11/22/63 by Stephen King

King, Stephen. 11/22/63. New York: Scribner, 2011.

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You can say I’ve grown up with Stephen King. My first introduction to him was being told I “looked like Carrie” when I was in seventh grade (which really means the girl who said it thought I looked like Sissy Spacek, an observation with which I’ve never agreed). I hadn’t seen the movie; I hadn’t read the book; and I didn’t know who Stephen King was. I soon would. I read my first Stephen King book about a year or so later. It was Salem’s Lot, and it scared the living daylights out of me, which means I loved it, and I immediately went in search of more.  It didn’t take me long to find The Shining, still one of my all-time favorite horror novels  (and movies). I went on from there, and  over the years, I’ve read plenty of Stephen King books, although I’ve come nowhere near reading everything he’s written — he’s so prolific, and his books are often so long, and, well, there are other authors in the world to read — but I return to him time and again when I want something spooky, especially something spooky set in Maine. This is the best of his I’ve read.

I find it funny to be saying that because, for me anyway, this book isn’t “typical” Stephen King, which is to say it falls more into fantasy than horror. I know. These two genres are sometimes indistinguishable, and this could be described as “dark fantasy,” rendering it even more indistinguishable from horror, but I guess what I mean is that this book didn’t scare me at all. What it did do was mesmerize me.

I’m always eager to read books about time travel, a subject that fascinates me, and this book was no exception. Everyone I know who’d read it (including my husband) had raved about it, and what could be a more interesting time travel tale than someone who goes back in time to try to prevent an assassination (in this case, JFK’s)? I was still in my mother’s womb when Kennedy was shot, so I’m not one of those, like everyone I know who was over the age of five when it happened, who can tell you exactly what she was doing and how she felt when she heard the news that day. I’ve never had a huge interest in the subject — just a very sad moment in U.S. history and the opening for what would become the turbulent sixties with other assassinations to come. But the idea of preventing any assassination and what the consequences might be is a great premise for a novel. It seemed reminiscent of another one of my favorite Stephen King novels, The Dead Zone, which has that same “what if” element to it.

I have to admit I was a bit worried when I first started the book. As much as I love time travel stories, they have to be really good — especially if they’re full-length novels — because I can get bogged down in details that make it very hard for me to suspend all disbelief. My favorites are A Traveler in Time by Allison Uttley, To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis, Time and Again by Jack Finney, and The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger — all of which have flaws in their logic but which also have such good, fun story lines I was soon willing to stop all my “yes, but-ting” and just enjoy the well-crafted tales.

I needn’t have worried. After all, this is Stephen King, storyteller extraordinaire. He had me before I’d hit ten pages, all disbelief suspended by strong ropes somewhere far away from my brain. The story is so imaginative and so well-told, and I absolutely love the fact that some of it takes place in Derry, ME, making use of characters and events in King’s novel It (which is the scariest of his I’ve read).

11/22/63 is a long book, yes, but I loved every minute of it. It was fun to travel back to that era in such an interesting way, obtaining details of the late fifties and early sixties from the perspective of someone experiencing them for the first time (our “hero” Jake is in his thirties, born long after JFK’s assassination, and like me, not really all that interested in it until this opportunity hits). King includes little things to make you chuckle (“One day, someone’s going to prove cigarette smoking is bad for you”) and others to make those who remember the years (like King himself) nostalgic (root beer had real flavor). And, of course, there is suspense. Jake hits 1958, and it doesn’t take long at all for him to be living a life that keeps the reader on pins and needles, worried about what’s going to happen next. There’s a nice little romance in there, too, and there were actually a few wry observations that made me laugh out loud (“instead of being the man who mistook his wife for a hat, I’m the man who thought he was in 1958”).

Sometimes (okay, quite often), King’s endings are weak. Not so, here. The ending is perfect — things are okay but not “happily ever after,” and he presents us with some real food for thought. If you love King and haven’t read this yet, you won’t be disappointed. If you’ve never read him, read this, but be forewarned: loving it doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily like anything else he’s ever written, unless you’re a fan of horror and dark fantasy (but if that’s the case, why haven’t you yet read him?). I’d be willing to go out on a limb and say this one is his Masterpiece.