fellows.

This seems a sound basis for developing a practical and pragmatic morality, and, as such, is perhaps as good as it gets in a secular society that is distrustful of, and seeks to thwart, even the idea of the desirability of divinely sanctioned morals. Although Desperation shows that King is capable of appreciating the power of God and of faith (although not in a wholly traditional way), Under the Dome, like several of his earlier works, such as Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, and Needful Things, show Christianity to be a dangerous breeding ground for fanaticism, repression, and violence, rather than as a force for good.

Unfortunately, Under the Dome also divides good and evil according to a second criterion, which is based upon his characters’ political beliefs rather than the helpful or harmful effects of their behavior. In Under the Dome, the heroes are largely liberals and Democrats who watch and listen faithfully to CNN, believing its newscasts to be unswervingly accurate and trustworthy. If it’s “CNN BREAKING NEWS,” it is also, for King and his characters, CNN BREAKING TRUTH. Julie Shumway, the token good Republican in Under the Dome (and, indeed, it seems, in all of King’s fiction) is more a Republican in name only, or RINO, perhaps, because she is told that she’s not all that bad as Republicans go.

I have spoken of King’s partisan politics in earlier posts concerning Under the Dome, but reiterate my complaint in this one because King himself makes this distinction between good liberal/Democrat and bad conservative/Republican again and again throughout his novel, having, he himself admits, modeled Big Jim Rennie, heart condition and all, it appears, upon former Vice-President Dick Chaney and President George W. Bush. The fact that Big Jim’s power grab in the wake of a crisis--or series of crises, some of his own making--could have been modeled more easily upon Barack Hussein Obama suggests how superficial and flimsy King’s political biases really are, although King himself seems unaware of this weakness.

Like Rham Emmanuel and President Obama, Big Jim believes that a crisis should never be allowed to go to waste: “Really, there was nothing like a scene of destruction,“ Big Jim thinks, “to get people playing follow-the-leader” (800). King would have been better off in writing a novel that he wants compared to Lord of the Flies being less the political partisan and more the universal moralist.

Of course, with King, where narrative itself is concerned, politics and other peripheral matters aside, the good often outweighs the bad. He is one hell of a good storyteller, and, of course, that’s what the reader is seeking in purchasing his work.

When Roger Killian, Stewart Bowie, and fern Bowie arrive in the orange trucks that Andy Sanders saw in the vision that accompanied his seizure, The Chef, backed up by Andy, turns them men back, confiscating one of their trucks and delivering the message to Big Jim that the methamphetamine lab is now theirs. After the men leave, The Chef tells Andy that, from now on, WCIK radio will be playing music much different than traditional Christian songs, hymns, and gospel music.

Hearing of the conduct of The Chef and Andy, Big Jim decides that he will lead an attack upon them after he speaks to the police and the people of Chester’s Mill, blaming Barbie’s followers for the methamphetamine operation as well as the arson involving Julia Shumway’s newspaper and residence, just as he has already charged Barbie himself with beating, raping, and murdering citizens of the town. The final paragraph of this scene sums up the character of Big Jim better than many pages might. The selectman says goodbye to his son, Junior, who has a malignant brain tumor: “He started out of the room, then went back and kissed his sleeping son’s cheek. Getting rid of Junior might become necessary, but for the time being, that too could wait” (800).

In Under the Dome, more so than in many of his other novels, it seems, upon one’s initial thought, that King’s omniscient narrator makes his presence known to the reader, not only speaking directly to him or her, but also paraphrasing T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, the effect of which is reminiscent of the stage manager’s address to the audience of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town or Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology:

Another night is falling on the little town of Chester’s Mill; another night under the Dome. But there is no rest for us; we have two meetings to attend, and we also ought to check up on Horace the Corgi before we sleep. Horace is keeping Andrea Grinell company tonight, and although he is for the moment biding his time, he has not forgotten the popcorn between the couch and the wall.

So let us go then, you and I, while the evening spreads out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table. Let us go while the first discolored stars begin to show overhead. This is the only town in a four-state area where they’re out tonight. Rain has overspread northern New England, and cable-news viewers will soon be treated [via CNN, the reader may be assured] to some remarkable satellite photographs showing a hole in the clouds that exactly mimics the sock-shape of Chester’s Mill. Here the stars shine down, but now they’re dirty stars because the Dome is dirty (801).
This (apparent) emphatic calling of attention to the omniscient narrator as an entity rather than as an objective and descriptive, impersonal voice is similar to the effect that King created by assembling his cast of characters at the midpoint of his novel, as if they were actors answering an encore. These techniques, well known to both playwrights and novelists, are not frequently used by either, not in modern times, at least, because they call attention to the artificiality of the story, to its fictitious nature, disturbing the reader’s suspension of disbelief by reminding him or her that the narrative is invented, a chronicle of merely imaginary events.

The example, quoted above, is not the only instance of King’s (apparent) omniscient narrator’s intrusion of himself into the novel he’s narrating, nor is it the sole instance of his paraphrasing Eliot, for the narrator interrupts his tale several more times during this scene. After a brief mention of CNN’s meteorologist Reynolds Wolf commenting upon the “fascinating phenomenon” caused by the backing up of rain clouds against the dome, the narrator again puts himself front and center:

That’s enough cable news; let us float through certain half-deserted streets [Eliot again], past the Congo church and the parsonage (the meeting there hasn’t started yet, but Piper has loaded up the big coffee urn, and Julia is making sandwiches by the light of a hissing Coleman lamp), past the McCain house surrounded by its sad sag of yellow police tape, down Town Common Hill past the Town Hall, where janitor Al Timmons and a couple of his friends are cleaning and sprucing up for the special town meeting tomorrow night, past War Memorial Plaza, where the statue of Lucien Calvert (Norrie’s great-grandfather; I probably don’t have to tell you that) keeps his long watch.

