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11/22/63: Stephen King From Another Perspective
Horror Makes Way For History
If the name Stephen King conjures up visions of evil cars (Christine), demented dogs (Cujo), or certifiably wacky women (Misery), you’re in for a surprise if you decide to tackle the author’s 849-page tome, 11/22/63. This book deftly sets King’s trademark use of horror on the back burner to concentrate on the fascinating genre of historical science fiction.
In most of King’s novels, the horror blossoms from a skewed reality. For example, in Carrie, published in 1974, the title character is a victim of bullying and of a mother who is a frenetic religious fanatic. Carrie’s telekinetic powers, however, carry the book beyond all that and manage to deliver a chilling message to those who might consider bullying and/or fanaticism a satisfying endeavor. The Shining (1977) rapidly escalates from the tale of an alcoholic hotel caretaker and would-be playwright to the terror of Unchecked Rage brushing shoulders with Resident Evil. (Who could ever forget a wild-eyed Jack Nicholson’s , “Heeeeeeeeeeeeeere’s Johnny,” in the cinematic portrayal of the novel?) Then there was former nurse Annie Wilkes’ horrific ministering to the injured novelist she purportedly idolized in Misery (1987).
A Portal To The Past...
11/22/63 features what might be called “parallel realities.” The story begins (and ends) in the present time in Derry, Maine, which serves as the setting for many of Maine-native Stephen’s King’s novels.The narrator and main (Maine) character, Jake Epping, is a 35-year-old high school English teacher. (Unlike some of King’s main characters, Epping is neither evil nor insane, and the only ghost that haunts him is the specter of what might have been.) Pressured and prodded by his dying friend, Al, Jake returns to the past by way of a time portal (the science fiction element) in Al’s diner to try and save President John F. Kennedy. (Al would have done it himself- he’s passed through the portal many times- but he knows that for him, time is about to run out.) The one drawback to this particular time portal, though, is the fact that the time traveler always finds himself in 1958 Derry on the same day, same time. This means that he must stick around for four more years in order to save the president, and he must somehow make his way to Texas. One of the positive features of the time portal (and perhaps the most contrived) is the fact that whenever the time traveler chooses to return to the present, only two minutes will have passed from the time he left.
...As Obdurate As It Is
Jake finally is convinced. He literally will step into the past, but not just to save President Kennedy. He also plans to change the fate of Harry, a mentally limited student in his adult GED class, whose family was murdered by Harry’s father many years ago. Al has assured him that it is indeed possible to change the past- he’s had a few “trial runs”- but Jake is not all that certain that this kind of “change” is wise. Almost from the beginning of his journey, he realizes that history is “obdurate,” as he assures the reader “time after time.” (Time After Time actually is the sequel to Jack Finney’s Time and Again , to which which Stephen King refers in his the Afterword of his book as “the time- travel story.”) In other words, history is resistant to change. Jake also learns that time involves a certain harmony of people, places, events, and even names. The book is so long because it takes Jake several trips- and, of course, four years’ worth of experiences- to unravel just a few threads that comprise the mystery of time.
Multiple plot lines, several of which increase the stakes, as it were, for Jake, are generated by his determination to save JFK. Each of his experiences seems to be underlined by the same theme: Histroy is, indeed, obdurate. On his final trip back in time, Jake meets Sadie, who turns out to be the love of his life, during his tenure at the local high school in Jodie, Texas. He’s the beloved English teacher/drama coach; she’s the willowy ( and adorably clumsy) winsome new librarian. Quite a bit of the novel is devoted to Jake’s (aka George Amberson) time in Jodie, a town that he comes to love. He even inadvertently sharpen’s a few history-changing skills there. He finally realizes, though, that in order to achieve his objective, he needs to move closer to the scene of the crime he has “travelled” to prevent. (Ultimately, he questions the ethical validity of that objective.)
A Texan At Heart?
Jake’s move closer to Dallas is when the “historical” feature of the novel really kicks in. Through Jake’s experiences, the reader feels that he/she actually comes to know the defector/wife-abuser/father/mother-smothered/weasel named Lee Harvey Oswald. Jake’s narrative also takes us back to many of the people, places, and events leading up to November 22nd, 1963 and revisits issues like the Lone Gunman versus the Conspiracy Theory. All of us--- those who clearly remember where we were that day (and anyone over the age of 54 will assure you that he/she does) and those who were merely a gleam in the eye of the universe--- get a close-up view of the Dallas of almost 50 years ago. The science fiction element, of course, is the much-explored idea of time travel and the major question it poses: What would happen if just one small part- not to mention a major incident- of history were changed? Stephen King’s answer to that question leads to the one glimpse of pure horror in the novel.
Considering A Trip Through Time
This book is not one of those I-can’t-put-it-down best sellers. It is, however, a tool towards underlining the importance of the past while considering the possible consequences of tampering with time. (Imagine an alternate version of an American history textbook without any reference to a Lee Harvey Oswald or a Jack Ruby. What else might be different?) To those who might say, “I never did like Stephen King, so I won’t read this” I would reply, “Perhaps you’d be interested in meeting his other personality?”
If you ever happen upon one of those time portals in your local diner, think carefully before you step on through. It might cost you far more than the yellow card- or the orange one- or, heaven forbid, the black one- held by the bum you encounter on the other side. Ask Jake Epping.