At 1,074 pages, Stephen King’s latest work, Under the Dome, isn’t a novel; it’s an experience!
Since the riot at the Food Town supermarket, much of the story’s action has concerned repercussions of this food fight and of other previous incidents that have occurred following the mysterious descent of the dome over Chester’s Mill, Maine.
Second Selectman Big Jim Rennie has seized the opportunity presented by this sudden crisis to seize more power for himself, becoming a dictator, always, he says, for the good of the town he serves. This “good” includes the two murders he’s committed, those of the Reverend Lester Coggins of Christ the Holy Redeemer Church, and Brenda, the elderly widow of former Police Chief Howard (“Duke”) Perkins, who was an early casualty of the dome. By getting rid of the chief law enforcement officer of the community and replacing him with Pete Randolph, a fairly stupid, eager-to-please follower, Big Jim Rennie ensures that there is no law except that which he chooses to enforce for his own purposes. King thus returns Chester’s Mill to a more-or-less uncivilized state of the “noble savage” similar to that of which Jean-Jacques Rousseau waxes poetic and against which novelist William Golding, in Lord of the Flies, cautions.
Because King has a lot of ground to cover, he alternates between relatively short scenes that develop his multiple subplots and connect them to the central storyline. Perhaps for himself as much as for his reader, the author provides both a map of Chester’s Mill and a list of many of the characters who appear in the novel. This list is a handy way to keep track of the characters and their actions and of the plot in general.
By and by, this post will delve into a few implications of these actions; but, initially, it will be more concerned with summarizing the major events that have transpired since the food fight.
Colonel Dale (“Barbie”) Barbara has been jailed on the pretext that he is the killer of Angie McCain, Dorothy (“Dodee”) Sanders (First Selectman Andy Sanders’ daughter), Lester Coggins, and Brenda Perkins, whereas in fact the true killers are Big Jim and his son Junior. Andy visits Barbie in jail, raving at him for having murdered his daughter. (Andy’s wife Claudette was an early victim of the dome; the airplane in which she was taking flight instructions flew into it.)
Third Selectman Andrea Grinnell kicks her addiction to pain pills cold turkey.
Peter Randolph’s police force is bolstered by additional thuggish young recruits.
Henchmen of Big Jim burn down Julia Shumway’s newspaper and her home, which was located on the same building’s second floor. Homeless, Julia spends the night at Andrea’s house, sleeping on the couch with her dog, Horace. Although Big Jim sends his henchmen around town to collect the last edition of Julia’s newspaper, which questions Barbie’s guilt, a few of the issues are collected by townspeople, read, and passed around until the copies literally fall apart from the handling.
In the food fight, Special Deputy Georgia Roux, who assisted her colleagues Frank DeLesseps, Melvin Searles, and Carter Thibodeau, in the beating and rape of Samantha Bushey, was severely injured and is in the hospital. After abandoning her eighteen-month-old son Little Walter (as both the baby and she herself were abandoned by her husband, Phil, who, a drug-crazed addict, now goes by the nickname “The Chef,” living at Big Jim‘s methamphetamine lab behind the Holy Redeemer Church), Samantha obtains a handgun, using it to kill both Georgia and her after-hours visitor Carter, before turning the same weapon upon herself and committing suicide.
Andy is about to commit suicide when he receives a telephone call from the hospital, asking him to come to the aid of the medical staff, as there has been a double murder and a suicide there.
English professor Thurston Marshall and his student-girlfriend Carolyn Sturgis take in orphans Alice and Aidan Appleton, and Thurston assists physician’s assistant Eric (“Rusty”) Everett at the hospital. Aidan experiences seizures during which they hallucinate about Halloween and pink stars that trail lines behind them.
Other children who have these same visions include boy genius “Scarecrow” Joe McClatchey, Norrie Calvert, and Benny Drake, who, using a Geiger counter supplied by Barbie, discover, atop Black Ridge, beyond the McCoy apple orchard, what they believe is the generator that has created and sustains the dome. They report their discovery to Rusty. Later, pink stars fall over Chester’s Mill. Although it seems that these stars may have a paranormal or even a supernatural origin, they are explained as a meteor shower (“falling stars”), the pink color of which is an effect of the pollution adhering to the outer surface of the dome.
