Doubleday (July 2015)
384 pages, e-book $5.99, hardcover $18.33, paperback $10.32, Audible $29.95
Reviewed by Frank Michaels Errington
B- Movie War by Alan Spencer
Samhain Publishing (November 2014)
248 pages; $10.28 paperback/$4.24 ebook
Reviewed by Damon Smith
Very quickly into B-Movie War, I realized that it’s a sequel to Spencer’s other B-Movie books, all of which are also published through Samhain. However, outside of a few cameos and references, knowledge of the previous books isn’t necessary to understand what is happening in B-Movie War.
Devil’s Breath by Greg F. Gifune
Darkfuse (July 2015)
90 pages, $3.99 Kindle
Reviewed by Frank Michaels Errington
Greg. F. Gifune is a best-selling author, called “one of the best writers of his generation” by both the Roswell Literary Review and author Brian Keene. Devil’s Breath is his newest novel published by Darkfuse. “Devil’s Breath” is a real thing – go ahead and Google it. It’s pretty scary stuff and was the direct inspiration for this wonderful work of fiction.
Little Girls by Ronald Malfi
Kensington (June 2015)
384 pages, $10.35 paperback/$9.83 ebook
Reviewed by Frank Michaels Errington
Ronald Malfi is the award-winning author of the novels Floating Staircase, Snow, The Ascent, and several others. He currently lives along the Chesapeake Bay where he is at work on his next book.
Laurie Genarro’s estranged father has passed away, an apparent suicide, and Laurie, her husband, Ted, and ten-year-old daughter Susan have traveled from Connecticut to Maryland to deal with the estate. When they pull up to the house on Annapolis Road Susan comments, “It looks like a haunted house.” Little did they know what they’d find.
Long-time fans are likely to be the biggest benefactors of Working for Bigfoot, Jim Butcher’s collected trio of Harry-Dresden-meets-Sasquatch stories, but newbies (like me) may find it the perfect gateway into the world of the author’s popular Chicago-based wizard.
If White Knuckle reads like the tie-in novel to a classic 1980s slasher flick, it’s understandable – author Eric Red counts the original screenplays for 1980s horror classics The Hitcher and Near Dark among his accomplishments. White Knuckle benefits from Red’s cinematic background, as he tells the story – a rig-driving serial killer plays a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a determined, if inexperienced FBI agent – at a breakneck pace right from page one.
Lisey Landon had a word for the people who clamored for the fragments, snippets and memorabilia of her dead husband’s literary estate: Incunks. Is there is a similar word for those who seek the remnants of a living (though perhaps inactive) author?
Morris Bellamy is obsessed with John Rothstein, a writer cut from the same cloth as J.D. Salinger. Rothstein withdrew from the world in 1960, living in New Hampshire a mile from his nearest neighbor. Now almost eighty, he is most famous for a trilogy featuring protagonist Jimmy Gold.
Bellamy has read the first two books, The Runner and The Runner Sees Action, countless times, but the final book only once, so much does he loathe the fate that befell a character who is more alive to him than most real people. He thinks Rothstein sold out, made Gold go establishment in The Runner Slows Down (the series titles are reminiscent of John Updike), where Gold winds up married with kids and working in advertising.
In 1978, convinced that Rothstein must have continued writing in the two decades since his last story appeared in The New Yorker, Bellamy enlists the help of two clueless accomplices and invades Rothstein’s farmhouse. They uncover wads of cash and, more importantly to Bellamy, scores and scores of ledgers containing Rothstein’s handwriting.
By all rights, Bellamy should have been caught soon after the robbery, but, like Brady Hartsfield in Mr. Mercedes, luck is on Bellamy’s side. Sort of. He isn’t arrested because of this incident but rather because of something that happens subsequently. His Achilles’ heel is that he can’t handle being made to feel stupid. He’d already spent nine months in juvenile detention after a drunken rampage sparked by an argument with his mother over the Rothstein novels. He blames her for his incarceration—he’s never takes responsibility for his own actions. This time, his drunken misadventures end in a far worse outcome and he is sentenced to life in prison—before he has the chance to savor the spoils of his robbery.
