Book Review: 11.22.63 by Stephen King
11.22.63, or 22.11.63 to us English folks, doesn’t seem like the kind of novel you’d expect from the inimitable master of horror that is Stephen 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, more on writing what it seems he’s always wants to write. And I’m 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) can travel back in time to 1958, and he’s tasked by a friend to prevent the assassination of John F Kennedy, JFK. JFK was assassinated on the 22nd November 1963 – is it all making sense now? Clever, eh?
Whilst it’s partially a horror novel, and the driver for the story is preventing JFK’s assassination, this book’s strongest part of it is a love story. Now I know what you’re thinking, how lame – but it really isn’t. 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. The ending of the novel brings a tear to my eye every time (this reading was the third), and that’s probably partially because I’m an old romantic, but it’s also because of just how bloody well it’s 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.
You’re probably wondering when I’ll actually talk about the horror – don’t worry, so am I. I’ll do it now. Where the horror comes from is this – 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 assault, arson to tornados, 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 almost as if the cloud above Jake’s head is above ours as the reader too, and it’s not pleasant. But it is enjoyable – King writes so well that you almost come to enjoy the ill feeling.
As an avid King reader, and with IT being my favourite of his, that this novel references IT fairly regularly in it’s opening chapters caused me to fall in love 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. I loved it.
The ending is classic King – I’m not giving any spoilers away at all for this book, it’s so good I expect everyone who reads this review to read it, so you’ll have to find out what happens for yourself. It may be good or bad, I won’t say. But if you’ve read any King, you’ll know what I mean by this. And if you haven’t, if (when) you read this novel, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
I’m going to stop here, because I’m rambling. But ultimately – read this book. It’s incredible, a sold 10/10 for me. You will not regret reading it, I promise.