Saturday, January 2, 2010

Under the Dome and All Things King

I just completed reading Stephen King's latest epic novel, the 1,000-page+, Under the Dome. Always a risk, embarking upon a literary undertaking of this magnitude, because if it doesn't live up to expectations, can't get those bazillion hours back. Overall, I would give this one a grade of B, and that might be generous. Stephen King is a one-of-a-kind talent - let's get that straight. The guy was blessed with an imagination, and an uncanny ability to create and manipulate unique and realistic dialogue, like no other human being has been. I am not what you would call a die-hard fan; I haven't read a lot of his earlier and more acclaimed works (The Stand, It, etc.). But I've followed some of his more recent writings, which have been hit and miss (Bag of Bones, Cell, The Green Mile on the "hit" side - Dreamcatcher, From a Buick 8 - utterly unreadable). I'd say that Dome starts out on the road to rivaling anything I've ever read by him, but collapses under its own considerable weight by the last couple hundred pages.

Without giving too much away, Dome is a tale of a small Maine town (as are most of his works) that is spontaneously cut off from the rest of the world by a mysterious, transparent, and seemingly infinite dome-shaped barrier. The phenomenon soon draws the dumbfounded attention of the military, the world news media, and even the President of the U.S. As the days wear on, a Lord of the Flies-like power struggle ensues, and we get a glimpse of how society might rapidly descend into chaos if such an occurrence ever took place. The narrative, character development, and dialogue are all stunning; King again works his unique magic. You definitely come to care about each of the central characters, and actually, many of the supporting ones as well - and there are boatloads of people interwoven into this story. It's surprisingly easy to follow, as King skates just around the edges of fantasy and sci-fi...most of it reads like a straight-forward psychological narrative. It's a page-turner, with the action moving along at a steady pace. King falls shy of including many thunderous "shockers" or "reveals" and instead, elects to let the human relationships drive the readers' interest. This works well...until the last fifth or so of the book. From reading his musings in Entertainment Weekly, I know that Stephen King is a huge fan of the TV show, Lost. At this very moment, all fans of Lost are on pins and needles anticipating the drama's final season. And what we're all nervous about, is that the writers won't be able to wrap everything up in such a way that the crazy sci-fi weavings of seasons past will finally make sense. Similarly, Dome is unable to find its footing in bringing the mythology surrounding the town's unexplained barrier to a head. In fact, I'd say it fails to even coherently establish what that mythology is supposed to represent in the first place. There is one other major thing that bothers me about the "wrap-up," but mentioning it would be too much of a spoiler for those who want to read for themselves. In short, the payoff is really weak. As with films, that is an incredible pet peeve of mine with novels. The sheer fact that the majority of the novel is so strong, is what keeps me from giving it an overall grade of less than a B.

If you've never read King before, most people would probably recommend starting with The Stand. Having never read it, I can't comment. I can, instead, point you in the direction of The Talisman. This 1984 tome, co-written with Peter Straub, is a sci-fi/fantasy mind-fuck of the highest order. To say King takes his readers on an adventure is a gross understatement. I hadn't before, nor have I since, seen an author fabricate a fictitious world with such nuance and finesse. My eyes were glued to every page when I finally discovered this one about six years ago. One of my favorite books by anyone. It may be overdue for a re-read. King and Straub reteamed in 2001 for the sequel, Black House, which understandably falls short of the supreme majesty imposed by its predecessor - but it's a gripping read in its own right.

King's son Joseph, who writes under the pen name, Joe Hill, has one full novel to his credit, Heart-Shaped Box, which is a worthy horror/thriller in its own right.

If you're more of a movie person, be sure to check out The Shawshank Redemption, based on King's short story, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. Simply one of the most incredible accomplishments in film history.


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