Under The Dome by Stephen King – My Review

I tend to carry my books around with me, particularly if I’m going somewhere where waiting might be involved, like the Pizza place or the swimming pool.

In the (considerable) time it took my to read this one, as I carried it around, a lot of people stopped me and wanted to talk to me about it.

“Was it any good?” They wondered.

“It’s big, isn’t it?” They remarked.

“I started it but gave it up.” They confided.

There seemed to be a lot of interest so I though it might be worth setting down a few thoughts about it here.

But, before I do, a little scene-setting.

Stephen King has been with me all the way.  He has been a friend and constant companion in my reading-life.  I started off by reading 'The Shining' in 1978, when I was 15, and I haven’t ever stopped since.  I’ve read everything he’s ever written and I feel that some elements of the way he writes have inevitably rubbed off on the way I write.

I do not always particularly adore the books Stephen King writes but some of them, particularly in the earlier years seemed to come along and speak some Technicolor Truths to me.  I started reading ‘Christine’, for example, as soon as it appeared.  I’ve have never re-read it and would probably find it a little ‘teenage’ and ‘obvious’ for my adult taste.  But those heady days of reading it, crisp and new, were like being addressed directly to my soul.  Not so much about haunted cars or revenge but rather about alienation and how  very hard it can be to be a teenager.

‘Pet Semetary’, I feel, is a masterwork which is seriously flawed in its ending.  The first three-quarters, though, sets up a tragedy that comes barreling down the road from a million miles off and carries the effects of that event to extraordinary lengths.  A shame about that ending…

One of my favorites, now, is ‘The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.’  If you’ve never read King and want to see what he can do, try that one first.

My own feelings about his writing seem to be at variance with that of the majority of his fans.  While they ooze over the huge novels like ‘The Stand’ or ‘It’, I always feel that Stephen is at his most masterful in the short form, sparsely populated, novel.  I would take ‘Misery’ or even the neglected ‘Gerald’s Game’ over any of those bigger tomes, any day.

Which brings me to ‘Under The Dome’, one of the very largest of the Stephen King books.

I asked for it as a Christmas Present and started into it soon after.  It took a long time to read.  At first glance, the story is the same as that in 'The Simpson’s Movie' wherein a huge dome comes down and traps a small town and its residents inside.  Worry not, though, it’s not much like that at all and, fairly soon, any thoughts of Homer and his Spider Pig are left well and truly behind.

The story is much more like a magnified version of King’s story 'The Mist,' where a group of  small town residents get trapped in a local supermarket during a terrifying ordeal.  Yes, it’s very like that, if you need a comparison.

I won’t synopsise the story or run through the vast array of characters therein. You can get all that stuff elsewhere and done much better too.

This is just my impression.

I was engaged with the book throughout.  The very size of it promises an immersive experience and it delivered that.  The timeline in the book is short and the pace of unfolding events is rapid.  In short it fairly rolls along.

Downside?  Well, for me, as with most of King’s larger works, the drawing on such a large canvas means that the paint is spread rather thin in places.  For all the words and pages, I never felt I was getting to know any of the characters terribly well.  They started out a little limited in depth and continued that way throughout.  Also the effective ‘locking down’ of a key character for the mid section of the narrative seemed to make that part of the story less successful.

One would fear that the train would run out of steam before the end but that is the redeeming factor in this book.  Stephen has plenty left in the pot to take us positively barrelling over the finish line.  A number of expected plot conventions are bucked along the way so that you’re never really sure how anything might turn out.  As in all Stephen King novels, nobody is safe in here.

And the ending.  Not giving anything away but I thought the ending – the explanation – was humane and thoughtful and apt and this alone rounded the whole package up into a story that I am glad I took the time to read.

Can I recommend this book to you?  Well that really depends on who you are.  If you loved the bigger King books of old, chances are you will love this too.  If you enjoyed The Mist, you will find things in here for you. 

