Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Imaginary Playthings (Under the Dome)

This past Friday night was pretty well consumed, for me, by finishing off the last hundred and fifty or so pages of Stephen King’s Under the Dome, the requisite checking-out for which my wife very sweetly and patiently endured. I absolutely believe that a lot of marital happiness derives from engaging with one another, even if it’s in as passive a form as watching a sitcom or a baseball game together, which means I try to save my solitary pursuits for times when I’m in actual solitude, such as when the little guy is abed and the love of my life is at work, but every once in a while I succumb to the all-consuming need to finish some massive book or another, at the expense of quality spouse-time. (Last time this happened was when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out.) And I appreciate her understanding.

I mentioned a little while ago how stressfully and exhaustingly trying it was to be in the middle of Under the Dome, emotionally invested in the fates of characters to whom bad things kept happening with no end in sight, or at least no end until I made time to read the words on the remaining pages, which was a feat in and of itself. The actual process of reading those words, especially as things escalated, was even more harrowing than walking around with the uncertainty. (Which may beg the question of why I do this to myself, which I can barely answer myself … it’s the good kind of harrowing?)

In order to really dig in here I’m going to need to talk about the end of the book, and along the way I’m going to talk quite a bit about the endings of several other Stephen King books by way of comparison so, you know, SPOILERS and all that.

When I was in high school and began delving deeply into the Stephen King back catalog (which has of course doubled or tripled in size since then), he provided me with my first real exposure to Books With Seriously Downer Endings. Sometimes I think this gets lost in a lot of people’s conceptions of old-school King. Everybody knows Carrie or The Shining or Cujo or Christine or The Dead Zone but people tend to key in on certain images from the movies (or USA Network tv shows, as the case may be) so Carrie is about Sissy Spacek getting blood dumped on her at prom and blowing up the gym and The Shining is about Jack Nicholson chopping down a door with an axe and Cujo is about a rabid St. Bernard (played by a big softie named Daddy, apparently) who … ok, people get the general Cujo pop-culture reference but I’m guessing very few could tell you what exactly the dog does for an entire movie. It’s pretty much what he does for the entire novel, which is terrorize a mother and her young son who have the misfortune of driving out to the farm where Cujo lives on the hottest day of the year, only to have their car battery die. So they’re trapped in the car with no AC, no food and water, and a murderously rabid dog waiting them out. And the little boy dies of heatstroke. So that may be the most egregious offender (and probably a big part of why Cujo is not as widely loved as some other King works) but just to sum up the others: Carrie dies at the end of her book, Jack dies at the end of The Shining (and in the book version that really is tragic because Jack is a much more sympathetic character, manipulated by the evil nature of the hotel, not the already-on-the-cusp-of-madness Nicholson take), Arnie dies at the end of Christine, Johnny dies at the end of The Dead Zone, etc. Having grown up on fantasy stories where the protagonists always triumphed, and then moved on to 80’s horror movies where some or most of the protagonists would get killed but eventually one would survive, it was still pretty shocking to me to invest the time and energy in reading a novel only to find out the protagonist did not survive – and in some cases with King’s work, like Christine or Pet Sematary, not only did they not survive but they didn’t even necessarily win the day. When Carrie dies, at least she takes her crazy mother down with her. In Pet Sematary, not only is Louis’s death undeniably implied in the voice of his wife’s reanimated corpse, but the thought of what will happen after that is honestly too terrible to even contemplate.

So why did I keep going back for second, third, ninth helpings at this Protagonist Dies At The End literary buffet? There is something about King’s style I find compulsively readable, his familiar, folksy “I’m just a guy telling some stories here” vibe. Some people get sick of that after a while but I pretty much eat it up with a spoon. And the stories are exciting, in the meaty middle parts; it’s fun to read about a psychic trying to plan an assassination to avert a nuclear holocaust he’s had a vision about. I suppose in that sense it’s like another activity I enjoyed as a little kid: walking my bike up a very long, very steep hill, climbing on, and coasting back down the hill, picking up speed until braking was essentially impossible. Most of those rides ended with painful wipeouts, but that didn’t stop me from pushing my poor battered bike back up the hill again and again.

A movie based on a Stephen King novel, directed by David Cronenberg, starring Christopher Walken as a psychic vigilante?  On paper The Dead Zone is officially the RADDEST. MOVIE. EVER..
And at some points it seemed like King rediscovered the happy ending, or at least the bittersweet triumph-of-good-over-evil ending. Misery has one, ironically enough. So does It. And then there’s the whole universe of Gunslinger/Dark Tower books, the central series of seven books plus a bunch of King’s other novels and short stories which tie in to the Dark Tower in subtle (or not-so-subtle) ways and those tend to tread water a bit without coming down on either side of happy or tragic endings, just because they all put off the ultimate resolution until the final installment. (Said final installment can be argued as a downer, or not; I choose to see it as not.) King still has the capacity to break his readers’ hearts, but very little that he’s done recently has matched the sheer gut-punching of his Early Modern Tragic period.

I guess I got somewhat complacent over the course of Cell and Lisey’s Story and Duma Key recently because as I got deeper and deeper into Under the Dome I suddenly felt like I was reading old-school King again, as the dread was mounting in a way I hadn’t really recalled in years. A small town in Maine is enclosed by an invisible, impenetrable barrier. Nobody knows how or why. People freak out. Opportunistic jerks try to manipulate the situation to their own advantage. Decent people try to see to it that cooler heads prevail, but the opportunistic jerks are able to fan the flames of the groupthink freak-out and turn the general populace against everyone who gets in their way. And the town is dying off in ones and twos, as some people get killed by jerks who feel like outside authority can’t touch them, and other people kill themselves to escape the terror of being trapped in a town with limited resources – especially food and air – and no way out but death, fast or slow. The race is on to find out what’s causing the Dome to exist in the first place, even as it becomes abundantly clear that the opportunistic jerks actually want the Dome to stay right where it is because it suits their purposes.