Though nominally a sequel, Finders Keepers works perfectly well as a standalone novel. It intersects with Mr. Mercedes via the City Center Massacre, where Hartsfield killed several people and maimed others with a stolen Mercedes. In the second book of a proposed trilogy, that incident is represented by the Saubers, a family who fell on hard times during the economic downturn. Tom Saubers was waiting in line at the job fair that fateful day. He survived, but was seriously injured and ends up hooked on painkillers during his rehabilitation. There are frequent loud arguments with his wife, mostly over money.
Then thirteen year old Pete Saubers stumbles upon a buried treasure. Not only does the trunk he discovers in a vacant lot near his house (the same one Morris Bellamy grew up in) contain stacks of cash, it also holds intriguing, handwritten ledgers. At the time, Pete has no idea who John Rothstein is, but over the following years he becomes familiar with the man’s work.
In Pete’s mind, this is a case of “finders keepers,” but if he gives the money to his parents, they’ll want to report it to the cops. So, he mails them $500 each month anonymously. The Saubers convince themselves it’s further compensation for Tom’s injuries. It won’t make them wealthy, but it’s enough to silence the worst of the arguments. Pete’s discovery represents the turning point for his family.
But the money runs out four years later.
By then, Pete understands the true value of the ledgers, which contain poems, short stories and two unpublished Jimmy Gold novels that complete the cycle. Liquidating them is a problem, especially for a high school sophomore. If he turns them in, he won’t get anything more than a pat on the back, and he wants to raise enough money so his younger sister, Tina, can go to private school. She’s smart, but falling through the cracks at public school. He’s forced to seek the help of a shady individual, which sets into motion a catastrophic sequence of events that jeopardizes his entire family.
For the first 150 pages, the story bounces around between 1978 and 2009-2013, relating incidents in Bellamy’s and the Saubers’ lives. Then Det/Ret Bill Hodges gets involved and the pace of the novel accelerates to breakneck speed, with the second half covering only a few days.
The novel is dedicated to John D. MacDonald, who wrote the introduction to Night Shift and penned a series featuring Travis McGee. McGee helped people who had things stolen from them in a way that precluded legal recourse. For his services, he kept fifty percent of whatever he recovered. Half of something was better than nothing, he reasoned.
As with Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers is set in the “real world,” where Stephen King is a person who writes books, movies are adapted from them and popular tropes have entered the cultural awareness. And yet, it can’t be a coincidence that Brady Hartsfield resides in Room 217 of the Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic. Can it?
Hodges, slimmer and healthier than when he first retired, is in a similar business, a company called Finders Keepers he formed after he wriggled out of the trouble he found himself in because of his rogue investigation into the Mercedes Killer case four years earlier. When first seen in 2014, he’s repossessing a stolen Lear Jet from a con man. His fee isn’t half of the jet’s value, but it’s a tidy sum nonetheless. Plus, he brings the culprit to justice and puts a feather in his former partner’s hat, another move toward reconciling their rocky relationship.
Holly Gibney, the awkward and damaged woman who emerged to the forefront in Mr. Mercedes, is now Hodges’ assistant. She runs the office, keeps the files and performs computer research to help Hodges track his targets. She’s not completely healed—she still has numerous quirks—but her self-confidence has been boosted by recent experiences.
Hodges’ other “irregular,” Jerome Robinson, is at Harvard. His younger sister Barbara happens to be good friends with Pete Saubers’ sister, which is how Hodges gets involved. The disreputable bookstore owner Pete consults about the manuscripts puts the teenager in a difficult spot. The stress takes a toll on him and Tina notices the change in her brother’s behavior. However, Pete rebuff’s Hodges’ offer of assistance.
Morris Bellamy is paroled from prison after nearly four decades. Finally given a chance to recover the ledgers, he is incensed to discover that someone has beaten him to the punch. He has a suspect, though: the one person who knew about them when he was arrested. This puts him on a collision course with Pete Saubers and, ultimately, with Bill Hodges. Hodges’ investigation isn’t really the typical stuff of a detective novel—with the assistance of Jerome and Holly, they try to help Pete out of his predicament without understanding until late in the game exactly who is after him or why.