But if you are new to King and want to see what all the fuss is about?  Perhaps you should go back up the road a little… and work your way up to this one.

Ming is off the Blow

I’ve weathered every storm so far
But I think it’s time to go
This Country must be closing down
Cos Ming is off The Blow.

The Celtic Tiger came and went
A rather fleeting show
But the curtain’s surely falling
Now that Ming is off the Blow.

I dealt with wild corruption
And every dirty deed
But I cannot bear to bear this news
That Ming’s gone off his weed.

I’m leaving now, I’ll get the lights
Or at least I’ll turn them low
What use is there in hanging round
If Ming is off the Blow?


The Shopping Trolley Corral As A Metaphor For Our Failure to Communicate with Each Other

Catchy Title eh?

I’m worried that the title may end up being longer then the actual post.  

No, wait, I think I’m okay.

I don’t know how it is where you are but here, when we go to the supermarket and want a trolley, we have to put a Euro coin into the trolley to release it from the trolley corral.  I guess people steal them or make karts with the wheels or... marry them or something.  I don’t know.  Whatever the reason, you need a Euro coin to get one.

But, invariably, when someone is going to get their trolley, someone else is putting theirs back and retrieving their precious Euro coin.  So the person who wants a trolley stands and waits while the person with the trolley shoves it into the trolley-stack and dicks around with the coin-release thing and gets their coin and goes.  Then the person who wants the trolley goes and puts their coin in and dicks with the release thing in order to get the trolley the other person just put back.

I watched this being taken to a crazy degree just today with a group of people who wanted trolleys all  standing waiting  around for the group of people to put their trolleys back.

For God’s Sake People…

Isn’t it obvious?  If you want a trolley, and have your Euro, and someone is returning a trolley and wants their Euro back… just give them your Euro, take the trolley and save a full bloody minute of faffing-around for both of you.



It doesn’t happen.  All right, it does sometimes - but not as often as it should.

People don’t want to talk to other people or, even more so, they do not want to be talked to.  "This guy offering me a Euro for my trolley, he might give me a fake Euro, or mug me, or make improper suggestions to me…"

We’re all just becoming more and more insular and scared.  Make a stand, build a bridge, if a little communication is mutually beneficial, do it.  Sometimes it’ll work out, sometimes it won’t, but at least you’ve tried.

So, if I’m returning my trolley and you offer me a Euro and ask me for it, I will say…

… well, I’ll say ‘No’, actually.  

I don't use Euro coins.  I’ve got one of those keyrings with a Euro shaped disk magnetically attached to it.  I use that to get my trolley and I want to get it back.  

So, sorry, no.

Hypocritical bugger, me.

Taking Dad to the Car Boot Sale

My Dad is one of the world’s greatest hagglers.  He will haggle himself a deal no matter what the occasion.  So, when he and Mum came to visit us in London, back in the mid-nineties, I reckoned I knew something he would like.

We did the usual stuff, we bought them some dinners and they saw a show but, when Dad got out of the car on the outskirts of Hounslow early on Sunday morning, he knew his real treat-time had arrived.  

Is it still there, I wonder?  That big big field – with a gate and everything – and miles and miles of cars, boots open, folding tables laid out, with their owners nonchalantly displaying their wares.  The Mother of all Car Boot Sales.

I had added one finesse to our visit to the Car Boot.  Something specifically designed to heighten Dad’s fun.  It was… a ‘Mission’.  I had thought hard about something I needed, something odd, something to hunt for.  What I came up with – and I hope I’m giving some of you a new word here (although you are very smart, so probably not) – was a little thing called an 'Escutcheon Cover'.

The front door of our little house in Twickenham led straight into the living room and the front door had a large keyhole through which the West London winds would come a-blowing.  An escutcheon is the metal plate that goes over a keyhole to protect the door from the knocks of misguided drunken key-entries.  Sometimes they come with a circular cover piece which can be swivelled around to let the key in but normally they just sit over the hole and keep the draughts out.