Having framed Barbie for multiple murders (and his friends for the arson that burned down the newspaper), Big Jim shuts down his methamphetamine operation, returning some of the stolen propane tanks that he’d used to fuel the works to the hospital. The men who return the tanks, chicken farmer Roger Killian, undertaker Stewart Bowie, and Stewart’s brother Fernald (“Fern”), see a “cryptic message” that “had been painted on the storage building behind the WCIK studios” near the Holy Redeemer Church. Referencing the book of Revelation’s prophecy that “the beast will be cast into a burning lake of fire,” the message calls upon its readers to “burn the wicked” and “purify the saintlie” (566), a directive which, the novel’s reader suspects, may have been painted by the mad meth addict Phil (“The Chef”) Bushey. Does The Chef himself intend to play the role of “purifier”? one wonders, believing himself to be an implement of divine wrath? The Chef has wired the storage shed that serves as the meth lab with explosives. Perhaps he also has other surprises in store for those whom he considers to be sinners.
A second attempt by the military to penetrate the dome, this time, with a pair of Cruise missiles, fails. The town remains cut off, an incubator for corruption and the empowerment of those who would benefit themselves by hurting, rather than helping, their neighbors.
Rusty, refusing to believe that Barbie murdered anyone, persuades his wife, Deputy Linda Everett, who has come around to his way of thinking after her initial suspicion of Barbie's guilt, to accompany him to the Bowie funeral home, where he examines the victims’ bodies while Deputy Stacey Moggin stands watch outside, ready to alert them over her walkie-talkie if anyone approaches the scene. Rusty discovers that Brenda died as the result of someone’s having broken her neck; however, his finding does not exonerate Barbie as the murderer.
A few things beyond the mere summary of the plot do merit mention in regard to the theory and practice of writing horror fiction, which is the purpose of this blog, after all.
One, already mentioned, is how King alternates between brief scenes to keep his reader apprised as to what is happening throughout town among his various characters, keeping the pace moving forward at a fairly rapid clip despite the scenes' heavy exposition, and dovetailing the main storyline with the novel’s many subplots. This technique also unifies the action. In fact, several times, King has his characters cross paths as they execute their own plans. For example, Rusty drives past both Joe McClatchey and, later Samantha Bushey. Another means of tying the action together is to have a character go to several other characters’ homes or places of business in succession, as Brenda Perkins does when she is seeking a safe place to keep the incriminating evidence that Howard Perkins had compiled against Big Jim and as Julia Shumway does in seeking a place to spend the night after her home and business are burned down.
Another point to consider is the characterization of Barbie as one who outmatches his adversaries. His captors fancy themselves accomplished inquisitors, as is seen in Junior Rennie's attempts to tempt Barbie with a glass of water to quench his thirst if Barbie will sign a confession, admitting he’s killed the murder victims. Barbie is aware of such tricks:
Barbie was. . . very thirsty, and it didn’t surprise him much when one of the new officers showed up with a glass of water in one hand and a sheet of paper with a pen attached to it in the other. Yes, it was how these things went; how they went in Fallujah, Takrit, Hilla, Mosul, and Baghdad. How they also now went in Chester’s Mill, it seemed (585).He’s not only knowledgeable about such techniques; he’s presumably seen them used and has perhaps used them himself in the past, for “he had done interrogations in Iraq and knew how it worked over there” (584). However, Barbie also knows how resourceful the recipients of such torture can be, and he is able to adopt their practices to outwit his captors and survive his ordeal without succumbing to their devices:
. . . They ere amateurs at this: they had forgotten the toilet. Probably none of them had ever been in a country where even a little ditch water could look good when you were carrying ninety pounds of equipment and the temperature was forty-six Celsius. Barbie poured out the salt water [Junior had salted it, possibly by urinating in it] in the corner of the cell. Then he knelt in front of the toilet bowl like a man at his prayers and drank until he could feel his belly bulging (588).A man who will drink water from the toilet bowl--and from a jailhouse stool, at that!--is a man who is resourceful enough, tough enough, and resolute enough to survive and, given the chance, triumph over even those as brawny, sadistic, and unscrupulous as his present enemies, Big Jim Rennie and Police Chief Randolph and his special deputies. This description of Barbie puts him in the same class as John Rambo.
It also suggests a problem, relating to the novel’s verisimilitude. Just before the description of Barbie’s drinking from the commode, the omniscient narrator shared the prisoner’s thought that “if he got out of this police station alive, it would be a miracle,” and, previously, King, several times, emphasized how easily Barbie might be shot under the pretext of his having tried to escape from custody. Even if he is a Rambo-like character, Barbie could easily enough be dispatched in this manner, and, if he’s truly violent enough to have raped two women and killed four individuals after beating three of them savagely, his attempt to escape would be credible to most of the townspeople and to the federal authorities as well. Surely, this would be the easiest and most certain way for Big Jim to dispose of the greatest threat to his continued position as selectman while, at the same time, covering up the murders that Big Jim and his son Junior have committed.