In the novel, King discusses the world of rare books and literature. He talks about natural selection in terms of which authors’ works survive over the decades and which don’t. The power of a story to captivate plays an important part in the novel’s resolution, as does the question of which is more important: the writing or the writer. Bellamy and Annie Wilkes share a common belief that their favorite authors owe them something when a series of books takes a direction they don’t like.
At times, Finders Keepers enters Kate Atkinson territory. Coincidence (or co-inky-dink, as one character puts it) plays a part in the proceedings. Pete finds Bellamy’s stash shortly after the Emergency Fund for victims of the City Center Massacre runs out. He approaches the bookseller with the ledgers barely a week before Bellamy goes looking for them. And Bellamy gets closer to the ledgers than he could possibly imagine due to a coincidence of geography.
And what of Brady Hartsfield? At the conclusion of Mr. Mercedes, King hinted that we hadn’t seen the last of him. That despite the grievous injury he received at the hands of Holly and Hodges’ happy slapper, there was still some life left in the young psychopath. Hartsfield is Hodges’ obsession. The retired detective wonders if he’s faking his condition, so he visits him frequently to try to catch him out. In the final pages of Finders Keepers, King lays the groundwork for the third book in the series, tentatively titled The Suicide Prince. It seems that Hodges is in for a rematch with his old nemesis.
 Another MacDonald novel, The Executioners, the inspiration for the movies Cape Fear, makes a cameo appearance in Finders Keepers in much the same way that a couple of King novels cameoed in Travis McGee novels
In an interview in June, King revealed his first thoughts about Revival. “It’s too scary. I don’t even want to think about that book anymore…It’s a nasty, dark piece of work.” A couple of months later, on his Twitter feed, he described it as “a straight-ahead horror novel. If you’re going to buy it, better tone up your nerves.”
Those comments, along with his publisher’s statement on the back of review copies that she asked him whether the book “really had to be this dark,” will probably remind people of King’s thoughts about Pet Sematary. After he finished writing that book, he deemed it too gruesome and disturbing to be published. His wife concurred, so a mythos developed around it. How bad could it be? As it turned out, pretty gruesome. Pretty disturbing.
Are comparisons between Revival and Pet Sematary appropriate? Well, yes and no. The first time I read Pet Sematary, I had to put it down from time to time because I could see where King was headed and I wasn’t ready to go there yet. It’s relentlessly bleak from the beginning.
Revival doesn’t start out seeming like it will be a dark book, but it does have a different feel to it. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but there’s something about the voice that stands apart from King’s other books.
The story begins in the 1960s, when Jamie Morton is six years old. He’s the youngest of five children and part of a loving family. They live in Harlow, Maine, his parents are normal and decent, as are his siblings. They attend Sunday services at the Methodist church.
A new minister comes to Harlow, a man named Charlie Jacobs who has a beautiful wife and a young son who everyone in the community dotes on. Looking back, Jamie refers to Jacobs as his “fifth business,” a movie term for an agent of change who pops out of the deck at odd times during a person’s life. You might be tempted to think Jacobs is evil, Randall Flagg in another guise, but that’s not the case. Jacobs and Jamie have a pleasant first meeting in the yard where the young boy is playing with toy soldiers, a recent birthday gift. Neither is Jacobs like the vile, pernicious title character in “The Bad Little Kid,” who keeps showing up time and again.
And yet there is a pervasive sense of dread and foreshadowing of terrible things to come. Jacobs casts a shadow over Jamie during their first meeting. There are hints that the Morton family’s future won’t be rosy. However, when the first crisis comes, it happens to Reverend Jacobs. A calamity befalls his family and, in the aftermath, his faith in God is tested and found wanting. He is forced to leave Harlow, and he falls out of Morton’s life for decades.
As a teenager, Jamie Morton develops a certain level of skill with a rhythm guitar. He and some of his school friends form a band and they play around the region throughout high school. His shyness fades and his popularity soars. He gets a long-term girlfriend. After school, he plays with a number of moderately successful groups. He’ll never be the front man, nor will his guitar chops bring him fame and fortune, but he’s solid, reliable, and can be called upon to fill in when needed. Reliable, that is, until life on the road leaves him vulnerable to various temptations, most notably heroin. He becomes so unreliable in his mid-thirties that his current bandmates take off without him, leaving him stranded in a motel.