So there we were, on a mission to find an Escutcheon Cover on a bright warm summer’s morning.  It really was a very nice excursion.

One of Dad’s foibles is that he absolutely has to talk to everyone he meets.  What’s more, he addresses everyone with the same cheerful familiarity that would lead you to believe that he has known them all his life.  This made for slow progress through the lines of marketeers.

At one point I had to ease him away from a gang of heavily-tattooed motorcycle guys who were eyeing him suspiciously as he prodded them on the forearms and cheerfully asked whether ‘those things hurt?’

Of course we were never going to find an Escutcheon Cover, much less a suitable one.  It was just something to keep an eye out for as we strolled around.

Except he did.  Hawk Eye Dad pounced on a plastic box full of assorted things and emerged with the exact item pinched in his fingers.  A solid brass Escutcheon, complete with cover.

It was here that I learned a valuable lesson in haggling – one that I often use (or at least quote) in my dealings with people.  That lesson is, When Haggling, Start Low.

The man in charge of this particular car boot was reclined in a deck chair reading a battered copy of 'Jaws ' and he seemed hugely disinterested in how his trade was progressing.  Dad leaned over to him with the prized item pinched between thumb and forefinger and he started the bidding in a way I would never have guessed.

“A little thing like this,” my Dad said chattily, “Sure you couldn’t want any money for that at all.”

The man looked uncertain.  He looked at Dad and he looked at the little Escutcheon (and cover).  He hesitated.

“You’re right,” he said, sounding as if he was surprising himself, “I couldn’t ask for money for a little thing like that.”

It was like the Jedi Mind Trick in real life.

Dad said, “That’s great, thanks,” and prepared to withdraw before anyone changed their mind – which  is  another good haggling-hint.

But suddenly a shadow fell on proceedings.  A huge, bejewelled, floral-patterned woman emerged from somewhere to the side of the car.

“Well that’s just bloody great!”  she bellowed, “I sit out here all morning and you give the bloody merchandise away.”

She wasn’t kidding either.  But we smiled and nodded and got swiftly away with our totally-free brass escutcheon.  Even at some distance, we could still hear the poor man getting ‘what for’ from his beloved.

“This is a grand place,” said Dad, looking all around. “We’ll have to come back.”

A Twitter Murder Mystery

“So, tell it to me again. He was on ‘Twatter’ when he was murdered?”

“Twitter, sir, it’s a social networking site.”

I looked around the room admiringly. The guy was obviously a bit of a movie buff, judging by the original posters he had framed on the walls. Good seventies stuff, all very neatly done. In contrast, the study desk was all a bit of a bloody mess.  The keyboard was glued now with thick black blood and the screen was spattered with tiny bulbous droplets of the stuff. Some of them had run down a little before the heat of the screen had boiled them solid.  Not many though.

I peered through the droplets at the web page on display.

“Was that his name?  Armstrong?”

“Yes Inspector-“

“’Chief Inspector’, if you don’t mind.”

“Sorry sir, ‘Chief Inspector’, congratulations sir.”

“His name, son, you can bake me the cake later.” I enjoy being a bastard at murder scenes. It helps keep the minions focused.

“Sorry sir. Yes ‘Armstrong’ sir, ‘Ken Armstrong’.”

“But not ‘KenArmstrong1’?

“No sir, that was his twitter name sir.”

“You seem to know a lot about this twat thing.”

“I tweet a little myself sir.”

“You what?”

“Tweet sir.”

Bloody hell!

I looked young Nash square in the eye. Never look in two eyes, concentrate on just one. That’s the secret to winning a staring match.

“Moving on,” I said, “Cause of death?”

Nash looked at me as if I was mad. There was perhaps hope for the lad yet. I was yanking his chain and he knew it. The hilt of a bloody-great dagger was sticking out of Armstrong’s throat, there wasn’t much question about what it had done…

I shook myself. I’d been staring and thinking about that knife and how it might have felt going into my own carotid artery and that wasn’t the way forward.

