Imagine if John F Kennedy had lived... Ahead of the 50th anniversary of JFK's death Stephen King introduces a special extract from his novel '11.22.63'

What if you could go back to the date when the president was shot and change the course of history?

In his novel 11.22.63, Stephen King writes an account of the build-up to the assassination of John F Kennedy, and an attempt to prevent it from happening. Terminally ill Al Templeton has found a portal to the past in the pantry of his diner. He has convinced his friend Jake Epping of its existence by sending him through it to 1958. When a shaken Jake returns, Al tries to persuade him to go back and finish the job that Al himself couldn’t – to stop Lee Harvey Oswald. But will Jake grant the old man’s dying wish? Could an ordinary English teacher from Lisbon Falls, Maine, do it even if he wanted to? And how would history change if he did? Here, ahead of the 50th anniversary of the death of the president, the best-selling author introduces a special extract…

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Almost half a century has passed since John Kennedy was murdered in Dallas, but two questions linger: Was Lee Oswald really the trigger-man, and if so, did he act alone? Nothing I’ve written in 11.22.63 will provide answers to those questions, because time-travel is just an interesting make-believe.

Early in the novel, Jake Epping’s friend Al puts the probability that Oswald was the lone gunman at 95 per cent. After reading a stack of books and articles on the subject almost as tall as I am, I’d put the probability at 98 per cent, maybe even 99. Because all of the accounts, including those written by conspiracy theorists, tell the same simple American story: here was a dangerous little fame-junkie who found himself in just the right place to get lucky. Were the odds of it happening just the way it did long? Yes. So are the odds on winning the lottery, but someone wins one every day.

It is very, very difficult for a reasonable person to believe otherwise. Occam’s Razor – the simplest explanation is usually the right one.

I originally tried to write this book way back in 1972. I dropped the project because the research it would involve seemed far too daunting for a man who was teaching full-time. There was another reason: even nine years after the deed, the wound was still too fresh. I’m glad I waited.

Have I gotten things wrong here? You bet. Have I changed things to suit the course of my story? Sure. Mostly, however, I stuck to the truth.

Some people will protest that I have been excessively hard on the city of Dallas. I beg to differ. If anything, Jake Epping’s first-person narrative allowed me to be too easy on it, at least as it was in 1963. On the day Kennedy landed at Love Field, Dallas was a hateful place. Confederate flags flew rightside up; American flags flew upside down. Some airport spectators held up signs reading HELP JFK STAMP OUT DEMOCRACY. Not long before that day in November, both Adlai Stevenson and Lady Bird Johnson were subjected to spit-showers by Dallas voters. Those spitting on Mrs Johnson were middle-class housewives.

It’s better today, but one still sees signs on Main Street saying HANDGUNS NOT ALLOWED IN THE BAR. This is not an editorial, but I hold strong opinions on this subject, particularly given the current political climate of my country. If you want to know what political extremism can lead to, look at the Zapruder film. Take particular note of frame 313, where Kennedy’s head explodes.

Stephen King

A Secret Service agent climbs into the back of the limousine racing the injured president to hospital seconds after he was shot (AP) A Secret Service agent climbs into the back of the limousine racing the injured president to hospital seconds after he was shot (AP)  

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Al: “Do you know the phrase watershed moment, buddy?”

Jake: I nodded. You didn’t have to be an English teacher to know that one.

“Do you know where it comes from? The origin?”

“Nope.”

“Cartography. A watershed is an area of land, usually mountains or forests, that drains into a river. History is also a river. Wouldn’t you say so?”

“Yes. I suppose I would.” I drank some of my tea.

“Sometimes the events that change history are widespread – like heavy, prolonged rains over an entire watershed that can send a river out of its banks. But rivers can flood even on sunny days. All it takes is a heavy, prolonged downpour in one small area of the watershed. There are flash floods in history, too. Want some examples? How about 9.11? Or what about Bush beating Gore in 2000?”

“You can’t compare a national election to a flash flood, Al.”

“Maybe not most of them, but the 2000 presidential election was in a class by itself. Suppose you could go back to Florida in the fall of Double-O and spend two hundred thousand or so on Al Gore’s behalf?”

“Couple of problems with that,” I said. “First, I don’t have two hundred thousand dollars. Second, I’m a schoolteacher. I can tell you all about Thomas Wolfe’s mother fixation, but when it comes to politics I’m a babe in the woods.”

He gave an impatient flap of his hand, which almost sent his Marine Corps ring flying off his reduced finger. “Money’s not a problem. You’ll just have to trust me on that for now. And advance knowledge usually trumps the shit out of experience. The difference in Florida was supposedly less than six hundred votes. Do you think you could buy six hundred votes on Election Day with two hundred grand, if buying was what it came down to?”

