By Mollie Campbell
Genre: Science Fiction, Alternate History
Contains Mild Spoilers
I haven’t published many book reviews recently, so I thought I’d get back to it by reviewing one of my favourite books by one of my favourite authors, 11.22.63 by Stephen King.
Released in November 2011, 11.22.63 is a science fiction story about Maine high school teacher Jake Epping. During one of his trips to the local diner, owner Al introduces Jake to the marvellous and mind-bending world of time travel, by means of a chance force field/portal in the pantry of his diner. He soon finds himself transported to Lisbon Falls, Maine in the year 1958. And what awaits him there has the power the change the course of multiple lives, even the president of the United States. Following his first visit, Al recruits Jake to do what he has attempted and failed to do himself… prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
The book flies by so quickly it is hard to believe it is over 700 pages long, from the minute Jake first steps foot in 1958, to the minute he returns we too are transported to a world described to us as utter bliss. We get to see through rose tinted glasses and travel to a time in which small town America was in the midst of a utopia, prices were lower, the roads smoother, soda sweeter, lawns greener and the sun shone brighter, America in its splendour. But its very fabric was about to be rocked, and as Jake nears that dreadful day in Dallas, November ’63, we too feel an intense desire for the power of time-travel, knowing what earth’s fortuitous influence had in store. We start to cling to the idea of what Jake has the capability of doing, so much so that we ourselves momentarily forget the ending, living partly in that other timeline in which Kennedy lived.
Jake begins his mission with a name change, George Amberson. And as he delves further into the past, year by year, only the core remnants of his future self remains, and the deeper he travels, the more he envelopes himself into history. We start to see Jake as the obscured shadow that follows George around, fading with each footstep. As he sets up a new life in the past, he visits places and meets people he doesn’t want to leave behind whilst continuing his mission to save JFK. Everything ties together, the past and the future bound as one until one has to be sacrificed, encapsulating us until the very last page.
The most wonderful aspect of this book is how rich it is in its illustrations of the past, the way King recounts the 50s/60s with such detail and conviction makes you wonder if he is using his own time machine. The description of specific cars, the taste of the apple pies and milkshakes, the specifics of the clothing, the music etc… Is like nothing I’ve read in any other book, the sheer amount of research carried out deserves an award in itself. But what makes it so special is the way it was written almost as a horror in disguise. Now obviously Stephen King predominantly writes horror fiction, so when you pick up one of his books you know you’re in for something scary. The thing about his books is the reality of these horrors, they are a creation of our very innermost fears, and fictitious or not, they feel real to us. King takes that authentic element in his horrors, and elevates the stories into something far less phony and much more realistic, or conceivable, the characters aren’t real but the fear is. Yet, at the end of the day we know that Pennywise isn’t about to appear around the corner, or that Annie Wilks or Jack Torrance aren’t hiding underneath our beds. With 11.22.63 whilst it is officially a science fiction story, the horror itself is the title. That day, in which America’s innocence was banished into another realm, never to be seen again…that was the horror. And it was real. That element alone is what makes this one of King’s most chilling tales.
As a fan of JFK and Stephen King, this book was perfect for me. Everything about it is spot on, its descriptions, its characters and the way it portrays life and all its ensuing tragedies. It is gripping, emotional, historical, witty and thrilling, I think this is one of the greatest books Stephen King has ever written, blasting us into another world so radically, yet so steadily, it feels as if we driving along to the sunny 50’s landscape of a small American town, right alongside Jake Epping.
Thanks for reading.
P.S. The series adaptation of 11.22.63 is also thoroughly enjoyable and is available on Hulu (US) and Amazon Prime Video (UK).