Hazel McHaffie

Under the Dome

Stephen King, master thriller-writer

Yep, I’m sure regular followers of this blog will have been wondering, when will she ever get to the king of thrillers!  ‘America’s greatest living novelist‘! ‘When it comes to grabbing an audience by the throat and giving them no choice but to keep reading, King has no equal.

Well, I can confess, in the safety of my own blog pages, that my first experience of Stephen King proved decidedly underwhelming.  Under the Dome simply wasn’t for me. Too far fetched. Too long-winded. A ‘so-what’ kind of book. So I deliberately gave myself time to distance from that before returning to give him a second chance.

Mr Mercedes is a very different kind of tale, billed as an ‘expertly crafted example of the classic race-against-the-clock thriller’. And I’m wanting the very best examples to hone my own skills. So, bring it on. A masterclass would be very helpful.

It starts off with a massacre. A twelve-cylinder Mercedes is driven through thick fog into a concentrated crowd of desperate people all queuing at a job fair. The driver is still at large. But shortly after his retirement, Kermit William Hodges, lead detective on the case, receives a letter from the man responsible, taunting him. And we have the kernel of the story, the cat and mouse chase, each goading the other, a race to prevent another mass killing.

And yes,now I could quite understand what makes Stephen King a giant among thriller writers. It’s the whole package really, but it might be helpful if I single out a few features.

The first stroke of genius is in the first chapter. King introduces three of the victims of the Mercedes massacre in the last few hours of their lives. In a few pages he makes us care about the young cash-strapped mum Janice Cray, and her croupy baby Patti, and the kindly stranger called August who lends them his sleeping bag while they wait for the job fair to open. It puts a human face on the tragedy. We’re shocked when these three lives are obliterated by the grey Mercedes careering into them. We want justice for them.

Then there are his main characters. With simple but deft strokes he fleshes them out, unlikely heroes and psychopathic killer alike, little by little letting us see into their past, follow their present, dread their future. No overload, no long-winded description, but four dimensional.

He’s also a past master at dropping in a sinister or significant fact without padding or fanfare, so the picture builds subtly and contributes exponentially to the spine-tingling tension. He doesn’t even hide the identity of Mr Mercedes from us. In Chapter 11, Brady Hartsfield is exposed in his natural habitat, selling ice-cream to innocent kids, solving computer glitches for naive technophobes.

And amidst all the sordid facts and coarse language and accumulating horror, King even drops occasional pearls of literary delight.

She has the bright, inquisitive gaze of a crow with its eye on a freshly squashed chipmunk.

… an apartment … with rooms as big as a political candidate’s promises

She frowns, transforming her face into a walnut shell with eyes

They’re wondering if I’m riding into the Kingdom of Dementia on the Alzheimer’s Express

… she sits hunched in her bar of sun, a human parenthesis in a fuzzy blue robe

And I love the delicious irony of Retired Detective Hodges considering the possibility that Mr Mercedes is actually a woman. ‘He supposes it’s technically possible, and it would make a neat solution for an Agatha Christie novel, but this is real life.’

Unputdownable indeed. I could never aspire to his heights but I can learn from his skills.

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The King’s genius

I’ve had the legendary ‘King of Horror’, American writer Stephen King, in my sights for yonks but only just got around to reading one of his books: Under the Dome. It’s a mammoth 896 pages long but its antecedents intrigued me.

King first tried to write it in 1976 but gave up after two weeks. He began the same story again thirty-one years later, passionate about exploring the ecological and meteorological concerns his plotline presented, but this time the technical problems overwhelmed him. However, the ideas kept niggling, and he eventually co-opted a trusted researcher to thoroughly investigate all the highly technical aspects of his story, and Under the Dome finally materialised, his 58th novel. That’s persistence and commitment, huh?

I’m not going to review it – you can find good analyses on line if you’re interested, but horror and sci fi, brutal murder and gang rape for fun, crudity and graphic violence, really aren’t my thing. I guess I’m in the minority – no, I don’t guess, I know I am! The evidence is there. King has published 59 novels and sold over 350 million copies. His shelves are overloaded with awards and trophies. He’s in my age bracket and still going strong. That’s what success and popularity look like. He just doesn’t happen to be my cup of tea.

Essentially the story is about ‘liberal morality’ and a ‘moderate green sensibility’ versus ‘greed, corruption and fundamentalism’. The first 5% of this brute of a book is devoted to unmitigated death and destruction, recounted in graphic detail as one by one vehicles and people and animals collide with an invisible barrier which has come down and encased a small town in Maine like one of those giant glass domes designed to protect food from dust and insects. Only this one isn’t protective; anything but. By 90% of the way through – I read it on my Kindle – a population of 2000+ residents has been reduced to 32 people; by 97% there are just two dozen left. That’s some death toll! And King was determined to keep his ‘pedal consistently to the metal’ throughout. Only in the last few pages does resolution come, leaving deep philosophical questions about this somewhat allegorical sci-fi tale in its wake.

OK, maybe maybe aliens from outer space aren’t my bag, but hey, no experience is ever wasted on a writer. And one of the things I do seriously envy is his ability to convey so much with such an economy of words. So I thought I’d share a few examples with you.

‘he walked with cartoon caution’
‘shock and denial masquerading as calm control’
‘she never finished the thought, only closed the door on it’
‘sarcasm is her response to fear’
a smile is ‘not turned up to maximum chill
he spoke ‘softly as if to a child in a tantrum’
‘A lackadaisical little breeze cat’s-pawed their cheeks’
‘the family that slays together stays together’
[why was she bullied?] ‘… it was everything, right down to the way my skirts and blouses and even my hair ribbons matched. They wore clothes, I had outfits.’
‘… sixteen months of border warfare between the country of Controlling Parents and the smaller but well-fortified principality of Determined Teenager.’

As for me, persisting, reading every last word of this door-stopper, has encouraged me to return to my own far more pedestrian prose and up the ante! Has to be a good thing if as a consequence readers can lift a few choice phrases from my writing and linger a moment over the philosophical implications. A tough masterclass though!

 

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