“Maybe,” I said. “Probably. I guess I’d isolate some communities where there’s a lot of apathy and the voting turnout’s traditionally light – it wouldn’t take all that much research – then go in with the old cashola.”

Al grinned, revealing his missing teeth and unhealthy gums. “Why not? It worked in Chicago for years.”

The idea of buying the presidency for less than the cost of two Mercedes-Benz sedans silenced  me.

“But when it comes to the river of history, the watershed moments most susceptible to change are assassinations – the ones that succeeded and the ones that failed. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria gets shot by a mentally unstable pipsqueak named Gavrilo Princip and there’s your kickoff to World War I. On the other hand, after Claus von Stauffenberg failed to kill Hitler in 1944 – close, but no cigar – the war continued and millions more died.”

I had seen that movie, too.

Al said, “There’s nothing we can do about Archduke Ferdinand or Adolf Hitler. They’re out of our reach.”

I thought of accusing him of making pronounal assumptions and kept my mouth shut. I felt a little like a man reading a very grim book. A Thomas Hardy novel, say. You know how it’s going to end, but instead of spoiling things, that somehow increases your fascination.

“As for 9.11, if you wanted to fix that one, you’d have to wait around for forty-three years. You’d be pushing eighty, if you made it at all.”

Now the lone-star flag the gnome had been holding made sense. It was a souvenir of Al’s last jaunt into the past. “You couldn’t even make it to ’63, could you?”

To this he didn’t reply, just watched me. His eyes, which had looked rheumy and vague when he let me into the diner that afternoon, now looked bright. Almost young.

“Because that’s what you’re talking about, right? Dallas in 1963?”

“That’s right,” he said. “I had to opt out. But you’re not sick, buddy. You’re healthy and in the prime of life. You can go back, and you can stop it.”

He leaned forward, his eyes not just bright; they were blazing.

“You can change history, Jake. Do you understand that? John Kennedy can live.”

I know the basics of suspense fiction – I ought to, I’ve read enough thrillers in my lifetime – and the prime rule is to keep the reader guessing. But if you’ve gotten any feel for my character at all, based on that day’s extraordinary events, you’ll know that I wanted to be convinced. I was a man on his own. I had a job I was good at, but if I told you it was challenging, it would be a lie. Hitchhiking around Canada with a buddy after my senior year of college was the closest thing to an adventure I’d ever had, and given the cheerful, helpful nature of most Canadians, it wasn’t much of an adventure. Now, all of a sudden, I’d been offered a chance to become a major player not just in American history but in the history of the world. So yes, yes, yes, I wanted to be convinced.

But I was also afraid.

“What if it went wrong? What if I managed, God knows how, to stop it from happening and made things worse instead of better? What if I came back and discovered America had become a fascist regime? Or that the pollution had gotten so bad everybody was walking around in gas masks?”

“Then you’d go back again,” he said. “Back to two minutes of twelve on September ninth of 1958. Cancel the whole thing out. Every trip is the first trip, remember?”

“Sounds good, but what if the changes were so radical your little diner wasn’t even there anymore?”

He grinned. “Then you’d have to live your life in the past. But would that be so bad? As an English teacher, you’d still have a marketable skill, and you wouldn’t even need it. I was there for four years, Jake, and I made a small fortune. Do you know how?”

I could have taken an educated guess, but I shook my head.

“Betting. I was careful – I didn’t want to raise any suspicions, and I sure didn’t want some bookie’s leg-breakers coming after me – but when you’ve studied up on who won every big sporting event between the summer of 1958 and the fall of 1963, you can afford to be careful. I won’t say you can live like a king, because that’s living dangerously. But there’s no reason you can’t live well. And I think the diner’ll still be there. It has been for me, and I changed plenty of things. Anybody does. Just walking around the block to buy a loaf of bread and a quart of milk changes the future. Ever hear of the butterfly effect? It’s a fancy-shmancy scientific theory that basically boils down to the idea that—”

He started coughing again, the first protracted fit since he’d let me in. Gruesome retching sounds came up from his chest. It sounded as if half his works had come loose and were slamming around in there like bumper cars at an amusement park. Finally it abated.

“Now where was I?”

“Butterfly effect.”

“Right. It means small events can have large, whatcamadingit, ramifications. The idea is that if some guy kills a butterfly in China, maybe forty years later – or four hundred – there’s an earthquake in Peru. You changed the past this afternoon in all sorts of little ways, just by walking into the Kennebec Fruit… but the stairs leading up into the pantry and back into 2011 were still there, weren’t they? And The Falls is the same as when you left it.”

