Under the Dome
By Stephen King
Stephen King twice attempted to write a book about a town trapped under a mysterious dome. His second attempt in 1976 fell apart and he walked away from the book after two weeks of writing. In 2009, motivated by politics and social commentary, he resurrected the story. Of the original, only the first chapter made it into the new novel.
One day in the fall of 2012, a mysterious dome appears over the town of Chester’s Mill, Maine. An airplane piloted by a student pilot from the town crashes into the dome and explodes. Later, a tanker truck traveling the state route that passes through Chester’s Mill slams into the dome and ignites a huge fire outside the dome.
At the same time the dome appears over the town, Dale “Barbie” Barbara – formerly Captain Barbara of the U.S. Army is hoofing it out of town. He was working as a short order cook at the town’s only diner before he had a run in with some local youths – one of which was the son of town selectman Jim Rennie. While Rennie is just the second selectman of three, it is he with his wealth and cunning that wields all the power in town. Barbie is trapped in Chester’s Mill for the foreseeable future.
Jim Rennie, Jr., having joined his buddies in waling on Dale Barbara has a new target in mind this early morning. He makes his way to his girlfriend’s house to talk to her and what he perceives as her infidelity. He has a splitting headache because, unbeknownst to him, he has a massive brain tumor. He arrives at the house and promptly bludgeons Angie McCain to death.
One by one, King introduces major and minor characters who will make up his microcosm of society trapped and isolated from the rest of the world.
As a crowd gathers at the scene of the tanker truck crash, the chief of police, Howie Perkins dies when he touches the dome and his pacemaker explodes. One can touch the dome without harm if they have no electronic devices on them, but electronics explode when they come into contact with the dome.
Rennie maneuvers first selectman, Andy Sanders to appoint a Rennie crony, Peter Randolph as the new chief of police. Randolph is an incompetent yes man who Rennie can control.
Rennie starts to add to the ranks of Chester’s Mill’s police department. He handpicks young men and women, known for being tough and unruly. Among them is his son, Junior.
The day after the dome appears, Junior kills again. This time, he kills one of Angie’s friends who came to investigate her disappearance. Junior takes to spending time with his "girlfriends" who are slowly decaying in the family pantry at Angie’s house.
The town starts to respond to the emergency. The hospital’s lone doctor dies of a heart attack after failing to save a young boy who was killed by a ricochet fired at the dome. A physician’s assistant is left as the lead health care provider. Rusty Everett is horrified to find that most of the emergency supply of propane for the hospital has disappeared. In fact, there is a distinct lack of propane for generators all over town. That’s because Jim Rennie has appropriated them.
Unknown to most residents of the town, Jim Rennie, along with Andy Sanders, a local minister, a pair of local farmers, and a ne’er do well drug user, have set up the largest methamphetamine lab in the country inside the transmitter building of the local radio station. The propane is all there.
Meanwhile, Barbie is forced to return to town and pitches in to help feed people back at the local diner. It doesn’t take long for his former employer to track him down. Army Col. James Cox contacts the publisher of the local newspaper, Julia Shumway, and asks to be put in touch with Barbie. Julia finds Barbie and he learns that he’s been reinstated to the U.S. Army, promoted to colonel, and has been appointed by the president as the man in charge of Chester’s Mill. Barbie’s mission is to ascertain if the source of the dome is located inside Chester’s Mill.
Jim Rennie is less than thrilled when Barbie presents his credentials. He tells Barbie and Cox that Andy and he remain the legally elected officials in Chester’s Mill and that they will see the town through the crisis.
Meanwhile, the army plans to launch a missile at the dome, hoping to poke a hole in its otherwise solid surface. Barbie connects with local teenager, skateboarding enthusiast, and computer geek, Joe McClatchey, to install a computer camera so the whole town can watch via a web feed. Anticipation runs high in the town.
One person who hopes it fails is Jim Rennie. Rennie sees this crisis as his one chance to achieve fame and greatness by leading the town through the crisis. If the dome comes down too soon, his chance will evaporate. He begins scheming to seize control and to remove Barbie from the equation.
Meanwhile, Howie Perkin’s grieving widow discovers a report her husband was compiling on the activities of Jim Rennie. He was working in cooperation with the Maine Attorney General to build a criminal case against Rennie. She shares this information with Barbie who directs her to print the report and give it to Julia Shumway. However, Mrs. Perkins can’t locate Shumway, so she drops it off with the third selectman, Andrea Grinell.
Grinell is in the throes of withdrawal from her painkiller addiction. Remmie and Sanders have threatened to withhold her prescription from her unless she goes along with their plan to take over the town. To fight them, she has decided to overcome her addiction cold turkey. In a frazzled state of mind, she forgets she has the report and it is lost in her home.
The day of the missile launch comes, three days after the dome appeared. The town gathers around television sets in the village to watch the live feed set up by McClatchey and Barbie. The missile is launched and impacts on the dome. While it scorches the earth outside the dome, it has little effect inside and does not penetrate. Tensions in Chester’s Mill ramp up.
One person feeling the tension is the town’s Baptist minister, Lester Coggins. He’s worried and somewhat repentant over the meth lab operation he has sanctioned and profited from. He goes to Rennie’s home to tell Rennie he’s going to confess to his crimes. Rennie kills him by crushing his skull with a bronzed softball. He then hatches a plan to pin the murder on Barbie to get Barbie out of the way. He enlists the aid of Jim Junior and puts his plan into motion.
Rennie also receives a visit from Brenda Perkins, Chief Perkins’s widow. She tells him about the contents of the report she found on her computer and tells Rennie that she has printed copies for distribution. Rennie knows from his various spies that she never actually delivered the report to the newspaper, so he kills her too. This is another murder he plans to pin on Barbie.
