Under The Dome: Stephen King’s Ham-Fisted Politics

Reading Stephen King’s latest novel, Under The Dome, is a lot like running a marathon. The experience is enjoyable, you’re glad you finished it, and it’s exhausting. Just holding this 1,072 page doorstop of a book is enough to get your arm muscles nicely toned.

As usual, the setting is small town Maine. His old standbys of Castle Rock and Derry have been replaced with Chester’s Mill, but it’s indistinguishable from any other small town in Stephen King’s Maine. What separates Chester’s Mill from all the other towns is an invisible dome that conforms perfectly to the surveyed margins of the town. This dome descends so suddenly that a small plane is suddenly sliced in two, creating the first casualties. Trucks and cars on the road out of and into town slam into the invisible barrier, people walking suddenly end up with broken noses. Worse, there seems to be some sort of energy field near the barrier that causes electronic devices with batteries to explode if they get too close, as the town’s chief law enforcement officer discovers when the pacemaker in his heart explodes out of his chest, killing him instantly. It is this death that allows much of what happens afterwards to proceed, as there is now a vacuum of leadership at the law enforcement level, a vacuum that is immediately filled by the town’s Second Selectman, the corrupt and murderous Big Jim Rennie.

Stephen King novels succeed or fail largely based on the caliber of the villain. The malevolent spirits in The Shining, the vampires in ‘Salem’s Lot, the shape-shifting demon Randall Flagg who pops up in several books but most famously in The Stand, Pennywise the Clown in It, and even the rabid St. Barnard in Cujo all made excellent villains and excellent novels. Conversely, the already dead aliens in The Tommyknockers, the pawn shop evil guy in Needful Things, the abusive husband in Dolores Claiborne, and the evil government agents of Firestarter were pretty lame, and the novels were equally bad. Add Big Jim Rennie to the latter category, but make him the exception that proves the rule.

Stephen King has always been a liberal or left-of-center guy, but he was always more interested in scaring you or giving you a good story than he was in beating you over the head with a political message. His one previous overtly political book, the anti-nuclear power novel The Tommyknockers is possibly the worst novel of his career, a novel so spectacularly uninteresting that it was barely readable. True, almost all of his novels have had a few political asides thrown in, and there was little doubt about which side of the political spectrum his heroes inhabited, but the sort of political hectoring that is found in Under The Dome is rare in King’s canon.

Maybe the eight years of the Bush presidency were simply too much for King, because Under The Dome‘s villains are devoutly Republican evangelical Christians who murder, rape, and operate the nation’s largest methamphetamine lab while quoting the Bible and racistly raging against the black man with the terrorist middle name who sits in the Oval Office. In case you don’t get the point, Big Jim Rennie even has a picture of himself with Sarah Palin prominently displayed on his desk. I have almost no doubt that King’s model for Rennie was some leftist cartoon version of Dick Cheney, right down to the heart condition.

For the hero of the novel, King writes the tale of Dale Barbara, a serviceman who is making his way through the world trying to rid himself of the terrible memories of torture and murder he witnessed American servicemen performing on innocent Iraqis in Fallujah. Iraqis who carried pictures of themselves with their wives and children, just to underscore that they were decent family men and not IED-planting bombers…not that it made any difference to those cruel American soliders who wantonly tortured and murdered them. Oh, buh-rother…can I get some cheese to go with that ham?

The other heroes include a minister who no longer believes in God, an older professor whose gray ponytail lets you know that he’s a Sixties type of guy, and the Republican editor of the local newspaper (helpfully called the Democrat). Fear not, though…whenever the editor speaks out for doing the right thing, or speaks against the corruption of Jim Rennie, or disapproves of the brown-shirt tactics of the newly recruited police force Dale tells her that she “doesn’t sound like a Republican.” Because, you know, Republicans are all in favor of murder, staged riots, brown shirt police force tactics, and corrupt politicians. Well, at least in Stephen King’s world.

The problem with Big Jim Rennie is not that he is insufficiently evil. He’s incredibly evil. The problem is that he’s a Left-wing cartoon of a Christian conservative, and he’s about as believable as Roger Rabbit. In fact, the small town of Chester’s Mill is actually a hotbed of sociopathic miscreants. Who could know that in a town of about 2000 people in Maine you would find so many people willing to murder, rape, and commit arson on the command of an overweight selectman with a bad ticker? And not only is Rennie the power behind the local government, he’s also the main operator of one of the largest meth labs in the entire nation, presided over by a strung out tweaker who…wait for it…runs the Christian music radio station where the meth lab is hidden and who also quotes the Bible in between pipe hits.

