At first blush, it may seem odd to review these two Stephen King works together. After all, one is a weighty tome – literally, clocking in at nearly 1,100 pages – about a small Maine town trapped beneath a bizarre dome (very much like a snow globe), and the other is a mere slip of a novella about a major league baseball player’s meteoric rise and fall. Couldn’t be more different, could they? But upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that a similar thematic thread binds Under The Dome and Blockade Billy together: that the horror that humans can inflict on themselves and others can be more terrifying than supernatural creepy crawlies.
This is more apparent in Under the Dome. which chronicles the events that unfold once a mysterious, practically impenetrable dome settles over the rural Northeasten town of Chester’s Mill. The dome itself causes considerable chaos, cutting off supply lines and escape, and causing multiple deaths, but it’s the town’s denizens that wreak the most havoc, turning paranoid, insular and even despotic over the course of just a few days. Only a few folks retain their decency in the face of ugliness and despair, while others jump at the chance to enforce their own brand of law and order. Everyone else is left to cope, as best they can.
In Jim Rennie, used car salesman, town council member and drug kingpin, King has created an entirely believable – and utterly loathsome – small town tyrant. Rennie is well-liked, charismatic, reasonably intelligent and, though he’d not admit it, utterly amoral. In less than a week, he loads the police force with loyal, if under-qualified lackeys; justifies multiple murders and unwittingly orchestrates the town’s complete undoing. And, of course, at every point, he feels he’s doing what’s right for Chester’s Mill.
William “Blockade Billy” Blakely, the driving force in Blockade Billy, is certainly of a feather with Rennie. On the surface, he seems a simple farm boy turned professional catcher – and a darned good one at that. But given that we’re told by the story’s narrator, his former third base coach, that all evidence of Billy’s brief career has been expunged from the record books and history books, clearly there’s more to him than that simple image, something more sinister. It would be giving too much away to say what’s amiss with Blockade Billy, but it’s safe to say he shares a similar amorality and disdain for his fellow humans that Jim Rennie does, and it makes him every bit as repugnant, no matter his talents.
In both these stories, King effectively portrays the kind of horrors we’d like to believe people wouldn’t inflict on others, and yet they do. His examples may be extremes, but they’re reminders of the fears that lurk in the darker shadows of our psyches. Under the Dome is not always an easy read – it’s well-written, with a rich cast of characters readers get to know very well – but it can be frustrating to feel so helpless as things fall apart in Chester’s Mill (and King has no compunctions about killing off appealing characters!). And there is a supernatural twist, albeit a subtle one. By contrast, Blockade Billy is a quick, charming read, despite the darker elements of the story. It’s presented as an interview with the third base coach, and firmly grounded in the earthiness of such men. Kudos to Alex McVey, who provides some fantastic black and white artwork, and to Cemetery Dance for the book design, which uses a baseball jersey font for King’s name and the title on each page, and encloses the page numbers in bases.
Under the Dome and Blockade Billy show off King’s talents at both long and short form literature and his ability to find horror where you least expect it. Excellent reads, both!
(Scribner, 2009) (Cemetery Dance, 2010)