I have never been a Stephen King fan. But then, I had never read a Stephen King novel. Not until now, that is. I thought that Stephen King only wrote horror stories and they scare the hell out of me, so I have to leave them alone. The last horror novel I read was The Exorcist. I still shudder to think about all that heavy furniture slamming around rooms with only the force of the devil behind it. Of course, I saw the movie, too, and haven’t been able to eat split pea soup since. But, I digress.
I kept seeing this giant, door-stopper of a book (849 pages) by Stephen King on tables in airports and bookstores, titled, 11/22/63, apparently about the Kennedy assassination, and time travel. I got curious. I like a big hefty novel, feel cheated if a novel is less than 400 pages, in fact. When a friend of mine told me he’d just finished reading it, that he liked it a lot, I asked to borrow it. And thus begins my new fascination with Stephen King.
11/22/63 is essentially a love story and a time travel book with the situation of the Kennedy assassination as a backdrop. The main character is a high school English teacher, Jake Epping, who lives in a small town in Maine in the present day. Jake is divorced and lonely, spends time eating burgers at a local diner and teaching a GED course for adults at night. When the owner of the diner, Al, suddenly becomes ill, he’s dying, he tells Jake about the time warp behind the door in the diner’s pantry. Seems as though Al has been travelling back in time to try to stop the Kennedy assassination, change the course of history for years. But he knows he’s too sick now to complete his mission; he’s going to die before he makes it to 1963. He wants Jake to do it. The key is that anyone through the door ends up in 1958 and has five years to spend in that earlier time, the run up to Kennedy’s death. Returning to the present time is possible, but anything that had been changed is then erased, the clock turned back. Jake goes in to check it out, stays only a short while, but is intrigued enough that he promises his dying friend that he’ll do it; he’ll try to stop Lee Harvey Oswald.
To begin with, though, Jake has another mission. His goal is to stop a man from murdering most of his family, a story Jake knows from his GED course. It’s the story of the high school janitor, who has written it as an assignment Jake has given, “The Day That Changed My Life.” His story makes Jake cry, and he’s not a crying man. If he can go back and keep this old man from suffering through the most painful day of his life, when he watched his father kill his mother and his siblings, it would be worthwhile. Jake discovers with this test case that, as Al has warned him, “the past doesn’t want to be changed” and that the consequence of changing one thing is a huge domino effect.
Jake returns to his small town in Maine twice before he decides to stay for the long haul, to see if he can stop Oswald. In the course of his time in the past, Jake rents a place in a town near Dallas, takes a job as a high school English teacher and falls in love. He also directs the class play. And while I’m not usually a crying reader, I cried when reading a scene in which Jake convinces a football player to keep his part in the class play (Of Mice and Men) even though his teammates are teasing him mercilessly for being a “sissy.” It’s a life lesson about doing what you believe in and not giving in. I’ve read this kind of thing a thousand times. I don’t think I’ve ever cried about it. Right here I decide that Stephen King is a genius and read the rest of the story in just a couple of days – remember, I have a job, a writing life and a spouse. But I find it hard to put this book down.
And the book is funny, too. There were times I laughed out loud and had to read passages to my husband who I knew would love them, even without the context of the novel. And he did. And then, of course, there’s the stuff about evil. Stephen King is fascinated by evil.
Okay, so go out and get this book and read it. I bet you’ll like the story and it may just get you thinking about murder and evil, but in a more subtle way, with no flying furniture in sight. Get it from the library or borrow it. Stephen King has enough money; you probably don’t need to buy it to keep him solvent. But count me in now. I’m a big fan.
Did you know Stephen King wrote a book about writing? Stay tuned.