11-22-63: Historical Time Travel from Stephen King

I’m not usually a Stephen King fan.  I think he’s a powerful writer, and I love his memoir/writing book, On Writing, but I’m just not into horror.  I read Carrie long ago and that was quite enough for me – until I came across the Langoliers, which was wonderfully eerie but not horrific.

So when 11/22/63 came out, I was intrigued.  I love well-written historical novels, and I love time travel.  Add a serendipitous visit to the library where it was on the shelf instead of on hold for another reader, and I had to grab it.

The premise is that there’s a portal in the back of an old diner, and Jake (a high school English teacher) is invited by his old friend to use it.  Someone has to go back and stop Kennedy’s assassination, and the friend can’t try anymore.  Jake doesn’t want to, but when the friend lays out the post-1962 possibilities – a second term for JFK, probably no Vietnam war, possibly no Martin Luther King assassination – he agrees to give it a shot.  After he tests the theory of changing history and finds out if the changes really hold, of course.

Two problems (there are always problems, aren’t there?): First, everything “resets” if anyone returns to the past. So once Jake sees how things are different after he changes the past, he has to decide if he’s going to do it all over again before he chases down Oswald.  If he saved a girl from being shot accidentally, if he saved someone from being crippled, what difference does that make for their lives (sometimes the consequences are not what you’d expect), and is it worth doing again?

Second, he always goes back to the same date:  September 9, 1958.  Four long years before the assassination attempt.  If he simply diverts Oswald, will Oswald find another way later?  Or will Jake have to kill him?  But if he kills him before he’s absolutely sure no one else is involved, will someone else assassinate JFK some other time, some unpredictable time that can’t be stopped?

I was entranced from the beginning – King creates his characters and his world meticulously and keeps the pace moving, as I would expect.  Jake makes his trial run searching for an acquaintance and trying to stop a horrific tragedy.  The town, the malevolent feelings, the characters he meets – excellent historical fiction that made me shudder and kept me on the edge of my seat.

The section of the book where Jake is waiting for and then hunting Oswald was interesting, but didn’t captivate me as much as the earlier parts.  The tension picked up again as the assassination grew closer and more and more complications developed.

And King has his time-travel world in order, with a well-thought-out mechanism and consequences that are chilling.  This is Stephen King, after all.  Time doesn’t want to be changed, and the ramifications of changing it are . . . cue dangerous music.

Overall, 11/22/63 is a good, meaty book that I’d enjoy reading again.  And, as a reader of acknowledgements and back-of-the-book notes, I especially like King’s nod to Jack Finney’s Time and Again as “the great time-travel story.”  Hmm . . . I sense another book blog coming soon.

What about you? If you’ve read 11/22/63, what do you think about Stephen King’s departure from horror? And are you a time-travel fan or not? 


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12 Responses to 11-22-63: Historical Time Travel from Stephen King

  1. CANNOT wait to read this one. It’s interesting that the protag’s name is Jake. What year does he live in originally? Have you read the Dark Tower series? Jake is a character in them – a very important one – who does a heck of a lot of time traveling himself. King wove lots and lots of his stories into the Dark Tower books, and I’m curious to see if he’s done it again.

    I totally recommend that series, btw. The first book’s a little dicey, but the rest are fabulous. More like a fantasy, western-style, than horror.

    Great post!
    Myndi Shafer…one stray sock away from insanity. recently posted..MAKING IT HAPPEN: Vagabond undies and BLURBMy Profile

    • Jennifer Jensen says:

      Hi, Myndi. Jake is contemporary, so whatever year it is now. Not that I don’t realize it’s 2012, but . . . you know, next year Jake will be from 2013, and the year after that . . . I think I’d better stop now, y’think?

      I recognize the Dark Tower name, but hadn’t looked into it. It’s hereby on my TBR list – thanks!

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful review, Jennifer. I haven’t read King’s latest, but I’ve heard great things. Time travel books aren’t something I’m typically drawn to, but if the story has other elements I love, I’m all for it. Based on your post, 11/22/63’s a goodie!
    August McLaughlin recently posted..The Writer’s Golden Hour: Making the Most of Our TimeMy Profile

    • Jennifer Jensen says:

      Hi, August. I’m a time-travel fanatic, intrigued even if the story isn’t the greatest. But I think you’d like this. The time-travel is very well thought out, and the whole storyline is great. Come back and tell me what you think when you’re done!

  3. I think I’m going to have to read this book. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  4. Jennifer, you’ve intrigued me. I was not much interested before. Like you, I’m not much into horror. (Or too much into it perhaps!) At any rate, the idea that time doesn’t want to change is interesting. I’m putting this one on my TBR list. Thanks!
    Lynette M. Burrows recently posted..Going to Mars, Word by WordMy Profile

    • Jennifer Jensen says:

      And time comes up with some doozies for the protagonist. And a whole twist at the end that left me thinking for days! Hope you enjoy it.

  5. Elizabeth says:

    I’m in. I’ve read many of King’s older works from Carrie, Christine, Cujo (do we see a pattern here??), The Stand, The Shining, Firestarter, et al. Absolutely LOVED his short story collection “Night Shift”. Was terrified beyond words by Salem’s Lot. But when I read “It”, I stopped. “It” was not just frightening – not like Salem’s Lot. But it was dark in a very tangible, ugly way. Left me feeling “icky”. Never went back for more. But with this review – and my similar love for historicals and time travel (“Time and Again” is the best!) guess I’m going to have to test the waters again. Thanks for the great post!

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  7. Honorio says:

    I’ve just read it. The first 10 or so pages are so fast, so clear, so well written, you feel hooked to the story from the begining…The following 2 or 300 pages contain some of the most moving paragraphs I’ve ever read with references to some of his best works, you can feel your soul tangled with your heart in some pages, I’m not sure how to express it because I’m not English speaker: pain, grief, deep sadness but also love, happiness… Oswald and Kennedy story interested me less though I acknowledge the great work of research of Mr King and the end, woh! some will think it’s a happy ending, others a sad one, Mr. King’s mastery allows it to be interpreted in any way, with a touch of hope and doom at once and all wrapped up in bitterness of doom. In short, this book has left me very touched. Thanks for letting me vent this whirlwind of emotions, I needed.

    • Jennifer Jensen says:

      Hi, Honorio. Thank you so much for such a long, thoughtful comment. I appreciate the time you took, and I agree about the ending – it can be read with a multitude of reactions. I understand that The Green Mile isn’t “horror” per se, either, so that’s now on my to-be-read list. I’m looking forward to enjoying another Stephen King novel!