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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week