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Another fine mess

Reader fan critic teacher reader fan.

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Under the Dome - Stephen King You know what I hate? Dog reaction shots. You're watching a movie--doesn't matter what genre, as I've seen this done in whimsical rom-com and earnest drama and sinister horror and on and on and on. Key players are talking--perhaps bantering, maybe transforming into a creature, maybe cleaning their gun--and the camera cuts to:


Never a good idea. Never in the history of cinema has a dog reaction shot contributed to my appreciation of the emotional dynamics of a scene, or tickled my funny bone, or added suspense.

Under the Dome turns, way way too often, to dog reaction shots. Oh, not literally, or at least not too often. But I came to this critique somewhere 'round page 700 with a real dog reaction shot. This will be spoiler-free, for the most part: A key document has been thrown behind a couch by a drug addict, right after its delivery by a major character right before a major point of conflict, meant to serve as a kind of protection--if anything happens during this coming conflict, the document will be released and order restored and evil vanquished etc. The dropping of this document behind a couch, and the druggie's subsequent forgetting of said document, is an annoying plot tic of its own--as any half-sentient reader, even one utterly divorced from any experience of narrative as it is known in America over the last 40 years, will be waiting patiently for said document--like that Chekhovian gun on the wall--to come back into play. Annoying, but I can accept that. Every hundred pages or so after this, King will remind us (assuming, I suppose, half-sentience on our part) that the document abides. Until, maybe four hundred pages later, a cute dog comes upon this document. Cute dog is looking for popcorn. Cute dog's thoughts are displayed to us.

This is a dog reaction shot.

Cute dog doesn't care about the document--and who can blame cute dog, really, after four hundred pages of winking am-I-gonna-show-you teasing. Cute dog is keen on the popcorn. Then Cute Dog hears a "deadvoice" (the voice of a murdered important character, whose ghost has been silent 'til now, when Cute Dog comes along).

This is dog reaction shot overkill. I just about gave up on the book then. After a few paragraphs with deadvoice and Cute Dog just muttering about popcorn, Cute Dog gets startled and ye-olde-plot-catalyst remains in its hiding spot, waiting for a few more hundred pages to come back.

I didn't quite give up then, but I did start power-skimming.

Folks, I'm an old King fan, bred as a reader on his novels, memories of huddling under covers in sweltering mid-summer heat so that I could finish Salem's Lot without any vampire kids hypnotizing me from outside my second-floor window. And the first two hundred pages--when this inexplicable transparent, almost-impermeable dome drops on yet another woebegone Maine smalltown--King RULES. No one can write the horrific like he can; there are moments of gripping uncanny oh-shit and grotesqueries and just this damnable nail-biting sense of what is happening and what will happen and oh man. These pages roar, and the reader rips through them. Four stars, easy.

The next two, three hundred pages are very Peyton-Place, many characters and tensions introduced--and then lovingly squeezed and tautened and gripped. I did find it pretty readable, but where King can write event like no one's business he has a small-town short-order cook's sensibility when it comes to how people think and feel and engage with one another in response to such horrible acts. By this I mean, the events are delectable and perfectly-seasoned and sharp. And King cooks them precisely... then over the next many (many, many) pages slathers on gravy and salt and .... There's something both filling and a bit stomach-churning about all this. What is so precise about his grasp of the horrific event turns quite fuzzy and diffuse as his characters think upon those events. Maybe three stars.

And then that fucking dog reaction shot, or really a whole slew of them. Having written himself out of that crystalline perfection of 200 pages of horrific act and into a behemoth of 400 pages of act and melodrama... he can't help himself. He piles it on. Things keep moving, but the suspense is all foregone conclusions left to linger... and, in too many cases, like that forlorn misplaced important document behind the couch, it's not like we think that document will never be found. We're just waiting on it. In a 400-page novel that's quite forgivable, perhaps even delightful. At just over 1000, it's dog reaction shots. Down to two stars.

Oh, I finished. There's one enormously annoying Explanation for the Bad Thing, but I could and do forgive that. Those first 200 pages are really quite something. But, dear reader, you--like me--most likely won't savor that opening and set the book down. You'll keep going, stuck in the Dome, and there is nothing that happens that you need to know, nothing you don't already really know going in. That document gets found. Maybe some die you hadn't expected to, maybe more than you ever would have guessed, but... meh.

I realize I'm an outlier on this--which many seem to enjoy much more than me. But some people like dog reaction shots, too, and I applaud their appreciation, even as I wince, and grumble.