The Dome itself is almost secondary in the novel. It’s really just a device that allows this parable of how fascism can be generated by a crisis (if you’re thinking about Bush and 9/11 right now, you must have read the book). The resolution of The Dome is oddly perfunctory. The ending seems almost as if King was running out of typing paper and needed to wrap it up quickly. SPOILER: The Dome is generated by a device implanted by alien children who seem to be playing a game with the inhabitants of the town, similar to how young children will turn the sun’s rays against an ant hill with a magnifying glass. After attempting to breach the Dome from outside with bullets, acid, and even a Cruise missile, the editor of the newspaper comes up with a brilliant idea. She simply begs the alien children to stop, and they say okay. The end.

Unfortunately, almost everyone in the town is dead by this point, courtesy of a massive fireball that was set off when the huge propane tanks fueling the meth lab were blown up. The fireball scorches everything in its way and leaves the air under the dome largely unbreathable. Of course, Jim Rennie escapes the fireball but dies choking on bad air and clutching his heart after being visited by the spirits of those people he killed. You can almost see King sitting at his computer, fingers flying over the keyboard, saying, “Yeah! Take that, Cheney!”

King fundamentally misunderstands the nature of fascism on a conscious level, ascribing it to those right-wing types when it is really a philosophy born on the Left, largely indistinguishable from socialism and Progressivism. But on an unconscious level, perhaps even King gets it. Jim Rennie seeks power with an undying thirst, but he explains to one of his henchmen that he seeks power in order to help the people. “Our job, Carter, is to take care of them. We may not like it, we may not always think they’re worth it, but it’s the job God gave us.” Frankly, this is closer to the motivation behind every liberal who feels that he or she knows better how to spend our money and legislate our lives than it does the conservatives who want lower taxes and less government. Rennie is not speaking of the downtrodden or disenfranchised, he’s speaking of the entire town population. Indeed, his entire mission throughout the book is to immanentize the eschaton, and just like every other totalitarian in history, he seeks his own unique brand of perfection. In this one line, Rennie sounds much more like Barack Obama or George W. Bush in the worst of his “compassionate conservative” moments than he does a hard-line conservative like Dick Cheney.

Further undermining the novel is the speed with which events take place. Chester’s Mill is a quiet suburban town where the people live their normal lives. Then the Dome comes down and the town devolves into a fascist dictatorship within the span of one week. Rennie’s actions to assume total control begin within hours of the Dome’s arrival, as if he never even considered that the Dome might disappear and he would be held to account for what he does. The townspeople, flush with plenty of food in the store, cell phone service, internet service and even electrical power in homes that have generators (not uncommon in the brutal winters of Maine), become a rioting mob within days. Apparently King’s lack of faith in human nature isn’t limited to Republicans. Far from calamity bringing people together, as 9/11 showed, King seems to believe that we’re one invisible wall and a few hours away from tossing aside hundreds of years of the Rule of Law.

Despite all of these criticisms, Under The Dome is actually a very enjoyable novel. It moves briskly, the plot is interesting, the protagonists are likable, and the villains, while not believable, are at least sufficiently rotten. The politics of the book are ham-fisted and clunky, and the resolution of the plot is lame…over a thousand pages into this thing and they simply ask the aliens to stop? And they do? But it’s a diverting page-turner, and King is a much better writer than most of the people out there plowing the same field.

16 Responses to Under The Dome: Stephen King’s Ham-Fisted Politics

  1. Sara Hinckley says:

    I am about one third through this beast, and I had to take a break for a reality check. I’ve been reading King since I was in high school (20-some years ago), and I couldn’t remember being so offended by his political undertones…or rather, overtures. I enjoyed your article and was relieved to find such an eloquent summary of my own feelings. Guess King’s billions in the bank finally gave him the freedom to show his true colors, huh? Thanks for the good read.

  2. Andrew Wooding says:

    I enjoyed Under the Dome but found your article a very interesting read none the less. I found Jim Rennie to be a believable villain but I agree that the resolution of the novel is a little weak. However I was so invested in the characters by that point in the novel that the whys and hows of the dome began to interest me less and less in comparison to their resolutions.

