Stephen King is one of my favorite authors, so I found it interesting that his last two books both took a step back in time.
The plot involves Roland and his ka-tet caught in a storm, so Roland tells a story from his youth, which involves telling another tale from his world. Looked at against the entirety of his Dark Tower series, it's completely unnecessary, just an extra character moment that doesn't further the plot in any great way.
But what works, what sunk me into the story, was how damn familiar it all felt. Settling back into Roland's adventures was like catching up with old friends - the book could have been written sometime in the 1990s and felt just as right.
King's preceding book 11.22.63 is both a literal time travel story and another chance to, albeit too briefly, step back into the life of characters he first wrote a generation ago.
My favorite Stephen King book - hell, my favorite all-time novel - is It.
Reading the blurb, watching the early 1990s mini-series or listening to a reviewer, you'd be forgiven for thinking It is a story about monsters - pretty much every monster ever encountered in modern fiction - while somehow also being about a killer clown and a spider from outer space who wakes up and kills kids every 27 years.
The above description is, frankly, completely accurate … and completely misses the point.
It is a novel about growing up, about the differences between being kids and adults, and how the magic slips away somewhere in your teens. I first read it when I was around 16, on the cusp of my own journey into adulthood, and return to it every couple of years. Now I'm older than the grown-up version of It's main characters and my own kids are approaching the age of the younger versions, so each time I read It I get a different understanding of the themes.
While the ending of the book was satisfying and appropriate - the kids who thought they killed the monster in 1958 came back as adults in 1985 to finish it off for good - last year part of me noted that it was around 27 years later and it would be great to get a sequel. I realised that would undermine the whole ending, ruining the point of the novel, but it felt good to think that Big Steve would revisit the characters again.
And, in 11.22.63, he did, in an unexpected way.
As the title suggests, 11.22.63 deals with the JFK assassination. And, as with It, if you think that's what the book is about, you miss the point.
King's gimmick is that there's a magic portal hidden in a diner that takes you back to the same time in 1958 each time you use it. His protagonist can go through the portal and save JFK, but he has to spend 5 years in the past to get to the events in Dallas. He doesn't hide in a cave or twiddle his thumbs in those 5 years, but instead gets involved in the world, saving lives (initially as a test to see if he can actually change history), teaching students, and falling in love.
The mechanics of the time travel technology is irrelevant and King doesn't bother trying to come up with techno-babble to make it plausible. No flux capacitor, no reverse tachyon beams, no alternative universes, just this is a portal, don't try to understand it, just accept it and go with the flow.
King realises that the gizmos a hard SF writer might try to dream up are not the story, the story is about how knowledge of the future affects - and weighs on - the actions of his hero. How he struggles to balance the fate of the world in a time where had the chance to live past 1963 against the life of the woman he loves. He explores the choices someone would make with future knowledge, the trade-off between a life he knows and the possibility of a better world where Oswald misses his target. 1
Before he gets to Dealey Plaza, King's character passes through Derry, Maine, in 1958 not long after the first defeat of It. He meets up with two of It's key characters - Ritchie and Bevvie - as 11 year olds, close enough to their childhood personalities to be a perfect coda to the first half of It, yet not burdened with the adult problems from the second half - back to their glory days, if you like. The characters seem real, and I welcomed the chance to visit them again, but it's a brief glimpse because 1958 is set-up as King moves us slowly up to the fateful date in 1963.
I once read a mid-1980s review of King's work that noted he delivered "the unexpected and the inevitable" - reading his stories, it's hard to accurately guess how they'll end, but once you get there you realise they had to wind up at that point.
11.22.63 has that unexpected but inevitable vibe. I had lots of guesses along the way, including getting the broad thrust of what might happen - without being too spoilerish, let's just say that maybe the Stones should have sung "you shouldn't always get what you want" - but didn't pick where King would take the tale, even though it rang true when we got there.
The ending, which King notes he got from his son (novelist Joe Hill) manages to be a perfect, bittersweet conclusion, like a long-overdue passing kiss from someone who should have been the love of your life. I'm a professional cynic, a sceptic who questions a lot, understands the tricks authors use to manipulate their audiences, and can usually spot a twist coming a mile off, but the ending of 11.22.63 managed to hit me emotionally (coincidentally, the last chapter of It gives me the same reaction).
Because, when it comes down to it, forget the monsters, haunted cars 2, or mutated bogeymen, what Steve does best of all is characters. Characters with a past, with internal thoughts, and with emotions that sometimes overrule their logic, which his readers can identify with.
And that's why I read and re-read his books more than any other author.