Every day this year I’m challenging myself to publish one blog post and write 1000 words towards a short-story. This post is part of that challenge. You can check out my live word count here and send me encouragement or give me a kick up the rear. You can also check out all of the blog posts so far.
I’ve decided that I don’t like Stephen King. For me, a King novel is like a Big Mac; every six months or so I get a craving for one, convince myself I’m enjoying it, but ten minutes after finishing it the regret sets in.
After finishing a King novel I feel cheated. With a few exceptions — which I’ll come onto later — I find his novels rambling, unnecessarily long, and they inevitably finish– no matter how much I try to convince myself otherwise having just trawled through 700+ pages — with a completely unsatisfactory ending.
The one exception to this is Misery, which, in my humble opinion, is a tension filled masterpiece of psychological horror. Misery demonstrates what a masterful writer King is when focused by the limited scope of a story. Misery tells a horrific tale of personal survival with just two brilliant characters within a single room; and all within a modest three-hundred pages. Genius.
On my bookshelf there’s a stack of hardback Stephen King novels that I picked up in a job lot at a charity shop. My intention was to work my way through them, and become a King fan; but it’s taking more motivation than I have to get through them. Have you ever read a Stephen King hardback in bed? It’s like trying to hold up a breeze block above your head for an hour.
Call me a blasphemer, but I’m just not a fan of King.
I’ve read Misery, The Shining, Doctor Sleep, Bizarre of Bad Dreams, several others which I forget no and with the exception of Misery, they have all been lumbering, meandering tales of frustration. Please, just plan a proper ending! It’s all I deserve having made my way through close to a thousand pages.
Anyway, did the SEO nightmare of a novel titled 11.22.63 buck this trend and become a second Stephen King classic for me? Let’s see!
The Three Rules of Stephen King Protagonists
If you’ve read any Stephen King you’ll know that the protagonist in any King novel must have one or more of three key attributes; they must be either a writer, a teacher or an alcoholic; and you’ll be pleased to know that 11.22.63 doesn’t let you down on these stakes. The lead character Jake Epping is an alcoholic writer who takes up teaching, oh, and his girlfriend is also an alcoholic as well.
In 11.22.63, our protagonist, Jake, finds a door to the past — which in standard Stephen King style is never explained — and sets about using this power to prevent the death of President Kennedy. A fun if not entirely original concept.
When it comes to originality, my rule of thumb is that you can’t call something original if it’s referenced in an episode of Red Dwarf. Check.
But this isn’t a traditional time machine; when Jake returns to the present the past is “reset”, meaning that when he travels to the past a second time everyone he’s met has forgotten him and any actions he previously took have reset. You might ask how then our protagonist intends to change the future if everything resets back to normal after he’s returned home….well, do not worry, King has already thought of that…something to do with vibrations or crystals or something…anyway, don’t worry yourself about it, it’s all in hand.
And maybe that’s the most frustrating part of 11.22.63. At the start King sets up this quite compelling concept; a man who can travel to the past but his actions never have repercussions, and can be reset at his choosing — but King does nothing with it. Actually that’s not true, one man does use the GATEWAY TO THE PAST, to buy cheap beef and bring it back to the future where he can up the price and make big profit….
Imagine the possibilities; what would you do if you could travel back in time, do anything you choose, and then just reset. The mind boggles. Imagine how long you could keep library books for.
11.22.63 is a novel for King’s fans
You can split 11.22.63 into three parts; the first third is setup and a trial run of the adventure ahead. King sets out a string of characters, which he them promptly abandons several chapters in. For fans of King this is the most interesting part, as it beds the story down in familiar King territory with references to previous novels including IT, The Shining and Misery. But if you’ve never read another King book, you’ll wonder why any of this is taking place.
During the second third the novel turns into a soap opera love story of Jake and his girlfriend from the past, Sadie. And herein lies the ultimate cause of 11.22.63’s problem. Jake arrives in the past in the year 1958, a full five years before JFK’s assassination. This results in literally 1825 days worth of “Wot Jake did for five years.” Spoilers beware, but in this time he becomes a teacher, rents several houses and apartments, settles down in a local town, meets the love of his life Sadie, and makes friends with a whole new cast of characters. There’s barely a mention of time travel.
And part three is the lead up to and actual assassination attempt.
During the entire novel Jake has to deal with an increasingly disturbing effects of “the obdurate past” as time itself tried to prevent Jake changing time; but as with the time travel element, no explanation is ever given for this.
At the start of the novel a number of plot threads are set up, most notably the “Yellow Card Man”, which are occasionally tugged upon throughout the story, but which ultimately amount to very little despite us being continually being reminded in clumsy ways that they are important.
11.22.63 is 734 pages of preamble to a story which never seems to lift off. It’s peppered with some really great ideas, even if the core of the story is unoriginal nonsense. The problem is these ideas are are never explored in any depth, and instead we follow a love story with typical Kingian twists of violence and alcoholism which sucks all momentum out of the book.
It wasn’t for me, but no doubt in six months or so those breeze blocks of hardbacks will tempt me again into reading a bit of King; hopefully next time it will be the tight, tense Misery variety, rather than the overlong, turgid nonsense like this.