“So it seems, yes. But you’re talking about something a little more major. To wit, saving JFK’s life.”

“Oh, I’m talking about a lot more than that, because this ain’t some butterfly in China, buddy. I’m also talking about saving RFK’s life, because if John lives in Dallas, Robert probably doesn’t run for president in 1968. The country wouldn’t have been ready to replace one Kennedy with another.”

“You don’t know that for sure.”

“No, but listen. Do you think that if you save John Kennedy’s life, his brother Robert is still at the Ambassador Hotel at twelve-fifteen in the morning on June fifth, 1968? And even if he is, is Sirhan Sirhan still working in the kitchen?”

Maybe, but the chances had to be awfully small. If you introduced a million variables into an equation, of course the answer was going to change.

“Or what about Martin Luther King? Is he still in Memphis in April of ’68? Even if he is, is he still standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel at exactly the right time for James Earl Ray to shoot him? What do you think?”

“If that butterfly theory is right, probably not.”

“That’s what I think, too. And if MLK lives, the race riots that followed his death don’t happen. Maybe Fred Hampton doesn’t get shot in Chicago.”

“Who?”

He ignored me. “For that matter, maybe there’s no Symbionese Liberation Army. No SLA, no Patty Hearst kidnapping. No Patty Hearst kidnapping, a small but maybe significant reduction in black fear among middle-class whites.”

“You’re losing me. Remember, I was an English major.”

“I’m losing you because you know more about the Civil War in the nineteenth century than you do about the one that ripped this country apart after the Kennedy assassination in Dallas. If I asked you who starred in The Graduate, I’m sure you could tell me. But if I asked you to tell me who Lee Oswald tried to assassinate only a few months before gunning Kennedy down, you’d go ‘Huh?’ Because somehow all that stuff has gotten lost.”

“Oswald tried to kill someone before Kennedy?” This was news to me, but most of my knowledge of the Kennedy assassination came from an Oliver Stone movie. In any case, Al didn’t answer. Al was on a roll.

“Or what about Vietnam? Johnson was the one who started all the insane escalation. Kennedy was a cold warrior, no doubt about it, but Johnson took it to the next level. He had the same my-balls-are-bigger-than-yours complex that Dubya showed off when he stood in front of the cameras and said ‘Bring it on.’ Kennedy might have changed his mind. Johnson and Nixon were incapable of that. Thanks to them, we lost almost sixty thousand American soldiers in Nam. The Vietnamese, North and South, lost millions. Is the butcher’s bill that high if Kennedy doesn’t die in Dallas?”

“I don’t know. And neither do you, Al.”

“That’s true, but I’ve become quite the student of recent American history, and I think the chances of improving things by saving him are very good. And really, there’s no downside. If things turn to shit, you just take it all back. Easy as erasing a dirty word off a chalkboard.”

“Or I can’t get back, in which case I never know.”

“Bullshit. You’re young. As long as you don’t get run over by a taxicab or have a heart attack, you’d live long enough to know how things turn out.”

I sat silent, looking down at my lap and thinking.

“You must have read a lot about the assassination and about Oswald.”

“Everything I could get my hands on, buddy.”

“How sure are you that he did it? Because there are about a thousand conspiracy theories. Even I know that. What if I went back and stopped him and some other guy popped Kennedy from the Grassy Hill, or whatever it was?”

“Grassy Knoll. And I’m close to positive it was all Oswald. The conspiracy theories were all pretty crazy to begin with, and most of them have been disproved over the years. The idea that the shooter wasn’t Oswald at all, but someone who looked like him, for instance. The body was exhumed in 1981 and DNA tested. It was him, all right. The poisonous little fuck.” He paused, then added: “I met him, you know.”

I stared at him. “Bullshit!”

“Oh yes. He spoke to me. This was in Fort Worth. He and Marina – his wife, she was Russian – were visiting Oswald’s brother in Fort Worth. If Lee ever loved anybody, it was his brother Bobby. I was standing outside the picket fence around Bobby Oswald’s yard, leaning against a phone pole, smoking a cigarette and pretending to read the paper. My heart was hammering what felt like two hundred beats a minute. Lee and Marina came out together. She was carrying their daughter, June. Just a mite of a thing, less than a year old. The kid was asleep. Ozzie was wearing khaki pants and a button-down Ivy League shirt that was all frayed around the collar. The slacks had a sharp crease, but they were dirty. He’d given up his Marine cut, but his hair would still have been way too short to grab. Marina – holy Christ, what a knockout! Dark hair, bright blue eyes, flawless skin. She looks like a goddam movie star. If you do this, you’ll see for yourself. She said something to him in Russian as they came down the walk. He said something back. He was smiling when he said it, but then he pushed her. She almost fell over. The kid woke up and started to cry. All this time, Oswald kept smiling.”

