Hodder & Stoughton / 896pp / £19.99 / 10th November 2009

Rating: *   *   *   * 1/2

Sometimes, big doesn’t always equal good. Stephen King might be one of the most successful authors around, but his larger novels can often be divided up into two categories: seriously impressive classics (It, The Stand) or overlong messes in desperate need of a good edit (Needful Things, The Tommyknockers). Indeed, it can sometimes seem like King is best suited to short stories or tightly structured novellas – but his latest bumper-sized volume firmly proves that he’s still capable of pulling off an epic tale.

The set-up for Under the Dome is very simple: on a gorgeous autumn day in King’s usual fictional stomping ground of Maine, the town of Chester’s Mill is abruptly sealed off from the outside world by an invisible dome-shaped force-field. Nothing can get in or out – but while the town rallies together to get through the sudden crisis, and Iraq veteran Dale Barbara attempts to locate the source of the mysterious barrier, crooked politician Jim Reardon is seeing ways of turning the situation to his distinct advantage…

King’s biggest novel since The Stand, this sees him on familiar territory, once again pitching small-town America against an otherworldly threat. In fact, as the enclosed environment starts bringing out the uglier side of human nature, this is almost a companion piece to his classic novella The Mist – but King isn’t simply retreading old ground, and uses the story as a way of exploring some very big and important themes.

As the effects of the Dome slowly but inexorably make themselves felt, Chester’s Mill is transformed into a world of dwindling resources. It’s not hard to see the ecological parallels (especially when airborne pollution starts building up inside the barrier) – but above everything else, this is a story about the nature of cruelty, and the politics of fear.

It’s possibly King’s most deliberately political book, with Reardon’s careful manipulation of public opinion slowly nudging the community of Chester’s Mill in terrifying directions. Showing how easily fear can make us hand over power to people who don’t deserve it, this is a compelling and downright disturbing portrait of the post-9/11 world.

Thankfully, it’s also an immensely readable and entertaining novel that rushes past at a brisk pace, and doesn’t let the big themes get in the way of the sharply crafted storytelling. Along the way, there are a handful of issues – some of the political allegory is a little too on-the-nose at times, virtually all the villains are unforgivably unpleasant from the word go, and it doesn’t take long to see the rough trajectory of where the story is heading – but King actually works most of these to his advantage.

As a result, Under the Dome is just as much about the journey as the destination, and the massive page-count is used brilliantly to flesh out the sprawling cast of over 100 characters, making Chester’s Mill into a living, breathing place. For such a long book, there’s very little here that feels extraneous, with almost every single scene addding to the overall effect.

And while this might not be one of King’s traditional horror novels, there’s no shortage of viciously-timed shocks and genuinely horrific moments, especially once the book enters its final devastating stages. Veering from humour and humanity to cruelty and violence with considerable skill, this is a fantastic piece of work – moving, provocative and the kind of powerhouse page-turner that simply demands that you keep reading. King may have his occasional ups and downs, but he’s a very long way from losing his touch…

FACTBOX:

Believe it or not, King is currently co-writing a musical entitled Ghost Brothers of Darkland County – he’s writing it with rock singer John Cougar Mellencamp, and it’s due to open in the US in April 2010.