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Monday, July 5, 2010

“Under the Dome“: Stephen King’s “Lord of the Flies”

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Some time ago, Stephen King announced that he wishes he’d written William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. In a sense, with Under the Dome, he has written a sequel of sorts to Golding’s novel.

In King’s book, though, it’s not preteens who have been cut off from the rest of society and must fend for themselves against nature (and one another), but adults.

Once the mysterious dome descends that cuts off Chester’s Mill, Maine, from the rest of the US of A, King fairly quickly suggests that his story will concern what happens to a community that is set adrift from the moorings of larger society and the larger society‘s social infrastructure and cultural underpinnings--when, in effect, to some extent, at least, such a community reverts to humanity’s natural state.

On their own, will the townspeople embody Jean Jacques-Rousseau’s idea of the noble savage, or just the savage part?

Not long after the town is isolated, the chief of police is killed when he investigates the invisible barrier that separates Chester’s Mill from the rest of the world, and Assistant Chief Peter Randolph, a lackey of the corrupt second selectman, Big Jim Rennie, assumes command of the town’s police force, deputizing, at Big Jim’s insistence, a trio of the local town’s former high school football players, one of whom is the selectman’s own son, the brutal and sadistic Junior, who’s already murdered two women, Angie McCain and Dodee Sanders.

Unknown to the townspeople themselves, political corruption has been festering in Chester’s Mill for some time. In fact, as Brenda, discovers, her late husband, Police Chief Howard (“Duke”) Perkins was investigating Big Jim’s participation in both the “misappropriation of town goods and services” and the “manufacture and sale of illegal drugs” at the time of his own untimely demise.

Evil is afoot in the town, but, now, following the death of the chief of police, there seems to be no one to check the machinations of Big Jim, especially since he has taken advantage of the crisis to beef up the local constabulary with young men, his own son, included, who are apt to support him.

Many others in town also owe favors to the second selectman. For example, when former Army captain and current short-order cook Dale (“Barbie”) Barbara hopes to enlist Al Timmons, “the Town Hall janitor,” who dines regularly at the restaurant at which Barbie works, to help him liberate the Geiger counter in the town hall’s fallout shelter, the local newspaper owner and editor, Julia Shumway, informs Barbie that Rennie has given “Al a personal no-interest loan to send Al’s youngest son” to college in Alabama, just as Big Jim “holds the papers on Al Fisher’s plow.” Big Jim has used his ill-gotten gains to make members of the community beholden to him, solidifying his power and influence both as a selectman and as a personal benefactor to his constituents.

Without the honorable Chief Perkins to keep Big Jim in check, the reader can expect some Lord of the Flies-type tyranny to unfold soon in the isolated community, wherein the rule of law may be expected to give way to the rule of the survival of the fittest.

It’s just a matter, perhaps, of what is the fittest--unbridled savagery or enlightened self-interest exercised in a spirit of mutual respect on the part of each citizen for the other. The political, social, and moral issues that King’s novel explores are themes of depth and breadth sufficient for the 1,074-page tome.

The first hint of trouble occurs as Barbie and Julia discuss enlisting Brenda’s aid in securing the Geiger counter. As Chief Perkins’ widow, she would have the keys that her husband was provided, keys that grant access to the government buildings throughout Chester’s Mill, including the town hall and its fallout shelter, and, Julia says, Brenda “has no love for James Rennie” and “can keep a secret” (184). During their discussion, they hear “a hollow metallic bang and a yelp of pain. . . . followed by a cries of protest,” and Barbie thinks, “It begins right now.” He corrects himself, though: “He knew that wasn’t true--it had begun yesterday, when the Dome came down. . .” (185).

It’s not long after Junior Rennie is deputized that the sadistic youth’s violence explodes. The town council prohibits the sale of alcoholic beverages during the time they are cut off from the rest of society by the presence of the dome, but the town drunk, “Sloppy” Sam Verdreaux, won’t take the “no” of the proprietor of Mill Gas & Grocery for an answer, despite the presence of Deputy Freddy Denton and Special Deputy Rennie. Junior handles the situation by hustling Sloppy Sam out of the store and down the steps, where he runs him headfirst into a parked van, leaving his victim with a lacerated scalp. When Sloppy Sam vows to sue the city for “police brutality,” predicting a win, Junior brings him up short, reminding the drunk that “The courthouse is in Castle Rock, and from what I hear, the road going there is closed” (190).