He’s pretty much at rock bottom, which is when he again meets up with Charlie Jacobs, who now calls himself Dan Jacobs and is working in a carnival. Jacobs always had a fascination with electricity that borders on obsession. Back in Harlow, he used a homemade gadget to shock Jamie’s older brother out of a psychosomatic bout of muteness. He’s upped the ante now, and is using electricity as part of his act, creating stunning and unbelievable “Portraits in Lightning” of young women.
Jacobs recognizes Jamie…and his addiction, too. He treats Jamie, using a more advanced version of the technology he used on his brother, and Jamie’s addiction is gone. Just like that. He no longer craves heroin. Oh, there are side effects, to be sure, but they seem minor and, with time, they go away.
By now, we’re a third of the way through the book, and nothing truly sinister has happened. By the same point in Pet Sematary, Church had already come back from the dead. I say this to temper expectations that may derive from early comments about the book. Don’t get me wrong: this is a very dark book, but much of the darkness is reserved for the last thirty pages or so, when everything goes horribly wrong in ways readers are not likely to anticipate.
The story is told through the memories of Jamie Morton, who we see from the time he is six until he’s nearly sixty. Is there another King book that encompasses such a long span of a character’s life in such detail? None come to mind. Jamie’s life isn’t exactly overshadowed by the former Rev Jacobs, who goes on to become a televangelist called Pastor Danny, but he never seems to be able to shake himself free of the man, either. Jamie’s not a hero—he’s just an ordinary guy, plugging along, making mistakes…and not making very much of himself, either. He gets a job at a recording studio in Colorado, where he has a comfortable life. But…
Whereas Mr. Mercedes took place in the “real world,” and all of its King references were to fictional events or to film adaptations, Revival is firmly set in the Stephen King universe. The story begins in Harlow, Maine, which borders Chester’s Mill (Under the Dome) and isn’t far from Castle Rock. Later, events move to Nederland, Colorado, which was the hometown of the Colorado Kid. There is a reference to the Joyland fairground, and mention is made of De Vermis Mysteriis, a grimoire invented by Robert Bloch that appears in “Jerusalem’s Lot.” There is a mysterious #19 or two, and reference to an enigmatic character from Insomnia, Dorrance Marsteller, aka Old Dorr.
Jacobs has come to believe that there exists a secret electricity. If he can tap into that, he will be able to accomplish great things. He has already invented revolutionary batteries and power generation devices that are far ahead of current technology, but he doesn’t use these to get rich, merely as stepping stones in his research. He has also healed afflictions in hundreds of people. However, not all of his experiments are as successful as his heroin cure for Jamie. Some of his patients suffer horrible side effects, and it becomes one of Jamie’s missions to keep track of all these missteps. For his part, Jacobs is willing to accept a few failures because, on the whole, he has helped more people than he harmed. People clamor for his assistance, as they did with Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone.
What does the book’s title mean? The word brings to mind tent revivals and evangelical preachers, and there’s an element of that here. Musicals and plays have revivals—it is derived from “reviving,” after all, as in bringing back to life. What exactly is Jacobs capable of if he finds his secret electricity?
It all comes down to the book’s climax, at which point Jacobs is a feeble old man and Jamie is no spring chicken. Jamie once again crosses paths with Jacobs, only this time the man’s darkest plan is about to come to fruition. How dark? Poe at his darkest. Lovecraft at his most fantastical and cynical. Think of the most pessimistic world view you can imagine and you probably won’t even be in the ballpark. Maybe there are worse things than dying, King suggests. Perhaps we should cling to this life with everything we’ve got.
This book is going to disturb people profoundly. I guarantee it.
By Bev Vincent
In early 2011, en route from Florida to Maine, Stephen King watched the evening news in his roadside hotel. One item was about a woman who had an altercation with another in line at a job fair. The attacker got into her car and drove it into the crowd. King decided that he wanted to write about the incident, although he didn’t know how at the time.
He came up with what he thought would be a short story about a psychopath who deliberately runs his car into a crowd of people. After the detective handling the case retires, the perpetrator writes him a taunting letter, bragging about how much he enjoyed killing and maiming all those people. He won’t get caught, he states, because he doesn’t plan to do it again. The cop should just give up and eat his gun. The idea blossomed into a 450-page novel, King’s first foray into straight crime fiction at book length, although he has written a number of non-supernatural crime short stories in the past.