“Who have you got in the other room?” I asked Nash.

“Three men. There was a poker game. They took a break apparently, Armstrong came in here for a tweet, one went to the toilet, one went into the garden for a ciggie and one stayed in the room.”

“And you think one of them killed him.”  I said.

“Why, yes sir, I do.”

“Which one?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know sir.”

I sighed again. TV detective programmes were a curse on many levels. Not least because practically every second young cop now thought every domestic was a clue-ridden mystery to be pondered. In fact, usually they were just a bloody mess with a whimpering fool sitting on the periphery, waiting to cough it all up.

“Who are they, these three?”

“As far as I can gather they’re an old school friend, his doctor and his brother-in-law. The in-law is a pain, says he works nights and has to phone in, we’re keeping him from that at the moment.”

“Why?”  I asked.

The question seemed to confuse poor Nash.

“Well, it’s a classic locked door thing, sir. One of them did it, there was nobody else. Plus there’s something else.”  Nash looked embarrassed.

“What something else?”

Nash squirmed.

“Spit it out lad, what else is there?”

“A ‘clue’ sir.” Nash said it as if it were rather a dirty thing.

“What bloody clue?”

Nash showed me the screen.

“It’s like I said, sir, he was tweeting when he died. His watch hit the desk and broke, the time stopped at 12.20 am.  Look at the tweet on the screen, it was sent at 12.20 am too. The killer must have been in the room when he sent it.”

I walked over to Nash. I was a good foot shorter than him but that hardly mattered.

“You think he twatted us a clue from the grave, don’t you?”

“Well, yes sir, I’m afraid I rather do.”

I was about to berate him for the penny-dreadful-consuming fool that he undoubtedly was when I stopped. Maybe, just maybe, he was right. There hadn’t been a real ‘clue’ case since the ‘Smirnoff Affair’ and that was a few years back. Maybe I was due another. I leaned in and read Armstrong’s Last Tweet.

“Okay,”  I leaned back, “what does it mean?”

“Buggered if I know sir,” said Nash, who then blushed furiously, “Sorry sir.”

In fairness, it did at least seem possible that Armstrong had looked up from his desk and seen someone come in with a whopping great knife in his hand. He might have had a moment to twat off a message with a clue in it.

“But why wouldn’t he just twat the name or the initial or something,” I asked, “ why type ‘Top Left’?”

“Because if he wrote the name, the killer could have seen it and deleted it. He had to be obtuse.”

“Obtuse, Nash?  What are you reading?”

“Morse, sir.”

“Bloody thought so.”

I looked at the twat thing again… harder. Forensics will catch this killer, or he’ll cave under a moderate Q and A, we didn’t have to do this Sherlock Holmes shit on it…

But it was fun and when it worked, it was bloody awesome.

Nash piped up.  “Maybe it’s an anagram”, he said.

But it wasn’t a bloody anagram. There was no time for bloody anagrams, not with a killer bearing down on you with a massive bloody knife.

I looked again.  Top Left.  Top Left of what? There was nothing to be Top Left’ of…

Except there was, wasn’t there? This twit twat thing wasn’t just a few words, it was a picture too. And we all know what a picture can be worth.

I looked at the computer, then at the wall, then at the computer again.  I shouldn't have been touching anything, I know. I clicked on the picture and it got bigger. The picture was clearer now.

I tried to keep my voice level.

“On every street,” I quoted, “in every city, there’s a nobody who dreams of being a somebody.”

Nash looked nervous. “I don’t understand you sir.” He said.

“Never mind,” I clapped my hands together, “Let’s see the suspects, Nash, one by one, just like your bloody Morse would.”

“What order do you want to see them in?” asked Nash.

“That brother-in-law, the one who works nights, what did you say he does for a living?” I asked, nonchalantly, holding my breath.

“I didn’t say, sir, but I believe he’s a Taxi Driver.”

I let my breath out, smiled.

“Then let’s see him first,” I said.