Stephen King’s new book 11.22.63 is best described as alt-history, or as academics put it, counterfactuals. The premise is not that unusual for the genre—there’s a bit of time travel involved, people rediscovering a world without technology, and of course a little bit of time- and space-bending romance. Oh, and an attempt to stop the John F. Kennedy (JFK) assassination.
While King is most famous as a horror writer, he’s been able to work well outside of those bounds in the past, and 11.22.63 is a testament to his skill as a writer, in being able to completely humanize this kind of story, and make it relatable.
King’s style is easy to follow and while the concept should lend itself to the “what if?” question so often raised by the genre, this book is about the people and the time. If you were looking for hard science fiction in the genre, this would be a good time to tune out, and pick up Harry Turtledove instead.
King is definitely mainstream, and there are no monsters here either, at least not in the way you might expect. There are, instead, people, people who are deeply disturbed and disturbing, people who are doing horrible things to each other. That they are ordinary people, driven by relatable motivations, makes the whole scenario even worse, as King drives home the point that there is only a thin line between man and monster.
The protagonist, Jake Epping, is guided by his friend Al, in our present, to the world of 1958 America to save JFK, via a convenient “time portal” in Al’s diner. But the real reason for Epping to go into the past is to save the mother of one of his students from being brutally murdered by her husband. In doing so, he must encounter 1958 America. King has built a clear picture of the world he knew as a teenager.
Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination are well-researched by King (as the long bibliography shows), and the lead-up to the day of the assassination is described in great detail, along with Oswald’s relationship with his family and associates.
The five years that Epping spends are thoroughly researched and described, as he slowly changes from a modern man used to the Internet and gadgets, into a small-town American at one of the crossroads of history.
There’s a definite sense of love in his writing, complete with detailed research into the period, into Oswald, into the Kennedy assassination. But what dominates the book is Epping’s relationship with Sadie Dunhill, and the love that, to quote the dust jacket, “transgresses all the normal rules of time”.
This relationship forms the core of the book, and it’s through Dunhill that Epping is defined, and develops character. She provides the drive for the book as a whole, keeping Epping motivated, and the reader interested. There are subtle cues throughout the book of how this relationship is going to shape the end, but even so, in proper King style, the denouement is satisfying and unexpected.
The style is accessible, but some might be disappointed to note that it isn’t a traditional horror story. The element of time travel is the only fantastical plot point. However, by making the story essentially about relatable people, and then putting them in horrible situations, King manages to be terrifying, yet utterly real. For King fans, the book is a must buy, and even if you haven’t been following his work, it’s worth reading.