Mr. Mercedes opens with the attack at the job fair. In a dozen pages, King introduces us to a few characters, makes us grow fond of them as only he can, and then throws the 12-cylinder Mercedes into the fray, ripping apart everything he so carefully constructed.
Det.-Ret. Bill Hodges has been sitting at home for six months, watching afternoon reality TV shows and toying with the idea of killing himself. When he retired, he left behind a number of open/unsolved cases, including a serial killer and a Scott Peterson-style missing wife, so he isn’t obsessing over the so-called Mercedes Killer in particular. If the perpetrator had left well enough alone—if he hadn’t decided to poke Hodges with a sharp stick—then his reign of terror might have continued unchecked, culminating in his magnum opus, the incident that forms the book’s climax.
Brady Hartfield is beginning to think he’s invincible. When he plunged the car into the crowd, he thought there was a very good chance he’d be caught, perhaps even ripped to shreds by witnesses, and was okay with that. The fact that he got away has emboldened him. He tells Hodges in his carefully crafted letter that he has no intention of repeating his crime, that he’s content to relive it in his mind, but Hodges knows better. He’s caught many “perks” like his unknown interlocutor, and he has an idea that the Mercedes Killer will strike again.
The poison pen letter was meant to goad Hodges into killing himself, but it has the opposite effect: it spurs him into action. Rather than turning the letter over to his former partner in the police department of this unnamed, economically depressed Mid-West city (the same one that was the setting for Rose Madder?), Hodges opens his own file on the Mercedes Killer and embarks on an off-the-books investigation.
Aiding Hodges is Jerome, the computer-savvy, Ivy League bound teenager who mows his lawn. The Mercedes Killer offers to communicate with Hodges via an anonymous website called Under Debbie’s Blue Umbrella (hence the book’s cover image) but Hodges is afraid to use his own computer in case he inadvertently gives the killer access to his hard drive. Once the connection is established, it doesn’t take him long to get under his adversary’s skin. He knows it doesn’t take much to trip up a killer: Son of Sam was caught thanks to a parking ticket.
Thus ensues a cat and mouse game, though it’s often not clear who is pursuing whom. Hartfield is young, brash, profane, bigoted, and mostly lacking in conscience. He still lives with his alcoholic mother—his father died in a work-related accident—and his relationship with her makes Norman Bates look well-adjusted. His younger brother died under mysterious circumstances. He works two jobs that provide him with access to his targets without raising suspicions. In his basement he has a rank of computers and a sophisticated voice-activated security system to prevent his secrets from falling into the wrong hands. Ominously, he also has a cache of homemade plastic explosives.
The book’s contemporary action is told in the present tense, something King doesn’t often use. Past tense is reserved for flashbacks distributed throughout the book. Though the prose is generally straightforward, Mr. Mercedes has some very nice turns of phrase. He describes a room “as big as a politician’s promises” and a warehouse yard “filled with empty boxes that stood around like Easter Island monoliths.”
Hodges is an unlikely hero. He put in his forty years with the police, but in the process he lost his wife to divorce and has an adult daughter who calls dutifully once a week but whom he hasn’t seen in two years. He’s grossly overweight—a heart attack waiting to happen, assuming he doesn’t shoot himself with his father’s gun first. When he was on the job, though, he had one of the best records in the department, and he’s still near the top of his game when he sets his sights on the Mercedes Killer. He’s an everyman, eminently likeable. Someone readers can root for. He’s so desperate for something to keep himself from spiraling into depression and despair, though, that he makes a few questionable choices, paramount among them his decision to keep his investigation a secret from his former colleagues. Hartfield may have poked him with a stick, but he pokes back twice as hard, and goading a killer who revels in inflicting maximum harm to maximum people isn’t a good idea.
