Assassination averted: the king of horror turns back time

Sat, Jan 7, 2012, 00:00

FICTION: KEVIN SWEENEY   reviews 11.22.63 By Stephen King Hodder Stoughton, 740pp. £14.99

WHEN I WAS a geeky teenager I was (briefly) fascinated by science fiction, and especially time travel. I loved the conundrums found in Planet of the Apes, Jack Finney’s novel Time and Again and Ray Bradbury’s famous short story A Sound of Thunder – so much so that I even had a go myself, writing a short story for English class in which an assassin uses a time machine to go back and murder the device’s inventor before he conceives of it, thus ensuring that time travel is never made possible. But the killer fails and the device falls into the hands of the inventor, leading him to . . . uh, well, you get the drift. (Hey, the teacher liked it.)

I get the impression that Stephen King has long harboured a similar fascination with the notion of using murder to change the course of history. King says in the afterword to 11.22.63, his latest blockbuster, that he first thought up the idea nearly 40 years ago when he was a publishing nobody, but dropped it because of the amount of research involved and because, frankly, “even nine years after the deed, the wound was still too fresh”.

The deed, you might have deduced from the title, is the assassination of John F Kennedy, and the protagonist of 11.22.63 is intent on stopping Lee Harvey Oswald before he can fire two bullets from the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository Building in Dallas. It’s not giving anything away to say that this scene provides the climax for King’s doorstopper, but it takes a long time to get to that point – five years, two months and 13 days, to be exact.

King’s hero (and idealised alter-ego) is Jake Epping, a divorced high-school English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine. Jake is a regular at Al’s Diner, whose owner long ago discovered a rabbit hole – a time portal – in the back of the restaurant. When you step through the rabbit hole, you’re back in Lisbon Falls on September 8th, 1958 at 11.58am. You can go back and forth through the rabbit hole as often as you want, but every time you return to the past the clock is reset – it’s always the exact moment of the same day. No matter how long you stay in the past, when you return to the present only two minutes have passed. Which explains why Al Templeton, whom Jake saw hale and healthy only the night before, is suddenly decrepit and stricken with cancer.

Templeton has spent nearly five years in the past, determined to eliminate Oswald. But now he’s dying, and he passes the challenge on to Jake: change the past and maybe, just maybe, make the future a better place. Jake steps into 1958, beginning a long odyssey that takes him from Lisbon Falls to creepy Derry, Maine, which is reeling from a series of eerie child murders that King readers will recall from his novel It, to Florida and finally, Texas.