“You saw this. You actually did. You saw him.” In spite of my own trip back in time, I was at least half convinced that this had to be either a delusion or an outright lie.

“I did. She came out through the gate and walked past me with her head down. Like I wasn’t there. But he walked right up to me, close enough for me to smell the Old Spice he was wearing to try and cover up the smell of his sweat. There were blackheads all over his nose. You could tell looking at his clothes – and his shoes, which were scuffed and busted down at the backs – that he didn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of, but when you looked in his face, you knew that didn’t matter. Not to him, it didn’t. He thought he was a big deal.”

Al considered briefly, then shook his head.

“No, I take that back. He knew he was a big deal. It was just a matter of waiting for the rest of the world to catch up on that. So there he is, in my face – choking distance, and don’t think the idea didn’t cross my mind—”

“Why didn’t you? Or just cut to the chase and shoot him?”

“In front of his wife and baby? Could you do that, Jake?”

 I didn’t have to consider it long. “Guess not.”

“Me either. I had other reasons, too. One of them was an aversion to state prison… or the electric chair. We were out on the street, remember.”

“Ah.”

“Ah is right. He still had that little smile on his face when he walked up to me. Arrogant and prissy, both at the same time. He’s wearing it in the Dallas police station after they arrested him for killing the president and a motor patrolman who happened to cross his path when he was trying to get away. He says to me, ‘What are you looking at, sir?’ I say ‘Nothing, buddy.’ And he says, ‘Then mind your beeswax.’

“Marina was waiting for him maybe twenty feet down the sidewalk, trying to soothe the baby back to sleep. He went to her and grabbed her elbow – like a cop instead of her husband – and says ‘Pokhoda! Pokhoda!’ Walk, walk. She said something to him, maybe asking if he’d carry the baby for a while. But he just pushed her away and said, ‘Pokhoda, cyka!’ Walk, bitch. She did. They went off down toward the bus stop. And that was it.”

“You speak Russian?”

“No, but I have a good ear and a computer. Back here I do, anyway.”

“You saw him other times?”

“Only from a distance. By then I was getting real sick. I went to a doctor, got a diagnosis I could have made by myself by then, and came back to the twenty-first century. Basically, there was nothing more to see, anyway. Just a skinny little wife-abuser waiting to be famous.”

He leaned forward.

“You know what the man who changed American history was like? He was the kind of kid who throws stones at other kids and then runs away. By the time he joined the Marines, he’d lived in almost two dozen different places, from New Orleans to New York City. He had big ideas and couldn’t understand why people wouldn’t listen to them. He was mad about that, furious, but he never lost that pissy, prissy little smile of his. Do you know what William Manchester called him?”

“No.” I didn’t even know who William Manchester was.

“A wretched waif. Manchester was talking about all the conspiracy theories that bloomed in the aftermath of the assassination… and after Oswald himself was shot and killed. I mean, you know that, right?”

“Of course,” I said, a little annoyed. “A guy named Jack Ruby did it.” But given the holes in my knowledge I’d already demonstrated, I suppose he had a right to wonder.

“Manchester said that if you put the murdered president on one side of a scale and Oswald – the wretched waif – on the other, it didn’t balance. No way did it balance. If you wanted to give Kennedy’s death some meaning, you’d have to add something heavier. Which explains the proliferation of conspiracy theories. Like the Mafia did it – Carlos Marcello ordered the hit. Or the KGB did it. Or Castro, to get back at the CIA for trying to load him up with poison cigars. There are people to this day who believe Lyndon Johnson did it so he could be president. But in the end...” Al shook his head. “It was almost certainly Oswald. You’ve heard of Occam’s Razor, haven’t you?”

Lee Harvey Oswald escorted in handcuffs in the hallway of the Dallas Police Department (Corbis) Lee Harvey Oswald escorted in handcuffs in the hallway of the Dallas Police Department (Corbis)  

It was nice to know something for sure. “It’s a basic truism sometimes known as the law of parsimony. ‘All things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the right one.’ So why didn’t you kill him when he wasn’t on the street with his wife and kid? You were a Marine, too. When you knew how sick you were, why didn’t you just kill the little motherfucker yourself?”

