The king of pulp fiction

Under the dome

Under the dome

Sat, Oct 31, 2009, 00:00

SUPERNATURAL FICTION: JOHN CONNOLLYreviews Under the DomeBy Stephen King, Hodder Stoughton, 896pp. £19.99

AS A BOY I briefly subscribed to a part-work entitled The Unexplained, a week-by-week collection that promised to tackle the big scientific issues of the day, or at least the ones that seemed significant to a 12-year-old with an overactive imagination, including but not limited to the possible existence of Bigfoot, the precise nature of the Loch Ness monster and whether the aliens who had been visiting Earth to conduct intimate examinations of rednecks were strange in form and thought or just looked like some bloke off the telly.

The point about The Unexplainedwas that, as its title indicated, it wasn’t in the business of providing answers to such questions; otherwise, it would have been entitled The Explained, which doesn’t have the same ring at all. In fact, had any answers to my questions become available, they would certainly have been less interesting than the speculation that gave rise to them. Bigfoot is an obscure species of forest ape, and his feet are actually proportionate to his height. Nessie is a plesiosaur, and appears only to tremor victims, thus explaining the shaky photographs. Aliens look like microbes, but bigger, and the whole probing business is just an anatomical misunderstanding.

Something of the same dilemma bedevils supernatural fiction or, more particularly, supernatural fiction in its longer form. The eventual explanation for what occurs, if provided, is usually far less unsettling than the events that came before it, with the result that horror novels have a tendency to be anticlimactic. In part this is because the length of a novel compels the author to offer an explanation of some kind, a conclusion that justifies the reader’s investment of time, energy and attention, thereby undoing much of the power that derives from the initial intrusion of the uncanny.

It may even be that the short story is better suited to explorations of the supernatural, for the short story is not so dependent upon an ending or, indeed, an explanation. It is enough that it provides us with a glimpse of the “other”, a brief revelation of what lies beyond, leaving that moment to seed itself in the reader’s subconscious and there finds fertile soil in deep, primitive fears.

Much as I love the genre, I can think of no 20th-century novel of the supernatural that has impacted upon me in the same way as, say, the best of MR James’s short stories or any of a dozen other beloved pieces of short supernatural fiction, Mrs Amworth, The Monkey’s Pawand The Upper Berthamong them. In fact, while I can recall particular moments from my favourite modern horror novels – and many of them have been written by Stephen King – I often struggle to remember their endings, and those that I can recall are often tinged with a faint sense of disappointment.

In King’s case, his two most recent novels, Lisey’s Storyand Duma Key, while often beautifully written and containing fascinating explorations of pain and loss, and the artistic compulsion to create something meaningful out of both, lacked worthy climaxes. Perhaps King’s struggle with finding a suitable ending for his novels – and it is a struggle, in the sense that he is aware of the process of decay that can set in as a horror novel progresses, like a kind of radioactive half-life – may even date back to 1986’s lengthy It, where the big spider that pops up at the end, the ultimate incarnation of the ancient terror Pennywise, is far less terrifying than the image of a clown in a storm drain, luring children to their doom, that opens the book.

Now comes Under the Dome, King’s longest novel since The Stand, and a book with a central premise that could not be more basic: the good, and bad, people of the town of Chester’s Mill are suddenly sealed off from the rest of the world by a huge dome, an invisible forcefield stretching thousands of metres into the air, and hundreds underground. Planes crash into it (one, incidentally, with a shamrock on its tail); pacemakers explode in proximity to it; and families and, indeed, individual bodies are divided by it.

Cleverly, what King does for the next 500 pages, and more, is to ignore the source of the dome and instead concentrate on the consequences of its appearance for the people of the town. Jim Rennie, the town’s ruthless big cheese, plots to turn the whole incident to his advantage, aided by his odious son Junior, a police force that quickly becomes his own private militia, and the natural fear and panic of the townsfolk. Against him are ranged an oddball assortment of children, former soldiers and, in one curious incident, a dog apparently haunted by ghosts. Meanwhile, the air under the dome begins to turn foul, and supplies start to run out.

Despite the fact that The Simpsons Movieemployed a similar idea to relatively comic effect a couple of years ago, Under the Domeis King’s most purely entertaining novel in years, due in large part to the simplicity of its premise and the discipline of its pacing, a meth-lab subplot that never entirely delivers on its promise aside. It is a long book (too long, inevitably, and it starts to wobble a little at the 700-page mark) but not a sprawling one. King carefully follows the consequences of each act, however small, and there is a certain horrible logic to all that occurs.

Unlike many of the books he has written in the aftermath of the catastrophic automobile accident in 1999 that shattered his body, and has shadowed his fiction ever since, there are no lengthy examinations of the creative urge here, and tortured-artist figures representing the author are notably absent. Reminiscent of an extended episode of The Twilight Zone, Under the Domeis completely unpretentious, frequently violent and utterly compelling.

As in the strongest of King’s earlier novels, the nature of the dome’s creators, good or bad, alien or otherwise, is of less concern to him than the base human motives of those trapped beneath it. The dome is a McGuffin, nothing more, and the eventual explanation for its creation is unlikely to raise many eyebrows in shock. There are echoes of The Shiningin the concept of a sealed environment acting as a hothouse for the germination of evil, but, as in that book, the location functions merely as a catalyst. For King, evil is the water that threatens always to breach the dam, with human frailty as the crack it seeks to exploit. True evil has power only to corrupt those who are themselves already seriously flawed, but that is about as profound as this novel gets. Under the Domeis pulp fiction, but it’s pulp fiction created by a master.


John Connolly’s latest novel is The Gates