Hello readers and welcome to this update in Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). After working my way through Tim O’Brien’s masterly In the Lake of the Woods, I decided my “summer read” would be Stephen King’s gigantic 2009 novel Under the Dome. Those who have followed my work know this man has registered as my favorite author for a good chunk of my life. While I’m not sure that’s the case any longer, this book is one of his best and taught me a ton about writing. First let’s get to the major lessons:
Number of characters. You can get away with a massive novel filled with upwards of 50 characters. If you’re Stephen King. It’s not quite that severe, but it’s well worth time as a reader to see how he does this right, giving a handful of characters very memorable details and thoughts. “Big Jim” Rennie, the ostensible villain of the piece, will go down in history for me next to big King baddies of the past like Randall Flagg. It’s not quite as effective with the protagonists, but I was still rooting for them ‘til the end. Even characters who die early on are worth considering in light of later events. This book is full of examples of how to drop details into descriptions for your reader to keep them hooked on the story.
Use of omnipresent narrator in a few key spots. King to my knowledge hasn’t employed this technique in quite some time, if ever, and it really works in this book. During crucial events under the Dome, he takes a panoramic view of the entire city of Chester’s Mill and gives us a quick update on a bunch of the characters all at once before swooping back into their own lives for individual chapters. This gives a sense of connection, but it's best if used sparingly. An interesting technique to try out for yourself.
Using a novel to talk about society - and the darkness underneath. King has obviously employed this technique for decades, using his eery eye for New England culture to show the blackened underbelly of the world around us. This story, which takes place in roughly our time, is one in which the human drama takes center stage despite the bizarre instances all around them. Most of the older and wizened residents who may have a chance at calming things after the Dome falls are unfortunately killed right off the bat, leaving the manipulators and strugglers to figure out how to raise the structure. There are other, deeper elements too, including the rise of rural drug epidemics, and religion, which I’ve always felt King handles with a scary deft of ease. I won’t go much further for those who haven’t read this one.
You can come back to the same themes over and over. If you are Stephen King. I hate to keep using rules that apply only to this one guy, but his career would seem to bear me out. Under the Dome is a monstrosity of previous themes in his works: people placed in a very unordinary situation, the evil residing in the human heart, a town coming apart under stress, narration from almost every character’s viewpoint (even a dog a few times). And yet, this book read as fresh to me as anything he’s ever written, and I would go as far as to say its length places it alongside other epics such as The Stand and IT. I kept reading and thinking I knew where he was going, but I never did. That is the power of storytelling.
The importance of research. In an author’s note King mentions he’s had the germ of this idea in his noggin since the 70’s, but never had the time to appropriately research the technical aspects of it (pondering such lovely questions as: what would happen if a town was covered by an invisible alien structure and a massive explosion took place?). While many of us will never have the luxury of such time to work on a gigantic project like this, we should still plan our lives like we’re expecting it.
I wanted to get back to King as I hadn’t read anything he has produced in the last decade, while seeing his books continue to fly off the shelves ever since he claimed he was “retiring” all those years ago. But to go wider, I want to briefly discuss this author’s place of influence in my life.
I’ve tried using these experiments to veer both into literary history and popular fiction. The popular fiction I’ve come across has been mostly dreck, but I have always regarded Stephen King as firmly outside the banner of “popular” anything. To me, he’s an acquired taste, and I had nearly forgotten his penchant for over-the-top violence as I read this story, which was supposedly about an alien structure covering a small town but felt much closer. He has taught me so much as a writer, and a few of his books (Needful Things, Misery) will always be regarded as favorites. Hell, I basically wrote my second novel (Last Man on Campus) as a love-letter to the guy’s achievements, trying to appropriate his creepy stylings for my supernatural thriller.
And yet, over the past few years I’ve read some of the greatest books of my life, and have come to see the value of expanding our literary minds as far as possible. While I’m not sure I can definitively say I have an “all-time favorite” author I can finally admit that Stephen King does not reside in that place. Well, at least not alone. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop reading him, or trying to learn from him (I haven’t mentioned On Writing yet, but I’m assuming anyone reading this is probably aware of it). And I would recommend the same to anyone out there interested in this author and his tremendous body of work.
Up next, I’m going to revisit a classic I haven’t read since my schooldays: Jack London’s Call of the Wild. The edition I have also contains a few of his short stories, so I will be back here with a post about that as I segue into other collections (and attempt writing a dozen short stories of my own) in this second year of fiction. I hope to be back to reading novels and finishing another major rewrite of my own by the Fall/Winter.
As always, thanks for reading. (And thanks for your patience while I took a little break from the bloggy.) See you next time!
John Abraham-Watne is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.