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Under the Dome, By Stephen King

Stephen King's latest is darkly humorous, but did 'The Simpsons' beat him to the punchline?

Stephen King's publishers claim that Under the Dome took 25 years to write. As he explains, he hasn't spent the past two and a half decades working on this novel, but sat down to write in 1976 and then, after producing 75 pages in a fortnight, abandoned the manuscript. In 2007, he started again. "It was," he writes, "a terrific idea and it never entirely left my mind."

Fans seem less convinced that the novel's conceit – a town discovers that it is encased in a giant dome, put there by an unknown force – is so terrific. Many took to the internet to point out that a similar plot was the basis for The Simpsons Movie. King took to his website to respond that he had never seen the movie and that the similarity came as a complete surprise. Fans reacted with incredulity, pointing out that not only is King a pop- culture omnivore, but has played on stage with The Simpsons creator Matt Groening in his Rock Bottom Remainders band. King then gave a different account of the book's origins, this time saying he started it in 1978 or thereabouts, and wrote a second, unpublished version called The Cannibals in 1985. In order to silence any accusations of plagiarism, he published the first 60 pages on his website (in the original IBM typescript to prove its age).

But the problem is not who had the idea first. King may argue that "stories can be no more alike than snowflakes" as "no two human imaginations are exactly alike", but Stephen King novels and Simpsons movies are similar in that they are big pop-culture events aimed at roughly the same sort of audience – and with such events, the concept is as important as the execution. Also, both film and novel use their conceit to give dramatic focus to tales of the interconnected lives of a large cast of everyday small-town Americans. It doesn't matter whether King has seen the film; his readers have, and this takes some of the shine off his novel.

Still, there is much to admire in Under the Dome. King told the Paris Review in 2006 that he was interested in human reaction to disruption, and the point in middle-class American life when an individual has to deal with something inexplicable. In reality, he suggested, this would be cancer or a prank call; in a horror novel, it's confronting a vampire or ghost, or, here, being trapped inside a dome. And King's characters do not hold up well under stress – it's only a few hundred pages before police officers are gang-raping a local chef's wife. The book is rich in dark humour and wicked irony: after a state of emergency is declared, a murderer who has strangled two women is appointed a temporary officer, and King's Christian characters quickly prove more than a little fallible, suffering from holy rages or lusting after young Asian girls. As always with King, there is a satirical subtext (he makes explicit links between his fictional Chester's Mill and Iraq) and pop-culture shout-outs (Lee Child's Jack Reacher gets a cameo). The book has little plot – bad people doing bad things – but constant (and usually violent) action.

Under the Dome most resembles King's 1991 novel Needful Things, a similar small-town satire that the author ranks among his best but which received his worst reviews. King voices his anxiety that this might happen again through graduate student and wannabe poet Carolyn, who observes, "Writing novels was pretty risky; what if you spent all that time, wrote a thousand-pager, and it sucked." Under the Dome doesn't suck, but the pacing (something to which King is normally supernaturally attuned) seems off. The claustrophobic and circular nature of the action matches the characters' predicament but robs the novel of the epic quality of his more quest-based longer fiction such as The Stand or the seven-volume Dark Tower sequence. Nevertheless, while not one of King's best, Under the Dome is an ambitious and impressive achievement that no fan will want to miss.

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