That synopsis is pretty standard thriller fare, with a heavy dose of psychological horror, but the sudden turning point comes when one of the good guys finally finds the piece of alien technology generating the Dome, and it becomes apparent that the technology is both inscrutable and indestructible. The thrust of the book stops being “find the Dome’s power source and turn it off before it’s too late” and shifts into “the Dome can’t be turned off, and everyone is going to die”. Or, at the very least, that becomes a very distinct possibility. The possibility become an even more pronounced odds-on favorite when, closer to the end, a number of subplots converge and a crystal meth lab’s stockpile of propane canisters ignites in the heart of a C4-fueled explosion during a botched police raid, starting a firestorm that consumes most of the town, most of the people in it, and most of the oxygen inside the Dome, leaving behind a depleted and poisonous atmosphere for the few remaining survivors. I honestly believed those survivors were going to die horrible asphyxiating deaths, there would be an epilogue about how the US government ultimately dealt with the after-effects of the disaster, and the whole thing would be a grim fable about the futility of struggling against the implacable mysteries of the universe (cf. King's short story The Raft). I braced myself for it.

And then, funny enough, it didn’t go that way. There are overt comparisons throughout the book between what the aliens have done to the small Maine town and what human beings (sometimes kids, sometimes not) do to bugs: putting wasps in a jar and shaking it until they fight, frying ants with a magnifying glass, etc. The alien technology had given people who touched it flashing visions of the aliens themselves, so in the end one of the survivors lays hands on the technology and uses the resulting psychic connection to beg for their lives, insisting that even if the aliens see humanity as tiny, mindless insects they are causing real suffering and should make it stop. Miraculously, the appeal to empathy works and the aliens lift the Dome and the remaining survivors do not die horrible asphyxiating deaths.

Cheap and manipulative? Maybe so, and maybe I’m a Stephen King apologist, but sometimes I enjoy being cheaply manipulated. I was, as I keep repeating, very (overly) attached to the protagonists and concerned about their fates, so I wasn’t going to look a gift deus ex machina in the mouth. At the time, I closed the book with nothing more than a sigh of relief. But as I reflect on the ending more and more, I keep wondering how I should really take it.

For one thing, it seemed really rushed. Granted, once the apocalyptic inferno scoured the inside of the Dome, the clock was ticking for the survivors, but still, everything from that turning point to the aliens relenting went by in a blur. The air quality in the Dome gets so bad that a few major characters do die horrible asphyxiating deaths, but these happen off-screen, mentioned in passing, which struck me as narratively ... odd.

Another striking element of the climax is one of the phrases King employs to convey the alien perspective. There is an implied language barrier which the direct psychic connection can’t completely overcome, resulting for example in the pleading protagonist’s mind translating the alien’s regard as “You are toys from the toystore.” But another example is when the alien at first rejects the protag’s premise of having feelings and experiencing suffering; the alien thinks back “No, you aren’t real.”

Because if you take a step back and put on your Meta Reading Glasses, it wasn’t weird and creepy aliens who dropped the Dome and tortured the populace of a small Maine town, it was … Stephen King. And he does this ALL THE TIME. It is, in fact, his job. But it’s ok for him to slowly, horribly kill an entire town full of fictional characters, because they’re not real. Right…?

I have no way of proving this, short of interviewing the man myself, but it seems to me you could make a semi-convincing case that King set out to write another “everybody dies” blockbuster, and then as he got closer and closer to killing off the best of the good guys and the purest of the innocents … he chickened out (or had a change of heart, or however charitably you want to put it) and ended up with a breakneck conclusion that fixes everything as fast as possible. It’s like he was overcome with empathy for little creatures that made him feel godlike and amused, until they made him feel bad about himself.

Alternatively, though, there’s another way you could meta-read the whole situation. Again, King is the godlike alien, but the creatures suffering at his hands aren’t his characters, they’re his readers. The Dome is any one of his books, and when a reader opens the cover they become trapped in its self-contained world, and King can visit all kinds of mental cruelty upon them, pulling them back adn forth through the wringer at will, and there’s no escape, until King decides it’s time to release them. Although even once the book is over and the Dome is gone, anyone who survived its gauntlet will be haunted by it for a long time to come. Does King ever really think about his readers as people, as individuals who can potentially be gutted by an unexpected, unjust demise of a likable character? Or are they always just the abstract hypothetical Constant Reader, undeserving of much consideration given to the fallout from the words King gets paid to put down on the page? Could Under the Dome possibly be the apologia of a spinner-of-worlds who underwent a sudden shift from the latter to the former?

I mean, the guy's been writing for the better part of five decades. I'd be more surprised if all this written-work-as-symbol-of-the-writer stuff hadn't occurred to him than if it had. At any rate, it's an interesting riff.


  1. "Twisted tail! A thousand eyes! Trapped forever! Eepah! Eepah! EEEE-PAAAH!!"

  2. King may be my all-time favorite author, so I know you're quoting him, but I'll be danged if I can remember the context. Which means I'm not quite sure if you're making fun of me or not. ;->

  3. Its one of my favorite literary characters... Grandpa Simpson!

  4. Ahhh! Hearing the voice in my head helps!

    Yeah, when UTD was originally solicited on Amazno and whatnot, of course my cynical gut reaction was that it would be too similar to The Simpsons Movie to enjoy on its own merits. Oddly enough, though, I didn't think about the movie once while I was reading the book. In hindsight, that's a relief.