11/22/63 is a massive, breathtaking novel that may finally affirm Stephen King as a great writer. I’ll get to that book in the moment (just finished it today), but I want to talk about something else first.
I recently read a speech by Brian Keene, which he gave during Anthocon 2011. It was called 'Know Your Genre'.’ He runs through the history of horror literature, dividing it into waves that span from the 1900’s to the present. It’s a decent speech, and near the end he poked fun at several posters on the Shocklines message board who aren’t all that familiar with Robert Bloch. He gave the impression that without a knowledge of that very definite and linear progression of horror writers, a new horror writer is in trouble.
I felt the speech was too precise - it posited horror writing as wizardry that must be handed down from one generation to another. Stephen King himself, along with Dean Koontz and Peter Straub, is named as part of the Fourth Wave that came to be during the seventies and eighties. Before the fourth wave came the third: Serling, Bloch, Bradbury, Matheson. After the fourth wave came writers like Keene, Joe Hill, Tim Lebbon, Wrath James White. Going by Keene’s speech, I can almost see these writers at neat, persnickety horror-genre reunions in which the tables are grouped by age and rank. Then they get drunk and knock up the serving staff with illegitimate children.
My own take on the ‘Know Your Genre’ theme? I’ve been a horror fan all my life. I think the progression of the genre is far more amorphous that we’d care to admit. I think that to group it into this square Danse Macabre is limiting and not particularly accurate. I also think that Stephen King wasn’t part of a wave of any kind. He was a meteor that sent waves crashing out in every direction. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read horror published within the last five years that has some element of Stephen King. Often, these efforts fall way short of the mark, but I can still tell.
Let’s discuss King’s influences. If you’ve read Bradbury, you know how much King owes to Bradbury’s collection ‘The October Country.’ But Bradbury was more a Science Fiction writer; he hung out with Heinlein and Forrest J. Ackerman. Right there is a broken link in the genre chain.
One of King’s favorite tropes is the simple, childlike character with precognitive ability: Danny Torrance in The Shining, Mother Abigail in The Stand, the blind girl in The Langoliers, Charlie in Firestarter, John Smith in The Dead Zone. In The Stand, a character wistfully remembers reading Richard Adam’s Watership Down. If someone in a King book talks or thinks of a book, it’s because King thought it was significant. Who is the central character in that novel of talking rabbits? Fiver, the dreamy and runty little rabbit with psychic powers. He foretells the arrival of the dog who attacks General Woundwort. Two of King’s great influences are fantasy authors.
So we have the greatest horror writer in the genre, who happens to be one of the best-selling authors world-wide, who has non-horror writers as his influences, who writes best-selling novels that sometimes aren’t even horror. King is a great storyteller who happens to like writing horror; he could write anything and you’d still be reading the review at the front your newspaper’s book section. He takes whatever he needs from every genre and has melded it all into a cohesive whole, into a style that reminds me more of Charles Dickens or Mark Twain. And he isn’t part of a wave of the seventies and eighties - he’s still here and right now he’s at the top of the heap.
11/22/63 is a sort-of time travel novel, but that’s a conceit that allows King to write a story that at its heart is of adventure and love. It is not a horror novel.
Jake Epping, a high school English teacher, discovers that the owner of the local diner has been travelling back in time to buy his wholesale meat at 1950’s prices. Besides buying cheap ground beef and winning long odds sports bets, Al Templeton has been researching the Kennedy assassination - he wants to stop it. But here’s the wrinkle - the time portal he uses takes him back to the same place in 1958, five years before Lee Harvey Oswald kills Kennedy, and when he steps back into the present in 2011, only two minutes have passed. During his last visit, when he was gone for years while planning to change history, Al got lung cancer and had to return to the present to find a replacement who will save the president. Now dying and desperate for a chance to see his dream fulfilled, he wants the divorced and childless Jake Epping to go back in time to kill Lee Harvey Oswald. After Jake sees the time portal (which is in Al’s pantry) and what it can do, he agrees.
What follows is a dizzying trip back to the year between 1958 and 1963. Ford Sunliners, hipsters, Glen Miller, gullwing fins, crewcuts, segregation, soda-shop rootbeer, taking a trip two towns over to buy condoms, poodle skirts - these are just a few of details among thousands that King and his research assistant have put into this novel. Jake comes into a world that is vastly more simple, kind, and cheap, and finds himself falling in love with it. He travels the country, starting in Maine, going to Florida, and finally to Texas to hunker down and wait for Lee to arrive in Fort Worth before he makes that fateful trip to Dallas. Jake falls in love, makes friends, trying desperately to keep his future self apart from his past self, which has become a teacher and respected member of the community.
I became completely immersed in this book, much in the way I do when reading George RR Martin or Jonathan Franzen. Amidst the world-building, the characters that seem to step living and breathing off the page, there is the King obsession with words, and the deeper meaning below them: names, places, and actions all have similar but not identical siblings throughout the book, engendering a sense of unease and unreality that belies that fabulous, rock-solid historical detail. It is as if magic is bubbling up through cracks in asphalt.
King, as he always has, writes in serviceable, clear prose, which you would think is the easy way out, but why don’t more authors write like this? As in Betty Smith’s writing, there is never any doubt as to what is happening. But, on rare occasions, King busts out with beauties like this:
It’s all of a piece, I thought. It’s an echo so close to perfect you can’t tell which one is the living voice and which is the ghost-voice returning.
For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life. Behind it? Below it and around it? Chaos, storms. Men with hammers, men with knives, men with guns. Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand. A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.
Here, and in a few other passages like it, which I can count on the fingers of one hand, is where the true mystic emerges. This is talent, it’s magic, it’s (too make a pun with the title of one his novels)…IT. I think that here, in this one passage, lies much of what makes Stephen King tick. It’s not horror, not any particular genre, but story. Storytelling, narrative. Hope, dancing (dancing is an enormous theme in this novel) against the entirely purposeless force of decay.
Buy this novel. Start it on a Friday so you won’t miss work or school. But read it.
Stephen King still has it. After his accident, at the age of sixty-four, he’s still the equal of the young turk who wrote The Dead Zone and The Stand. He might even be better.