“Because being ninety-five per cent sure isn’t a hundred. Because, shithead or not, he was a family man. Because after he was arrested, Oswald said he was a patsy and I wanted to be sure he was lying. I don’t think anybody can ever be a hundred per cent sure of anything in this wicked world, but I wanted to get up to ninety-eight. I had no intention of waiting until November twenty-second and then stopping him at the Texas School Book Depository, though – that would have been cutting it way too fine, for one big reason I’ll have to tell you about.”

His eyes no longer looked so bright. I was scared by how shallow his reserves of strength had become.

“I’ve written all this stuff down. I want you to read it. Look on top of the TV, buddy. Would you do that?” He gave me a tired smile. “It’s an Oswald timeline, plus all the evidence piled up against him… which you don’t really have to read if you take me up on this, because you’re going to stop the little weasel in April of 1963, over half a year before Kennedy comes to Dallas.”

“Why April?”

“Because that’s when somebody tried to kill General Edwin Walker… only he wasn’t a general any more by then. He got cashiered in 1961, by JFK himself. General Eddie was handing out segregationist literature to his troops and ordering them to read the stuff.”

“It was Oswald who tried to shoot him?”

“That’s what you need to make sure of. Same rifle, no doubt about that, ballistics proved it. I was waiting to see him take the shot. I could afford not to interfere, because that time Oswald missed. The bullet deflected off the wood strip in the middle of Walker’s kitchen window. Not much, but just enough. The bullet literally parted his hair and flying wood splinters from the munting cut his arm a little.”

I was thumbing through Al’s Oswald Book, page after page of closely written notes. They were completely legible at the beginning, less so toward the end. The last few pages were the scrawls of a very sick man. I snapped the cover closed and said, “If you could confirm that Oswald was the shooter in the General Walker attempt, that would have settled your doubts?”

“Yes. I needed to make sure he’s capable of doing it. Ozzie’s a bad man, Jake – what people back in ’58 call a louse – but beating on your wife and keeping her a virtual prisoner because she doesn’t speak the language don’t justify murder. And something else. Even if I hadn’t come down with the big C, I knew I might not get another chance to make it right if I killed Oswald and someone else shot the president anyway. By the time a man’s in his sixties, he’s pretty much off the warranty, if you see what I mean.”

“Would it have to be a killing? Couldn’t you just… I don’t know… frame him for something?”

“Maybe, but by then I was sick. I don’t know if I could have done it even if I was well. On the whole it seemed simpler to just end him, once I was sure. Like swatting a wasp before it can sting you.”

I was quiet, thinking. The clock on the wall said ten-thirty.  Al had opened the conversation by saying he’d be good to go until midnight, but I only had to look at him to know that had been wildly optimistic.

I took his glass and mine out to the kitchen, rinsed them, and put them in the dish drainer. It felt like there was a tornado funnel behind my forehead. Instead of cows and fenceposts and scraps of paper, what it was sucking up and spinning around were names: Lee Oswald, Bobby Oswald, Marina Oswald, Edwin Walker, Fred Hampton, Patty Hearst. There were bright acronyms in that whirl, too, circling like chrome hood ornaments ripped off luxury cars: JFK, RFK, MLK, SLA. The cyclone even had a sound, two Russian words spoken over and over again in a flat Southern drawl: pokhoda cyka. Walk, bitch.

Al let me help him into his bedroom, and even muttered “Thanks, buddy” when I knelt to unlace his shoes and pull them off. He only balked when I offered to help him into the bathroom.

“Making  the world a better place is important, but so is being able to get to the john under your own power.”

“Just as long as you’re sure you can make it.”

“I’m sure I can tonight, and I’ll worry about tomorrow tomorrow. Go home, Jake. Start reading the notebook – there’s a lot there. Sleep on it. Come see me in the morning and tell me what you decided. I’ll still be here.”

“Ninety-five per cent probability?”

“At least ninety-seven. On the whole, I’m feeling pretty chipper. I wasn’t sure I’d even get this far with you. Just telling it – and having you believe it – is a load off my mind.”

I wasn’t sure I did believe it, even after my adventure that afternoon, but I didn’t say so. I told him goodnight, reminded him not to lose  count of his pills (“Yeah, yeah”), and left. I stood outside looking at the gnome with his Lone Star flag for a minute before going down the walk to my car.

Don’t mess with Texas, I thought… but maybe I was going to. And given Al’s difficulties with changing the past – the blown tires, the blown engine, the collapsed bridge – I had an idea that if I went ahead, Texas was going to mess with me.

This is an edited extract from ‘11.22.63’ by Stephen King (2012), available from Hodder (rrp £8.99) in paperback now. The introduction is abridged from the author’s afterword to the novel. To buy the book for £7.19 free P&P, call 08430 600030 or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

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    How Leica transformed photography for ever: Celebrating 100 years of the famous camera

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