It’s been a while since I devoured Stephen King’s horror tales as a youngster. I loved IT, Salem’s Lot and The Shining so much that when I finally visited Massachusetts a few years ago Salem was top of my list (along with the Crow’s Nest from The Perfect Storm) and it was every bit as spooky as I had depended on it being. While I’m not a fan of horror these days, I am a fan of great storytelling and Stephen King at his best is a master of it. I am delighted to say that in 11.22.63 King is at that best. It might be a ridiculously heavy book weightwise but each page of it is perfectly necessary.
Jake Epping is a schoolteacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, in 2011. His friend Al owns a diner decorated with photographs of his most famous guests. One day, Jake discovers Al, ill and aged almost beyond recognition since the previous day when he saw him last. The reason is miraculous. In the pantry of the diner is a rabbit hole, through which you can pass to a warm autumnal day in 1958. You can stay in the past as long as you like, interacting with it, even changing it, but if you return to the present and then go back into the portal, history is reset. Nothing you have changed is remembered. Everything you wanted to change you must rechange. Everyone you met has forgotten you. Almost. And as far as the present is concerned, you have only been gone two minutes.
Al is desperate for Jake to go back into the past, stay there for five years and change an event that he believes has resulted in monumental misery and suffering – the assassination of John F Kennedy in Dallas on 22 November 1963. Even after a test run to show it works, why would anyone want to leave the present and everyone they love behind and go back to not only the past but also a situation where they may be required to force a change in history, possibly through violence? For Jake, the answer is in an essay written by one of his adult pupils, the janitor Harry Dunning, in which Harry described the night that changed his life, fifty years ago, when his father murdered his mother, sister and brother. Jake will go back into the past, not because of JFK or Lee Harvey Oswald, but for Harry.
But just as the present isn’t simple, neither is the past, a state of affairs which is exasperated by history’s resistance to being changed. The greater the change to the past the more robust is history’s opposition. And then there’s love. What are you to do if you fall in love with someone who is from another time?
11.22.63 takes us through five years of the life of Jake – or George as he is known in the past. Through his story and narration we observe the butterfly effect, the ripples of change, the potential for real danger. This is not a horror novel but it is a world in which horror can happen, a strong feeling which is compounded by the references to characters from Stephen King’s earlier novels. There are monsters in this world, hiding in an ironworks or in the Texas School Book Depository.
While George (Jake) has his mission from the future, he is fully immersed in the past and with the people of the past. The evocation of the late 50s, early 60s is utterly believable and full of the most fascinating details. The love story of Jake and Sadie Dunhill is a beautiful one and is set among numerous other relationships, happy and unpleasant, which form the web that Jake makes from his life fifty years ago. On top of it lie the other stories – Oswald and Kennedy, Harry Dunning and his father to name just two out of many.
11.22.63 may be intricate but it is also superbly written. Stephen King is at the top of his formidable powers here. With just a few words or sentences we believe the full history of his characters. We know so little about Jake Epping’s life but we know an awful lot about what he wants. At the very beginning, the very first line, Jake states that ‘I have never been what you’d call a crying man’ but this is an emotional tale without doubt and it moved me to tears more than once. The pace of the prose and the possibilities it suggests make the book, for me, impossible to resist after reading the first couple of pages. There are mysteries too and you have to know what happens to them – not least, who is the Yellow Card Man? Why does he seem to know Jake? And then there’s history itself – it exerts a presence here that is not entirely benign.
There are numerous characters and layers of story in 11.22.63. The novel rewards a luxurious thorough read. There are gifts too from much of its language. For instance:
‘But the nice man had cold eyes. When interacting with his fascinated lady-harem, they had been blue. But when he turned his attention to me – however briefly – I could have sworn that they turned gray, the color of water beneath a sky from which snow will soon fall.’
I would recommend that you not be put off by the bulk of 11.22.63, instead be thankful that it is such a size that it will obsess you for a fair few fortunate days. And afterwards it will not let you forget it.