When you think of a classic romance novel you might think of Nicholas Sparks, or someone of that ilk. You might go a bit more modern and think of EL James. But really, if you’re looking for a true love story, look no further than Stephen King. He may be posited as a horror writer, but in actuality, he writes love stories. His books may take place in horror settings, in worlds filled with the supernatural, but make no mistake; Stephen King writes some of the most beautiful love stories ever written. 11.22.63 is no exception.
11.22.63 doesn’t seem like the kind of novel you’d expect from King. However, to avid readers such as myself, it’s exactly what you’d expect – King’s recent focus has been less on classic horror, a la The Shining or IT, and more on writing what you suspect he’s always wanted to write. In fact, he says as much in the afterword to this novel, but you only have to read the book to see this is his true passion.
And I for one am glad he has, as some of his recent books have been some of his all-time best. 11.22.63 is one of those.
Upon reading, you’ll find plenty of horror in this novel – though it’s not a large part of it. If you don’t know the premise, our main character Jake Epping (or George Amberson, as he’s more often known) is shown a portal that allows him to travel back in time to 1958. The person that shows him this portal asks him to prevent the assassination of John F Kennedy, JFK. JFK was assassinated on the 22nd November 1963. 11/22/63.
Whilst it’s partially a horror novel, and the driver for the story is preventing JFK’s assassination, this book’s strongest part is its love story. Jake, now known as George, living in the past waiting for the assassination date, meets and falls in love with Sadie, a recent divorcee. As we watch their relationship build, and stumble, and stutter, and rebuild, it’s beautiful to read. It’s fascinating to read how George balances his many lives, as teacher, boyfriend, writer, time traveller, American hero. It’s impossible not to be suckered into the story, and to not become completely invested in Jake and Sadie’s relationship. Which is a testament to just how well this book is written. One of King’s best attributes is how well he knows people, and how well he writes them – he really is second to none in this respect.
Where the horror comes from in the novel is that, though Jake is trying to prevent the Kennedy assassination, the past doesn’t like to be changed, and it fights back. Jake/George does a couple of test runs to see if it’s actually possible to change the past – each time he goes down the rabbit hole, as he calls it, the changes he made on his previous trip are reset, so there’s plenty of trial and error. And each time he tries to change the past, the past tries to stop him.
From fallen trees to flat tyres, car crashes to violent assaults; to use Jake’s words, the past is obdurate. It really is horrifying to read the events that transpire, seemingly from nowhere, to try and stop Jake. Reading the novel, you can feel how ominous it is; it’s as if the cloud hanging above Jake’s head the entire time he is living in the past is above our heads too. It’s not a pleasant feeling. But it is enjoyable nonetheless – King writes so well that you almost come to enjoy the ill feelings.
I’ve been a fan of King since my mid-teens, and am constantly in awe of the world he has built, and how nearly all his novels tie in to one another in some way. That 11.22.63 references IT fairly regularly in its opening chapters came as no surprise, but caused me to fall in love with it immediately. It displays King’s self-awareness, and his talent for binding things together, in spades. Reading this book, and suddenly hearing “beep beep Richie”, it was like being home – which is a strange feeling to have, as so much of this novel is about not having a home. It’s beautiful in its melancholy.
The ending is classic King – our expectations are completely subverted, but in a way that it’s impossible not to appreciate. As with so many of his novels, King ends this one in a way that is somehow tragic, somehow beautiful, but completely appropriate. And he leaves it wrapped up in a neat little bow. This book is like a present, and it’s one that stays fresh each time you unwrap it. I can’t recommend it enough.