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 TaurisReuse content