Hodges begins to question the way he and his partner treated Olivia Trelawney, the owner of the Mercedes SL that Hartfield drove into the crowd. She became collateral damage because they suspected she left her key in the ignition, thus providing the killer with his weapon. She was pilloried in the press and questioned mercilessly and repeatedly by Hodges and his partner. Eventually she overdosed on Oxy. However, Hodges now wonders if the killer somehow played a part in her death. Once he starts digging around, he learns things about Trelawney that didn’t turn up during the initial investigation. He also becomes involved with other members of Trelawney’s family, including her vivacious sister Janey, who inherited the substantial estate—much to the strident dismay of other relatives—and cousin Holly (“the Mumbler”), a fortysomething with emotional problems who acts like a teenager but who comes alive once she meets Hodges.
Though Hodges is the book’s protagonist, and it features several other engaging and lovable characters, Mr. Mercedes’ biggest accomplishment is the title character, Brady Hartfield, one of the most twisted villains in King’s oeuvre. King doesn’t hide the identity of the madman from readers, so this isn’t a whodunit. Hodges doesn’t know who the Mercedes Killer is until late in the proceedings, but readers see Hartfield going about his daily life, pretending to be human. He doesn’t have friends, but he can be friendly, in a Dexter Morgan kind of way. His mother loves him (maybe a little too much!) and he’s able to hold down jobs. His head is full of crazy thoughts, and it’s fortunate that he only acts on a fraction of them. King doesn’t make him the least bit sympathetic or likeable. There’s a tragic backstory, of course, but make no mistake about it: Hartfield is a human monster. He schemes to make Hodges’ life miserable by targeting those around him, but his plans don’t always work as intended. His first gambit goes tragically wrong for him, and his second has significant implications for Hodges, making him question his decision to take on a madman solo.
Once things kick into high gear and Hartfield starts planning his end game, the suspense never lets up. For a while, Hodges and his ragtag gang of helpers are so far off the mark that it seems like Hartfield might go completely unchallenged in his last hurrah, but the pieces start to fall into place, culminating in a tense and nerve-wracking finale.
Since Mr. Mercedes takes place in the “real world,” Keystone Earth if you will, the place where time runs in only one direction and there are no do-overs, you shouldn’t expect any significant crossovers to King’s other books. The Crimson King isn’t behind Brady Hartfield’s actions, and there’s no grand cosmic plan. The stakes are simple human lives. However, that doesn’t mean there are no nods to familiar King tropes. Christine is mentioned, as is Pennywise, but the references are to the fictional versions of them—the movie about the haunted car and the insane clown from that TV movie. In other words, they are referenced in the same way we would mention them: as popular fiction icons that come to mind in certain situations.
Under the Dome by Stephen King
reviewed by Bev Vincent
Let’s get this out of the way: Under the Dome is not the second coming of The Stand. Both novels have impressive page counts and huge casts; however, there are fundamental differences between them.
King used the entire continental US as his tableau in The Stand, whereas in Under the Dome he is confined to Chester’s Mill, Maine. The Stand was a chess game, with King taking months of story time to maneuver his characters into position. Under the Dome is a rapid-paced game of checkers—with one piece in the back row already crowned before the start of play.
The books explore good and evil, but in The Stand these concepts were taken to an absolute level. God does not appear in the Dramatis Personae of Under the Dome. The most sincere “religious” character is a minister who doesn’t even believe in Him any more. The town leaders loudly proclaim their faith and “get knee-bound” in times of crisis, but are corrupt and decidedly un-Christian. Not Evil; merely evil.
The mysterious Dome that descends over Chester’s Mill on a sunny Saturday morning in mid-October somewhere between the years 2012 and 2016 is semi-permeable. People can communicate through it, but it is unmovable and, apparently, unbreakable. It isn’t really a dome; it has the same sock-shaped perimeter as the town’s borders with places like Castle Rock and TR-90, and extends upward over eight miles. There is limited air exchange, and a jet of water directed at the outside produces a fine mist inside. The electric lines are down but—thanks to the prevalence of generators in Western Maine—cell phones, cable TV and the Internet all work.
The world is aware of the town’s plight. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper report on the phenomenon from outside the Dome and, later, from Castle Rock after armed forces establish a perimeter.
Though the town’s residents feel like ants under a magnifying glass, they have more pressing worries, like how long will their food and propane last, how will the Dome affect their weather, and when will the air no longer be safe to breathe? Those trapped by the Dome aren’t so different from people stranded in New Orleans after Katrina or on Little Tall Island in Storm of the Century.
