by Stephen King
There was a time a couple of years ago when I felt like I never slept. (who am I kidding – I still barely sleep!) Having a newborn who nursed around-the-clock (or close enough to it) meant that Ebooks and television on the iPad were my nocturnal companions. The incessant glow of the little screen at midnight, 2am, 4am, 6am (yes, he nursed every two hours – on the dot, for over a year) kept me awake enough so I didn’t collapse into a deep slumber and unknowingly smother my baby. I sped through the entire 9 seasons of One Tree Hill on Netflix (in case you’re wondering, that’s over 180 hours of television) and began Will & Grace from the beginning (all the while trying not to laugh too hard at Just Jack). I watched documentaries and old movies, and I read book after book while straining all the while to keep my eyes open.
Somewhere between month 4 and month 5, I came across a television series on Hulu starring James Franco. If anyone could keep me up at 3am after a collective 4 hours sleep set across three days, it was James Franco. The quintessential James Dean of our era, his quirky acting style and deeply profound intelligence has always sparked my interest. If you think he’s just a quack, pick up his book of poetry. Or stream one of his lectures at NYU, where he teaches film class.
The miniseries 11-22-63 immediately had me hooked. Having no idea what it was about when I flicked it on and really only tuning in for a look at ole’ Mr. Franco, I found myself sucked into that autoplay black hole of Hulu/Netflix/AmazonPrime as the first episode played out. As a long-standing Dallasite myself, the mystery surrounding JFK’s assassination in the city a mere 20 minutes from me has always been that just extra bit intriguing. How many times have I driven the route our former President and his wife took, myself? And every time I do, there’s a little chill that goes through me as I remember that someone received a kill-shot while traveling this same road, prompting a collection of conspiracy theories that have kept going at strong speed for more than 50 years. Who was the man on the grassy knoll? Was Oswald in it alone? Did he even do it? There is an entire museum dedicated to the most famous presidential assassination in our nation’s history; a murder that has captivated history buffs and Americans alike since the day it happened. JFK was beloved, regardless of his many faults, and his wife was even more so. No one can ever forget the iconic pink Chanel suit splattered with brain matter and blood.
I knew I had to pick up the novel, even though I was shocked to find out who penned it.
As my first descent into the world of Stephen King, 11-22-63 had a daunting appearance. It came in hot. It’s huge. Gargantuan. I could seriously injure my husband were I to throw this book at him in a fit of rage (not that I would . . . but, you know . . . well, I wouldn’t throw at book at him again. Trust me, he deserved it the first time). I’d always steered clear of King novels; having been a child of the 80’s and an adolescent in the 90’s, I grew up as most kids of that era did – trying over and over and over to get through the entirety of cult classic It on cable television, but having to stop halfway through because I was fucking scared out of my ever-loving mind. Images of red balloons and paper sailboats still haunt most of us to this day, and don’t try to pretend that you don’t avoid storm drains like the plague. I’d been equally traumatized by Carrie standing in her pig’s blood, holding a withered bouquet of flowers at the prom and terrorized by the fact that my cat resembled Church from the horror film Pet Semetary. I had nightmares about the mother in Sleepwalkers, kept a wide berth between myself and any dog who looked like he could even remotely be related to Cujo, and refused to get into old cars like Christine. Don’t even get me started on Creepshow.
In my head, Stephen King was the King of Horror. He knew how to take the mildest of frightening images and twist them into something nasty and paralyzing. He knew how to drag the deepest of fears from nearly everyone, shoving them on display in a variety of oh-my-God ways. And as such, I’d never picked up one of his (notoriously massive) novels. I’d never wanted to revisit that part of my childhood. I wanted to keep my terror locked away forever.
But as I progressed through the miniseries for 11-22-63, I began to see that it was not a horror-filled display. It had shades of comedic timing, witty banter, a lingering romance between a sweet young teacher and a jaded man from the future. It had substance and feeling; it was wracked with history and imagination. So, I began my first Stephen King novel.
Jake Epping spent many a lazy weekend afternoon sipping coffee at his favorite diner. A hole-in-the-wall pitstop, the diner was a haven for locals looking for the quiet ambiance and the delicious burgers sold at a rock bottom price. The proprietor, Al, is an amiable and chatty fellow that Epping has struck up a friendly camaraderie with over the years, especially since Jake’s divorce and all the extra time he has on his hands.
Meeting Al one day at the diner proves to become a day that Jake will never forget. Questioning the diner owner on his noticeably haggard appearance and the curious way his friend seems to have aged overnight leads to a revelation; there is a door in the back of the diner that will lead whoever enters it back into the past. Back to September 9, 1958, to be exact.
Al has a proposal for Jake. Having been in and out of the time traveling portal for years (and spending years in the past at a time) Al is nearing the end of his time. Crossing back and forth does something to your health, making you age quickly and exposing you to all sorts of nasty things. His time of removing himself to the past has come to an end, but his plan of action has not been fulfilled.
For years, Al has been going to the past for one purpose only – to stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and in doing so, change the course of America’s history. According to Al, the President’s death jumpstarted a multitude of death and destruction across various parameters for Americans, and he is determined to change things. During his time in the past, Al did his due diligence, making sure without a shadow of a doubt that Oswald was indeed the killer that day in 1963. Convinced of Oswald’s ultimate guilt and steadfast in his certainty that preventing this one event from happening would be for the betterment of America, Al convinces a reluctant Jake to carry on his life’s work and change the past in one of the most dramatic ways possible.
In an effort to test the theory, Jake decides to experiment his first time around in the portal. Remembering a poignant essay from one of his former students, Jake seeks the child version of Harry Dunning. Traveling to Derry, Maine, Jake quietly inserts himself into the small town’s society, on a mission to see if he can indeed change history. The essay his student penned detailed a horrific Halloween evening, where Harry’s father entered the family home and slaughtered the entire family. Jake resets the course of young Harry Dunning’s life and eagerly returns to the present.
But things did not go according to plan. Jake returns to learn that he did change Harry’s life, but not necessarily for the better. Even more reluctant to put a stop to the assassination of JFK, Jake decides to refuse Al’s request. Unfortunately for Jake, he ends up having no choice – Al has taken his own life, putting direct and immediate pressure on Jake to finish Al’s work before his death becomes public knowledge and the diner is destroyed, the portal along with it.
Cemented in the past and on a mission, Jake will spend the next five years learning the ropes and doing as much research as he can. He’ll use his knowledge of the future to tip the scales as much in his favor as he dares, but there will always be danger lurking for the man invading a space he doesn’t belong in. Jake will fall in love, he will make friends, and he will conjure relationships in places that he never expected . . . including, one with Oswald himself.
But can you change the past without irreversibly destroying the future? Is hindsight truly 20/20? And will Jake have the courage to finish what he started, preventing the death of one of the most beloved men in American history?
11/22/63 gets a 4.5 out of 5 star rating for me. The ONLY reason I can’t give a full 5 stars is because I felt that the first quarter of the book held a little bit of redundancy, and it put me off. I really loved this book on the whole, and the last few chapters left me feeling all the feels. The television series was good but really couldn’t hold a candle to the book . . . James Franco or no. I recommend this (really huge) novel to lovers of JFK and the conspiracy theories surrounding his death (aficionados of that part of history will appreciate all of the acute research and lovely details provided by King) and fans of time-traveling history. Yes, the book is huge, but it is not hard to get through at all. Fans of King will enjoy the nods to his other novels, hidden about like colorful Easter eggs, including the mysterious town of Derry . . . the same town with the red balloons that haunted me so many years ago. And still does, if I’m being honest.