    You mention that King’s best villains are the ghosts of The Shining, the vampires of Salem’s Lot, Pennywise of IT and Randell Flagg of The Stand. However these villains all have one key thing in common…they are utterly and completely evil. There is no reason for them being evil, they are just made that way. Barely a grey area in site. Surely the best villains are the ones that lean on both sides of the fence, evil and good mixed in, but it’s interesting that his most memorable villains aren’t like that at all.

    • blaknsam says:

      As I wrote in my review I, too, enjoyed Under The Dome. I would maintain though that the many of the best villains are the ones that are inherently and completely evil. I believe that evil exists and while there are sometimes grey areas, that is not true in every case. In literature, consider villains from Dracula to Hannibal Lecter (before Thomas Harris lost the thread and decided to give Lecter a back story). Pure evil as a character trait for villains works well in books and movies. I would also maintain that Jim Rennie was completely evil. I don’t recall a lot of grey areas in his character. But for me, his villainy was cartoonish.

  3. Eric says:

    Great post. I’ve never had to choke down so much misguided conservative bashing while reading such a largely enjoyable novel.. seriously couldn’t we live without the Obama bumper sticker 2012 references? The funniest part – about rationing supplies, doing what’s best for the town (a-la Jim Rennie), never leaving a crisis to waste, are all Marxist, liberal roadmaps that the Obama administration has done nothing but exploit over the last year+. My conclusion, is that while a hippy liberal in theory, Mr. King is unknowingly a conservative independent…

    I’m pretty sure he could have made this good novel great by cutting out a total of 10 lines and 100 or so words.. but it pretty much puts the nail in the coffin of him not bothering to do research on his subject and letting main stream media frenzy assumptions lead him through the writing process. He may have just smoked one too many joints for his own good on this one.

    I have many liberal friends, and all in all they act the same way – politically outspoken with no facts to back them up.. and if you’re writing a book that goes out to the entire population you ought to calm your rage – no one minds a point of view, just do your research.

    • blaknsam says:

      Unfortunately, King’s research for Under The Dome seems mainly to have been about the effects of propane explosions, weather patterns, etc. A little time reading National Review (or The Clampdown!) might have made him see that not all conservatives are homicidal Bible-quoting tweakers. You are right, though, that the actions of Jim Rennie were far closer to the socialist Utopian dreams of any number of Leftist dictators than they are to the Dick Cheneys and Jerry Falwells of the world.

  4. Lovecraft says:

    According to King in a speech he gave sponsored by the NYTimes (found in radiotimes.com here:
    http://radiotime.com/WebTuner.aspx?ProgramId=1652400&TopicId=32564279& )

    conservative religious people need to stay out of poltics. Now wait its okay for nonreligious liberal people to wade into politcs but not the people he disagrees with. Last time I checked thats not what freedom means in America. People of any stripe have right to try to push their agenda and let the voters decide. I find King (in terms of his politics) quite disgusting and a true fundamentalist in his mentality.

  5. Red Harvey says:

    I thought this to be a well written blog and a good summary of “Under the Dome” in general. However, through all of that, I admit, I did not agree with your own personal assessments, just as you did not agree with King’s.

    Jim Rennie’s character and the pace of the novel were entirely believable. When people thirst for power, they do crazy things. I do not believe that King was trying to unjustly lump every Republican into the rapist and murderer character-slot. It just so happens that the lead antagonist of THIS novel is a murdering Republican (that leads most of his friends do quite a bit of raping).

    In a small town, with a leader like Jim Rennie, the fact that the town falls apart in a matter of a week is believable. His crazy decisions led the plot to where it went. In his book “On Writing”, King writes of how his plots are always character driven, therefore I feel as though that’s why his books turn out to be as good as they do. He does not rely on outlines, merely he lets the characters make up the story for him.

    I find it kind of sad how personal some people took King’s fictional characters and their beliefs. Sure, obviously he himself is a democrat and hated the Bush era (if you read “Under the Dome”, that is more than evident), but that does not mean he hates Republicans and all they stand for. Plenty of writers project their beliefs or morals through the literary worlds they create (Tolkien, Tom Clancy, hmm, even good ol’ Dr. Seuss). Why is everyone so disgusted that King went and did the same thing?