There’s price gouging for commodities and a storeowner sells his overstock of questionable, stale-dated frozen food to unsuspecting customers.
These badly behaved people are small potatoes, though, compared to Big Jim Rennie, used car dealer, town selectman and operator of one of the largest meth labs in the country. When (if) the Dome is breached, Chester’s Mills will fall under intense scrutiny. He needs to dismantle the drug lab and return the town’s reserve propane tanks, which he appropriated for his illicit purposes. Like Flagg in The Eyes of the Dragon, Rennie is the power behind the throne, allowing a weak man to take the leadership position on the town council, and forcing through a malleable replacement when the sheriff’s pacemaker explodes after he gets too close to the Dome. He surrounds himself with stupid people who won’t question his orders or motives.
The book’s hero, Dale “Barbie” Barbara, an Iraq war veteran employed at the town diner, was already persona non grata in Chester’s Mill after a run-in with Rennie’s son and other punks. Recognizing his situation as untenable, he was hitchhiking out of town when the Dome appeared. Colonel James Cox, his former commanding officer, reactivates him to duty, and they share intelligence about the situation in the town and external efforts to penetrate the Dome.
One of the book’s themes can be found in the lyrics of a James McMurtry song: Everyone in a small town is supposed to know his place, and everyone supports the home team. When the President declares martial law in Chester’s Mill and installs Barbie as the interim leader, Rennie’s diseased heart goes into palpitations. Outside forces can’t implement this directive, though, so Rennie starts discrediting Barbie while turning the town into a municipal dictatorship. To discourage resistance, he beefs up the police department with ruffians and thugs. He stages riots to demonstrate the necessity of his actions. He also seizes the opportunity to settle old grudges.
Tempers fray as days pass and efforts to break through the Dome fail. People commit suicide. Others die in accidents and altercations, or are murdered when they threaten Rennie’s plans.
A small group of rebels forms around Barbie, including Julia Shumway, owner/editor of the town newspaper. Not only did she not vote for Rennie, she editorialized against him during election campaigns. The previous sheriff’s widow and the Congregationalist minister are co-conspirators. As the situation degrades, other people begin to question their allegiance to Rennie.
King uses the metaphor of addiction to explain the townspeople’s behavior. Anyone can become a drug addict after an injury because the body and the brain conspire to create imaginary pain to rationalize taking more painkillers. Rennie is the town’s brain and most residents go along with his deception. This is the way people like Rennie are allowed to take power, King says. On a larger scale, he might have turned into another Pol Pot or Hitler.
The book is populated with fascinating, three-dimensional characters, including a trio of precocious and resourceful children, two out-of-towners forced to become surrogate parents, a physician’s assistant pressed into running the hospital when the town’s only doctor dies, the owner of a megastore that stocks everything imaginable, an unstable man suffering from a brain tumor, and a few dogs who offer more than comic relief.
Crossovers to other King novels are slight, except for a symbol that should inspire discussions about the true nature of the Dome. Children experience visions of the near future, but there are few other supernatural elements—beyond the Dome itself.
One character with literary ambitions muses about the risks involved in writing a novel. “What if you spent all that time, wrote a thousand-pager, and it sucked?”
King need have no such fears. This thousand-plus-pager most definitely does not suck. For such a massive book it is an incredibly fast and breezy read. It has the urgent pace of Cell without the wonky pseudoscience, and the insightful depiction of small town politics of Needful Things—except the characters in Under the Dome are sympathetic.
It’s not The Stand II, but people who liked that book—or Desperation or ‘Salem’s Lot—will love this one.
Bev Vincent has been writing News from the Dead Zone since 2001. His first book, The Road to the Dark Tower, an authorized companion to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, was published by NAL in 2004 and nominated for a Bram Stoker Award. He contributes a monthly essay to the Storytellers Unplugged, contributed to the serial novellas Looking Glass and The Crane House, and has published hundreds of book reviews and over 50 short stories, including appearances in Shivers (vols II and IV), Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Tesseracts Thirteen, Doctor Who: Destination Prague, and this magazine. His latest book is The Stephen King Illustrated Companion, available in November at Barnes & Noble. Visit him on the web at www.bevvincent.com
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