We’ll stop for a quick check on Barbie and Rusty, shall we? There’ll be no problem getting downstairs; there are only three cops in the ready room, and Stacey Moggin, who’s on the desk, is sleeping with her head pillowed on her forearm. The rest of the PD is at Food City, listening to Big Jim’s latest stemwinder [sic], but it wouldn’t matter if they were all here, because we are invisible. They would feel no more than a faint draft as we glide past them.

There’s not much to see in the Coop, because hope is invisible as we are. The two men having nothing to do but wait until tomorrow night, and hope that things break their way. Rusty’s hand hurts, but the pain isn’t as bad as he thought it might be, and the swelling isn’t as bad as he feared. Also, Stacey Moggin, God bless her heart, snuck him a couple of Excedrin around five PM.

For the time being, these two men--our heroes, I suppose--are sitting on their bunks and playing Twenty Questions. It’s Rusty’s turn to guess (802).
After another dramatic segment, wherein Barbie and Rusty are brought forward, so to speak, to speak for themselves, and the reader sees that, indeed, quite literally speaking, the inmates actually are playing Twenty Questions, King again reverts to what appears to be the direct intrusion of his omniscient narrator into the story he is telling:

We’ll leave the to shift the weight of the next twenty-four hours as best they can, shall we? Let us make our way past the still-shimmering heap of ashes that used to be the Democrat. . . (802-803).
The voice, the reader begins to suspect, is actually not that of the omniscient narrator, but that of the entities whom Rusty had discerned, in his vision at the site of the dome generator of the “leather faces,” the suspected aliens the physician’s assistant believes they are, who invented and operate the dome that keeps the town of Chester’s Mill imprisoned and cut off from the rest of the world outside the barrier. If this is the case, the use of a second omniscient narrator, that of the extraterrestrials (or presumed extraterrestrials) in addition to the conventional, narrative omniscient narrator, is extraordinary.

Why does King employ it? Some of the more obvious reasons are that the technique, being rare, adds interest to what might otherwise be drier, duller exposition; it allows King to remind the reader of the pair of meetings yet to come; of the incriminating file concerning Big Jim’s corruption, which is still available, under the end table with the spilled popcorn in Andrea’s living room and of many other narrative threads and subplots; and it reinforces the theme that pollution has an undesirable and dangerous effect upon those who live under the dome (a metaphor for the planet Earth, the atmosphere of which is the “dome”). These are minor gains, though, when the cost is a disturbance of the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief.

What bigger benefits does King enjoy as a result of having called attention to the presence of his behind-the-scenes omniscient narrator in such a blatant way? Certainly, the technique, calling attention to the artificiality of King’s narrative, as a fictional construction, as it does, suggests that the town under the dome is itself something of an artificial construct--that is, the world, the planet Earth, although it is a natural object, is also an artificial phenomenon: it’s culture is a human artifact, as are the nations, societies, and communities that make up the human-designed and engineered aspect of the planet.

King’s inclusion of the intrusive alien intelligence (if that is what it turns out to be--I am writing these blog entries as a reader, as I read the novel, as an example of the sort of dialogue, as it were, that occurs between the reader and the literary work as he or she imagines it to be) alongside of, or in place of, the conventional, narrative omniscient narrator, is an astonishing one and, as such, one that must be regarded as intentional and deliberate.

It invites the reader to step outside him- or herself, as it were, and, indeed, outside his or her own consciousness not only as an individual but as a human being, to see his or her world (or, at least, that part of it that is Chester’s Mill, Maine) from the more universal perspective of an invading extraterrestrial intelligence, as C. S. Lewis does, for example, in The Screwtape Letters, as Jonathan Swift does in Gulliver’s Travels, and as Thornton Wilder does in Our Town (and many others have in other works as well). This is an appropriate level, whether considered from the vantage point of a global perspective, such as all humanity’s would be, or the perspective of an extraterrestrial intelligence. However, its relationship to that of the traditional, narrative omniscient narrator is unclear and perhaps problematic.  (It remains problematic--perhaps even more so--if I am wrong in assuming that this omniscient point of view is not that of alien intruders, but the established narrative one, because the voice in which this viewpoint is delivered differs vastly from the established one, which causes a good deal of unnecessary confusion if it is not a separate and distinct narraor's voice--i. e., the aliens'.)

Something else is problematic as well. King invites the reader to step outside him- or herself and, indeed, the human race and to view Chester’s Mill (and the planet) as a curious and, yes, polluted affair, but, at the same time, he remains extraordinarily provincial in his “us” liberals/Democrats/CNN aficionados (the good guys), versus “them” conservatives/Republicans/FOX News fans (the bad guys). Once again, King’s vision as an artist is itself bifurcated. He wants to think globally, but his sympathies (and perceptions) are local.

Still, he is a compelling storyteller, and, as always, the reader reads on.

Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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