The town is cut off, not only from the greater society of the country, but from recourse to the laws of the land. It is at the mercy of the local authorities, including the likes of Junior Rennie--a chilling thought, to be sure. Junior loses no time in driving home this point to the small crowd of witnesses that has assembled at the scene:

“He is being arrested for violating the new no-alcohol rule, instituted by Chief Randolph. Take a good look!” Freddy shook Sam. Blood flew from Sam’s face and filthy hair. “We’ve got a crisis situation here, folks, but there’s a new sheriff in town, and he intends to handle it. Get used to it, deal with it, learn to love it. That’s my advice. Follow it, and I’m sure we’ll get through this situation just fine. Go against it, and. . . “ He pointed to Sam’s hands, plasticuffed behind him (190).
Under the Dome’s parallels to Lord of the Flies don’t appear to be accidental or coincidental. In fact, in case any of his readers missed the covert association with Golding’s novel, King himself makes the comparison overt:

. . . Benny said, “Until this. . . [crisis] ends, the cops can do pretty much what they want.”

That was true, Joe reflected. And the new cops weren’t particularly nice guys. Junior Rennie, for example. The story of Sloppy Sam’s arrest was already making the rounds.

“What are you saying?” Norrie asked Benny.

“Nothing right now. It’s still cool right now.” He considered. “Fairly cool. But if this goes on. . . Remember Lord of the Flies?”. . . (223)
What begins to happen in Chester’s Mill begins with the weakest, most helpless, disenfranchised individuals, but, it seems safe to say, the same abusive tactics that have been used against Sloppy Sam Verdreaux eventually will be used against others with more clout, more influence, and more money as the “crisis situation” continues.

But there may be more disturbing parallels than those between King’s novel and Golding’s book--real-life, real-world parallels.

President Barack Obama’s call for an elite federal police force that is as well equipped as the military and his chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel’s comment that the president’s administration should not let a crisis go to waste (“and what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before”) have eerie parallels, on a national--and real--level to the imaginary happenings inside the isolated community of King’s Chester’s Mill, Maine, and, indeed, to those which take place in Golding’s novel.

If we missed the message concerning the evils of anarchy and tyranny conveyed by Lord of the Flies, maybe we can learn, from the example of Under the Dome’s Chester’s Mill, what’s in store for us under Obama’s administration, unless the “crisis situation” in Washington changes this November.

In addition to exploring the effects of social isolation, potential anarchy, tyranny, exploitative capitalism, true religious faith, and the cooperative interaction of the beleaguered community, King also wants his novel to be about ecology and the potentially catastrophic effects that dependence on oil, reckless pollution of the environment, and arrogant disregard for the welfare of the planet may create.

He works this thematic thread into the story by referencing the need to conserve the propane gas that powers the stoves and other equipment inside Sweetbriar Rose, a restaurant which, owned by Rose Twitchell, employs several of the town’s residents, including Dale Barbara, and the foolishness of motorists who refuse to conserve their fuel, even despite the descent of the dome. After the accident that costs Rory Dinsmore one of his eyes, the police shut down the protests against the government and the churches’ meetings at the field day, and the townspeople return to their homes and shops:

Those with cars got into them. They all tried to drive away at the same time.

Predictable, Joe McClatchey thought. Totally predictable.

Most of the cops worked to unclog the resulting traffic jam. . . .

Benny said, “Look at those idiots. How many gallons of gas do you think they’re blowing out their tailpipes? Like they think the supply’s endless” (222).
If the addition of yet another theme seems a bit much, even for a 1,074-page novel, one should give King the chance to dovetail his environmental concerns with those regarding the effects of social isolation, potential anarchy, tyranny, exploitative capitalism, true religious faith, and what it takes to win against the monster. Under the Dome, after all, is a large novel, with plenty of room, and one which invites, by King himself, comparison to Golding’s Nobel-prize-winning Lord of the Flies.


lazlo azavaar said...

Great essay, Gus. I agree with your comparison of Big Jim's power grabbing with President Obama's, though I seriously doubt King does. Rennie is a stereotypical Republican villan; my guess is, he was written to be compared to Bush. Even now, I doubt King sees that that sword cuts both ways. Still, he's my favorite writer ever, and The Shining introduced me to the wondeful world of reading. For that, I am eternally grateful to him.

Gary L. Pullman said...

Thanks, Lazlo (but the name's Gary, not Gus). That's okay, though, I remember I once inadvertently referred to you as Laslo, rather than Lazlo. Glad you enjoyed the post. You may be right about King's perceptions; he is a self-avowed liberal writer with some definite political axes to grind. Still, it seems as if he may be moving more toward the center lately. We'll see. . . .

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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