King seems aware of this potential plot hole, for, later, he has his characters discuss the situation; by the way, King adroitly sets the scene, identifying the participants in the action in its opening sentence: “There were four people in Rusty’s living room: Linda [Everett], Jackie [Wettington], Stacey Moggin, and Rusty [Everett] himself.” The topic of their conversation soon turns to Barbie’s plight:
“What if they kill him?” Rusty asked bluntly. “Shot while trying to escape?”It seems unlikely that Big Jim, a good planner in everything else, would take such a huge and unnecessary risk. By having Barbie killed as he allegedly attempts to escape from custody, Big Jim would still have framed him; in addition, he would have prevented a problematic trial, which would draw public scrutiny, both in Chester’s Mill and beyond, and could end in Barbie’s exoneration and Big Jim’s own proved culpability. No one knows how long it may be, if ever, before the dome is penetrated or destroyed, and each day that passes could create more opportunities for the discovery of the methamphetamine lab or of evidence for either Big Jim’s own or his son’s murder of their victims. The safer and more expedient measure would be to kill Barbie while the chance exists for them to do so rather than wait until a trial can be conducted on trumped-up evidence. Therefore, this situation is, if not a plot hole, a rather incredible state of affairs. The reader may well have to suspend his or her disbelief to accept it as possible. What makes the lack of verisimilitude even worse is that this situation is an important feature of the plot.
“I’m pretty sure that won’t happen,” Jackie said. “Big Jim wants a show-trial. That’s the talk at the station.” Stacey nodded. “They want to make people believe Barbie’s a spider spinning a vast web of conspiracy. Then they can execute him. But even moving at top speed, that’s days away. Weeks, if we’re lucky” (666).
A final note on the text concerns King’s nimbleness in creating an eerie sense that something is amiss, something that is unsettlingly dark and deep. He does this masterfully in Desperation, when Sheriff Collie Entragian, possessed by the demon Tak, gives voice to strange declarations and is described as literally coming apart at the seams as the demon’s vitality consumes him from within. In Under the Dome, King’s omniscient narrator does something similar, with equally eerie effect, in describing the deterioration of Junior Rennie, who, until now, has merely been said to experience frequent tremendous, migraine-like headaches. As he attempts to goad Barbie into signing a false confession, Junior’s speech becomes more and more confused as he suffers another headache, and he is seen to have developed a limp:
The new officer was Junior Rennie.Having alerted the reader to the oddity of Junior’s speech, King supplies the reader with additional oddities of his speech, each of which is also unsettling, indicating, as they do, Junior’s loss of sanity. What is even more alarming is the fact that Junior is unaware both of his speaking nonsense at times, in passing, as it were, and of the slipping away of his reason.
“Well, look at you,” Junior said. “Don’t look quite so ready to beat guys up with your fancy Army tricks right now.” He raised the hand holding the sheet of paper and rubbed his left temple with the tips of his fingers. The paper rattled.
“You don’t look so good yourself.”
Junior dropped his hand. “I’m fine as rain.”
Now that was odd, Barbie thought; some people said right as rain and some said fine as paint, but none, as far as he knew, said fine as rain. It probably meant
nothing, but-- (585).
Mixed in with Junior’s unintentionally absurd phrases are descriptions of his physical deterioration--his hand trembles, he has a massive headache, an “inflamed left eye” that leaks “tears at the corner,” and a pronounced limp--and Barbie’s thoughts concerning them:
Although it is difficult to overlook the rather glaring improbability that Big Jim would prefer to risk everything to conduct a “show-trial” than to kill Barbie as the prisoner allegedly seeks to escape, King’s description of Junior’s deterioration compensates for lack of believability. Characterization has long been one of King’s strong suits. Plotting usually is sound, too, although, in Big Jim’s failure to have Barbie killed when he has the chance to do so, an exception to the rule.
Junior yodeled again. Some of the water in the glass spilled on his wrist. Were his hand shaking a little? And that inflamed left eye was leaking tears at the corner. Junior, what the hell’s wrong with you? Migraine? Something else. . . ?
It isn’t a migraine making him do that. At least not any migraine I ever heard of.
. . . “You guys come back with all sorts of problems. At least, that’s what I breed and see on TV. Right or false? True or wrong?” (586)
. . . “My theory is that you came back. . . [with] PTSS, STD, PMS, one of those. . . .”
. . . “. . . Think about getting. . . some food. Big old cheeseburger in paradise. Maybe a Coke. There’s some cold in the fridge upstairs. Wouldn’t you like a nice cone Cole?” (587)
. . . As he went upstairs, Barbie observed that Junior was limping a tiny but--or dragging. That was it, dragging to the left and pulling on the banister with his right hand to compensate. He wondered what Rusty Everett would think about such symptoms. . . (588).