Rennie now puts his plan into action. He dupes several of his new, inexperienced cops into creating a riot at the town’s only supermarket. Many are injured, some critically, straining the resources of the village’s tiny hospital operating without a real doctor. He also arranges to have Junior “find” the bodies of the two girls he killed along with the bodies of Lester Coggins and Brenda Perkins. In the process of finding them, he plants evidence that points straight to Barbie as the killer. The town, now really worried about their future under the dome that has no explanation and is seemingly indestructible, is now also concerned about scarcity of resources and a serial killer working in their town. Rennie is confident in their heightened paranoia that they will grant him the power he so desires to “see them through the crisis.”
Barbie is arrested, beaten, and thrown into a cell. A special town hall meeting is scheduled where Rennie will make his proposal to be granted unilateral power and where they will decide Barbie’s fate. Rennie is confident the town will want him executed.
While the riot ensues, McClatchey and his resourceful group of teenage friends rides their bikes out to a rural section of the village where they encounter a strange belt of radiation that knocks them unconscious briefly, then has no further effect. They see a purple, flashing light within an abandoned barn secluded in an old orchard. This, they are sure, is the source of the dome.
McClatchey and his friends report what they found to Shumway who, along with the town’s other minister, Piper Libby, are leading the resistance to Rennie’s takeover. This group, which includes a couple disenchanted Chester’s Mill police officers, the town’s only medic, and a few others decide to break Barbie out of prison.
A special visitors day is arranged by the military where family members of those trapped in Chester’s Mill will be able to come to the dome and talk to their loved ones through the barrier. Rennie decides to use this time to retrieve all of the propane he has stolen for his meth lab and bring it back to town and dismantle the lab. Barbie’s allies plan to use that time to spring him.
Shumway and her friends spring Barbie from the jail and they flee to the abandoned orchard to deal with the dome. Rennie dispatches his thugs to the radio station transmitter building to retrieve the propane. However, when they get there, they encounter, “The Chef.” He is a local burnout and meth addict Rennie and friends recruited to cook their concoction. The Chef has got religion now and worships Christ through the smoking of crystal meth. When the cops come for the propane, Chef detonates tons of propane with a homemade bomb.
The effects are catastrophic under the dome. All but about 30 of the townspeople are incinerated or die of asphyxiation as the smoke and fumes can’t escape the dome. One little boy at the visitors area manages to survive by sucking air through the semi-permeable dome while soldiers mournfully look on. Rennie and his aide de camp, Carter Thibideau, hide in the town hall’s fallout shelter which has an air purifier. Barbie and his friends survive when the military quickly deploys industrial fans outside the dome to blow air into the miniscule space that is still inhabitable.
Rennie’s dreams of becoming a small town dictator evaporate as he and Carter turn on each other and he kills Carter. With the propane gone, Rennie goes outside, but the air quickly kills him.
Barbie’s friends start dying, one by one as the fans cannot provide enough air to keep them all alive. Barbie finally decides to make a run at the dome generator and shut it down. He and Shumway get in a car and head for the barn where the dome generator is located. To breath, They cut tires on vehicles and fill garbage bags with unpolluted air.
When they get there, Julia touches the small, sandwich size box that has created the dome. The dome was put in place by aliens. Julia is able to determine that these aliens are just children who have put the dome over the town to torment a lesser life form. Barbie compares it to burning ants with a magnifying glass. Julia pleads with one of the aliens, who is a little girl, to allow the small humans trapped under the dome, to live out their lives. Julia senses contempt from the little girl for her inferiority, but she also senses pity. The dome slowly disappears. The pollution is released, and Chester’s Mill is free.
I read Under the Dome upon its publication in 2009 and found it enjoyable. Despite its incredible length (1074 pages in hardback), it’s an average novel and does not rise to the level of other King epics such as The Stand or IT.
Upon rereading it, I enjoyed it a whole lot less and found myself angry at Stephen King. The first time I read it, I read it as just a story. Before rereading it, I did some research on the book and discovered that King meant this novel to be a tome of social and political commentary. The dome and the pollution that killed everyone was commentary on the environment. The relationship between First Selectman Andy Sanders – and easily manipulated dolt, and Second Selectman Jim Rennie – a devious and cunning wannabe dictator, was commentary on King’s perception of the relationship and power structure shared by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
That was enough to ruin it for me. Learning that colored my perceptions of the events of the book. I absolutely abhor political commentary in fiction. I read fiction to enjoy a story – not to be lectured by the author. If I want lessons in the environment and pollution or political power structures, I’ll seek them out from experts in those fields. When I want to enjoy a good story, I look to fiction. I hate the mixing of the two.
As far as the writing, King works hard to construct a plausible deconstruction of a small town isolated from the rest of the world. Most of it works. King shows that he has great insight into the human psyche as he describes the feelings of the otherwise rational people who suddenly find themselves rioting and later feel terrible remorse. He’s also correct that people are quite willing to surrender to a despot in times of crisis. Human history has borne this out again and again.
The resolution felt like a copout. Most of the story was about the rivalry between Rennie and Barbie. The source of the dome was a tertiary element of the story. We are given no real clues to the source, nor are we expected to want them. To have space aliens be the cause is just too easy. King created a microverse in Chester’s Mill, deconstructed it, then seemingly had to find a way to tie it all up. What’s easier than saying, “aliens are responsible?” Perhaps if the aliens’ motivations had been developed earlier and more extensively, the end would have worked. But King was too busy with his social and political commentary to do this.
Casual fans of horror and Stephen King should avoid this weighty tome. It’s just not worth the time necessary to read it. King fans will read it because it was written by Stephen King. For me, the pervasive social and political commentary detracted from the story and its shear length made it daunting. I shall never read it again.