On a recent Facebook comment thread where I mentioned the latest book I was nose-deep in, 11/22/63, my buddy Andrew asked, “The day Doctor Who premiered?” I told him I was taking his degree away.
While the premiere date of Doctor Who (a day later, the 23rd) may well be a day that lives in infamy for many of us here at With An Accent, the day before–11/22/63–lives in infamy for everyone in the world. In case you’ve been living under a rock, 11/22/63 is the date that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas by a supposed lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald. It is also the title of Stephen King‘s latest non-Dark Tower novel. One guess what the subject matter is!
11/22/63 is one of King’s outliers, as I like to call them–books written thoroughly outside what is considered his usual genre, Horror. Certainly when King was a young man with a young career you could pigeonhole him as a Horror writer, but this far down the line he’s offered too much outside of the genre to be classified so narrowly. Therefore, in 11/22/63 you will not find any malevolent supernatural entities wearing the skin of childhood fears, sentient 1958 Plymouth Furies, needful things, or redrum.
Here’s the best thing about King, though: for those of us who came to him because of a love of the Horror genre, these “outliers” offer quite a bit of familiarity. For those stories without passing references to breakers or the Crimson King that imply a singular universe, the tone of the story still drips King from every word . . . and not just because the man has one hell of a singular literary voice. A perfect example of this is the novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (from Different Seasons, 1982). Shawshank‘s film adaptation was a relatively faithful one, yet no Blockbuster employee stocked it on the Horror shelf. Still, it’s a story as dark as it is uplifting, and that is pure King. Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption may have had no ghosts or ghoulies, but it was still written by a man with the heart of a young boy–one he keeps in a jar on his desk.
The same goes for 11/22/63. King’s never tackled time travel before that I’m aware of, but he does here in grand fashion. The basic gist of the plot is this: Jake Epping is an unremarkable 35-year old high school English teacher from Lisbon Falls, Maine. He eats at the local diner, Al’s, thinks sometimes of his alcoholic ex-wife and spends an inordinate amount of time grading papers. One day Al summons him down to the diner and imparts a very important secret to him: there’s a spot in Al’s storeroom that is a portal to a day in September, 1958. A crack in the skin of the world, one might say. (See what I did there?!)
Al is obsessed with the idea that the Kennedy assassination is a turning point in history that if changed, would significantly improve the quality of life in the present. Robert Kennedy may not have been assassinated–perhaps not even Martin Luther King! Most importantly, Vietnam may not have turned into a black mark in America’s History books. Unfortunately, the past is obdurate to change and Al is on the verge of death, having had to ditch back out to 2011 when he developed (not-so-coincidental) cancer before he could reach November of ’63. What he asks of Jake, of course, is to take over this mission. Save the cheerleader, save the wor–wait, that’s something else.
Although Lee, Marina Oswald, baby June, and even George de Mohrenschildt are actual characters in the book (through Jake’s observation, mainly), the true big player here is that obdurate past. No ghoulies or ghosties, sure, but time’s inevitable march and the past’s compulsion to protect itself becomes Jake’s main adversary more than Lee Oswald ever could. He finds himself jumping quite a few hurdles on his quest–especially once he begins his observation of the Oswalds–but the biggest and most heartbreaking hurdle comes when he falls head over heels in love.
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