Reign of terror

The new Stephen King novel reminds us why his books have sold more than
350 million copies, says Joshua Rothkopf

The Knowledge
The Knowledge
The Knowledge

His name still conjures up a vast universe of spookiness, even if his popularity has been slightly eclipsed by a bunch of teen wizards. This month, Stephen King’s latest tome, Under the Dome, hits shelves. At a weighty 1,074 pages, the sci-fi novel – about a small Maine town unravelling after being cut off by a mysterious, missile-proof dome – has all the elements that make King’s work so gripping. He’s not merely a craftsperson, but a writer of conviction and elegance. Tearing our way through Under the Dome, we were reminded of a handful of other King highlights.

Under the Dome is not quite as long as… It (1986)
A hundred pages thicker than King’s new novel, this chilling doorstop was the best-selling title of its year, also ruining clowns for an entire generation. Pennywise, the tale’s rubber-nosed, dancing villain, stalks the sewers beneath the town of Derry and drags little boys to their doom. Subtly, King’s themes of social alienation and the desperate coolness of high school cut even closer to the bone.

Expressly political, it’s reminiscent of… Firestarter (1980)
The closest thing Under the Dome has to a hero is a fry cook and Iraq war vet who rails against the book’s Bushie car-salesman-cum-demagogue. King has long aligned himself with lefty rage: Firestarter features a genetically altered family with telekinetic abilities that are targeted by an evil CIA-like organisation called ‘the Shop’.

As a vision of the fragility of civilisation, it’s almost as good as… The Stand (1978)
King’s 1978 masterpiece takes a global-killing superflu, ‘Captain Trips’, and lays waste to 99 per cent of the human population. (Tellingly, the virus is government-made). But although his dazzling set pieces – like a nail-biting walk through darkened Lincoln Tunnel – certainly bring the terror, the novel is mainly about power and the new ethical conflicts that arise in its absence.

Filled with funny scenes, it’s as playful – and tight – as… Skeleton Crew (1985)
Until you dive into the author’s second collection of shorts, you can’t appreciate his gift for rigorous construction. Here are some of the stories that made the freelancing King a genre legend, including his trapped-in-the-supermarket ‘The Mist’, the desert-island diary ‘Survivor Type’ and the cautionary what-if travelogue, ‘The Jaunt’.

Anchored in local colour and language, it’s as vivid as… Dolores Claiborne (1992)
King is always strong on his Maine characters – feisty, libertarian, a touch sheltered. Dolores Claiborne qualifies as a high point for him in this regard: a book with no chapters or pauses, just a lengthy reminiscence by one woman of her life, her career and, in a bold stroke, her culpability in a murder.
Under the Dome is published by Scribner. Dhs111, available at Magrudy’s.

Did you know?

1 As a child, King apparently witnessed a friend being hit and killed by a train. He has no memory of the event, but his family remembers him returning home from playing with the boy speechless and in shock.

2 King has been teetotal since the late ’80s, after his family and friends staged an intervention for his drink and drug addictions.

3 In 1999, King was hit by a car when walking by the roadside.

He suffered a collapsed lung, scalp laceration and a broken hip. King’s lawyer and two others bought the van that hit him for US$1,500 (Dhs5,500), apparently to stop it from being sold on eBay.

Book of the week

The Anthologist Nicholson Baker

Remember that lesson in the early years of secondary school when your English teacher said you could write a poem and it didn’t have to rhyme? Well, according to Paul Chowder, the narrator of Nicholson Baker’s latest novel, this is the moment when poetry loses direction – and not only for kids. Chowder reckons that Whitman first and then Ezra Pound and his fascist pals in the futurist school betrayed us all, taking poetry away from the rich, organic, thrilling world of metre, structure, the beat of the heart and the human yearning for aural symmetries, and giving us the random chaos of vaguely poetic prose effusions that are, in fact, ‘merely a heartfelt arrangement of plummy words requesting to be read slowly’.

It seems a fair point in some respects, except that the mind and life of Baker’s protagonist, a published poet forced to compile anthologies and give talks to pay the rent, rather flies in the face of the theory. His daily routines and the way he tells them are, in fact, something like lived free verse: a screwed-up relationship, a flailing career, oceans of wasted time in his ‘office’ and a mind that ceaselessly digresses and free associates. Baker is a sardonic philosopher, and Chowder’s non sequiturs and lively meditations on pentameter, cats, Roz (the girlfriend who’s just bolted), other poets – from Tennyson to Elizabeth Bishop – and poetry editors, and on the tortuous profession of anthologising, are hugely diverting. Indeed, the delightfully offhand manner in which Baker tells a story recalls that free-verse maestro Charles Bukowski.
Chris Moss
Dhs85 Available to order from Magrudy’s.

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