    • blaknsam says:

      I wouldn’t say I was “disgusted” by King venting his politics in this book, although other commenters may disagree. King vents his politics in almost all of his books, many of which are among my favorites. What I didn’t like about it in Under The Dome (a book I did enjoy in an escapist way) was the bludgeoning way he did it. His politics are his politics, and he’s entitled to put them in his books. Doesn’t make him a bad guy or anything. In fact, he seems like a pretty decent guy. But I really thought the characters in this particular book belong in a dictionary next to the word “cartoon.” To be fair and, ahem, bipartisan, I think Dean Koontz frequently makes the same mistake from a more conservative direction.

  6. John DeVincent says:

    I have to take issue with your knock of The Tommyknockers, which is one of my favorite King novels because it is so different in its villainy than the others and because it is imo a rare and well-crafted King love story with a theme more about addiction than nuclear energy. I found the book enjoyable and at times operatic, more poignant than scary. The tv miniseries adaptation was pedestrian and missed the point, so if that’s your reference let it go. Not only was the main character a recovering alcoholic, but this is clearly a town full of tweakers, whose mania, limitless energy and ideas, aggressiveness, inventiveness, mind-reading paranoia and sense of God-like power ravage minds, personality, health, and community. They were clearly addicted to something that made them feel pretty wonderful and powerful, sometimes “sick”, much like the effects of methamphetamine. And the types of mania depicted–taking things apart and putting them back together, rigging electronics to kill, the old lady inventing that elaborate silver polisher, etc.–are classic, only somewhat exaggerated, meth addict behaviors.

    • blaknsam says:

      My reference wasn’t the awful miniseries, it was the book. I hated it. For me it was right down there with “Needful Things” as the worst of the Stephen King books. I think King really lost his way in the late 80s/early 90s as his own drug addiction got out of control. I didn’t like “Firestarter,” and I wasn’t all that impressed with “Eyes Of The Dragon,” but “The Tommyknockers” was the first King book I read that I really hated. But hey, to each his own.

  7. Alfred says:

    I began reading “Insomnia” and felt so frustrated because King couldn’t get off the abortion issue. I understand people have different views on abortion and that’s fine, but I didn’t buy this book to read about the evil anti-abortion republicans. This was my last King book. I did enjoy much of his past work but enough is enough. This book belongs in the political section not the horror section

    • blaknsam says:

      I read Insomnia and filed it down the memory hole. I remember it being something of a screed about abortion, but I was more put off by the fact that it was a lousy book.

  8. Robert says:

    I am confused to how excactly 9/11 was an instance of “calamity bringing people together, as 9/11 showed”. Because, i dont look back at 9/11 as this great time that helped bring us together. Instead i see it as an horrible event that caused us to do even stupider things, because we were lead by stupid people. I dont see how we will ever get back the people that were lost in that war. I dont see how the bridges that were burned in that war will ever be rebuilt. The ten years we lost trying to bring Bin Laden to justice will never be brought back.
    There are times when you need real leaders, and sometimes you are stuck with the C students. That was one of the major themes of this book that you are misreading as a political statement.

    • greeble says:

      Funny, what I remember about the 9-11 aftermath was the Bush theme, “You’re either with the Republicans or you’re with the terrorists.”
      Hardly what I would call “coming together.”

      • blaknsam says:

        Perhaps you weren’t paying attention to the 90% approval ratings for the President, the 434-1 vote to authorize action in Afghanistan. Perhaps you weren’t in New York, where the people of the city were lining the streets to cheer firefighters and police. Perhaps you didn’t understand that when Bush said, “You’re either with us or against us” he was not speaking to Congress, Democrats, or the American people, but was addressing those nations like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan who had a long history of supporting terrorism.

  9. nick says:

    I began to read his story on my Kindle as a preview, and became hooked. So I bought the book. The more I read, the more tedious it became. Then I began to do research on the book (at about page 200)–only to discover that Mr. King based his characters on President Bush & Vice President Cheney. This knowledge completely turned me off from the book. Mr. King has every right to write about what inspires him, just as I every right to stop reading it. He still received to money. So it is a complete coup de vue for King. I have every right to be disgusted by the motivation behind the book’s plot, and can I choose to stop reading it when as chose. This is America after all. The premise was good, but slightly disappointed with the conclusion. Yes…after investing 3 hours of my time in the book, I did want to know what caused the dome.

    I was a little disappointed by the similarity to the plot of an old Twilight Zone, “Stopover in a Quiet Town” where the lives of humans where hand of a giant child from another planet. But I guess nothing is really original anymore.

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