Hodder & Stoughton, £19.99, 740pp. £17.99 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

11.22.63, By Stephen King

 

The point of the tale of terror is not, in the end, the specifics of what kills us – the vampires, the elder gods, the serial killers – so much as the inexorable fact that something will. It is a reminder of death, and of an essentially tragic view of the universe in which any consolation, however welcome, is temporary. In this literature of secular apocalypse, the few happy endings are fleeting, and never eternal; like the other literatures of the fantastic, it is at its best when it says these central things so clearly that they tap into the sublime.

It would be easy and wrong to see Stephen King's fierce new novel 11.22.63 as a generic side-step from his home turf into science fiction. This is, after all, a novel about time-travel, about the attempt to create a new and better world by going back and changing one big thing: in this case, the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Part of its fascination has to do with the process whereby you might do this: SF is all about process and horror often is not. However, the process involved is that of understanding people, and specifically a heavily researched Lee Harvey Oswald, not that of time-travel itself. It's just a given that there is a door into 1958, and that you reset it every time you go through it.

So the time-travel is simply a piece of inexplicable magic. King's hero Jake Epping is warned, by an incoherent drunk, that this magic has a price and he will not want to pay it. Jake is introduced to the door by his friend Al, who makes the best hamburgers in town (there is a reason for that). Suddenly, Al has aged years and is dying; he has tried and failed to carry out a mission, and wants Jake to take his place.

They both think that the Kennedy assassination is where everything went wrong for America, and the way to fix it is to live from that day in 1958 to that day in 1963 which gives the book its title, with foreknowledge of what needs to be done. One of the strengths of the book is King's at once nostalgic and honest view of the end of the Eisenhower era. Jake is conscious that it's quite a nice time for him, but that as a straight white man, it would be. King manages to avoid both sentimentalising the past and treating it with massive condecension; his role as the poet of American brand-names serves him well here.

Jake gets a job teaching, and falls in love with a colleague, and knows enough to try to protect her from a possibly murderous ex-husband. In a trial run, he changes the life of brain-damaged former mature pupil Henry by killing the father who smashed his skull; on his return from that trip, Jake learns from a sister whom the father did not kill that able-bodied Henry never came back from Vietnam, from which he learns nothing important. The past is not a computer game and the people you meddle with there are real. Jake falls in love and finds out the hard way just how real, and fragile, they are.

Like wishes, or trying to create life or live forever, changing the past is a way of cheating, of getting past the way that the universe works: WW Jacobs's story "The Monkey's Paw" is King's model here. Jake and Al have good intentions, but those alone are not enough, and for Jake, the consequences are both tragedy and nightmare. Had King written this book, as he once planned, early in his career, that would moralistically be that. Part of the charm of the older, mellower King is that he allows Jake the grace of putting things right and accepting things as they sadly are by endurance. He gives him not a happy ending, but a bittersweet one. Sometimes things as they are turn out not to be quite as bad as they might be.

Roz Kaveney's 'Superheroes!' is published by IB Tauris

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea