Under the duvet with Under the Dome

Under the duvet with Under the Dome

Stephen King revives memories of South Africa’s fascist past for Barry Duke

FOR years now, I have been in the habit of reading myself to sleep each night. No matter how tired I am, I will turn on my cherished Sony E-reader and absorb a few pages until the words start swimming on the screen, and my eyes refuse to stay open.

This routine was working sublimely well until I started in on Stephen King’s epic novel Under the Dome last month. Rather than ease a path to blessed unconsciousness, this 1,000-plus-page 2009 novel – which tells of how a small American community is detached from the rest of the US by an impenetrable alien dome that envelops it without warning — had the effect of electrifying me into a state of alertness that no-one should ever experience late at night.

Worse, it resuscitated feelings of naked hatred that I had not felt since my years in the 1960s in South Africa, where I was besieged by some of the most loathsome knuckle-draggers on the planet: fundamentalist Afrikaners.

In this novel — in  my opinion the most aggressive attack on Christian zealotry King has ever penned – he creates a villain who is the embodiment of the ghastly Calvinist boers who populated my teenage world, making it a misery.

“Big Jim” Rennie is the corrupt, manipulative, small-town politician who never allows anyone in Chester’s Mill to forget that he is a devout born-again Christian, and reacts strongly against potty-mouths.

When aroused he utters words like “bull-pucky” rather than bullshit; and “bitch” is “rhymes-with-witch”, a term he uses to describe the female editor of the local rag. The Democrat. President Barack Obama is dismissed as a “pro-abortion son-of-a-buck”.

This combination of prudishness and piety serve to mask his hypocrisy and criminality. “Big Jim” arms thugs, enables rapists, flogs crystal meth to raise cash to evangelise “our little brown brothers”, and even commit murder, because, of course, it is all part of God’s Great Plan.

While not always comfortable with this gluttonous and venal head hog’s methods, the townsfolk, including The Holy Redeemer Church’s porn-addicted, self-flagel- lating lunatic pastor, jump at his command because they believe a man with deeply- held religious convictions can do no wrong.

King’s novel rudely projected me back to a distant past, where, as a junior reporter, I got to meet horrors pretty much like Rennie — in particular Mayor Terblanche, whose mother’s milk must have contained frighteningly high levels of Vitamin Stupid.

Terblanche, as far as I know, was not a killer or a drug dealer, but he was an 24-carat imbecile who worshipped Hitler, hated Blacks, Jews, Marxists, liberals, homosexuals  and atheists — and had a talent to invoke the names of God and Jesus at least 30 times in every rambling, soporific speech he ever gave.

Once, though, he succeeded in rousing me from a glazed-eyed stupor at a town hall function when, in singing the praises of a man who had won a some sort of civic award for his entrepreneurial activities, loudly declared:

And I can honestly say that Mr van der Merwe has had his fingers in every tart in town!

What redoubled my mirth was the “What? WHAT?” expression on his face when laughter erupted in the hall.

Now here’s the odd thing: While reviews I have read of Under the Dome in papers like the Telegraph, Guardian and The New York Times had nothing but praise for the novel, not one mentioned its over-arching anti-religious tone.

Lewis Jones, writing in the Telegraph, identifies Rennie as “a sanctimonious fascist”, and correctly observes that the book is:

A cold-eyed assessment of the Bush regime.

The Book Forum website was the only source I could find that identified Rennie as “an evangelical Christian”, and it said that Under the Dome “ought to be read as a work of very broad, very black social satire”.

Gary D Robinson, writing on this Christian website said

While it’s true that King was raised a Methodist and won a Bible for memorizing verses, the writer’s published work often veers off a biblical understanding of life and humanity.  This is certainly true Under the Dome where King’s publically affirmed aversion to “organized religion” (read:  the church) is hard to miss.

Here King is quoted as saying:

I was angry about incompetency. Obviously I’m on the left of center. I didn’t believe there was justification for going into the war in Iraq. And it just seemed at the time, that in the wake of 9/11, the Bush Administration was like this angry kid walking down the street who couldn’t find whoever sucker punched him, and so turned around and punched the first likely suspect.

Sometimes the sublimely wrong people can be in power at a time when you really need the right people. I put a lot of that into the book. But when I started I said, ‘I want to use the Bush-Cheney dynamic for the people who are the leaders of this town’.  As a result, you have Big Jim Rennie, the villain of the piece. I got to like the other guy, Andy Sanders. He wasn’t actively evil, he was just incompetent — which is how I always felt about George W. Bush.

When I started I said, ‘I want to use the Bush-Cheney dynamic for the people who are the leaders of this town’. I enjoyed taking the Bush-Cheney dynamic and shrinking it to the small-town level. The last administration interested me because of the aura of fundamentalist religion that surrounded it and the rather amazing incompetency of those two top guys. I thought there was something blackly humorous in it. So in a sense, Under the Dome is an apocalyptic version of the Peter Principle.

Much as I enjoyed reading Under the Dome, hell will freeze over before I take something of the same unsettling genre to bed. This old hack needs his sleep, not a midnight adrenalin rush!

But before I turn in, let me leave you with my favourite King quote:

The beauty of religious mania is that it has the power to explain everything. Once God (or Satan) is accepted as the first cause of everything which happens in the mortal world, nothing is left to chance … logic can be happily tossed out the window.

• This slightly amended piece appeared in the June, 2012, edition of the Freethinker. Under the Dome was adapted for a CBS TV series that premiered in June 2013. It was extremely gripping, but I was disappointed that the anti-religious tone of the book was considerably watered-down. A 13-episode second season premiered on June 30, 2014.
In the series, “Big Jim” is played by Dean Norris, pictured at the top of the page.

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