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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