Stephen King’s recent book, 11/22/63, is about a high school teacher who travels through a time portal in the pantry of a greasy-spoon diner to the late 50s in order to kill Lee Harvey Oswald and prevent JFK’s assassination. King's use of time travel in 11/22/63 is more than just a plot device. The way that the novel's English teacher protagonist (a job that King had before he wrote his first book, Carrie), travels back from the 2000s to 1958 is a metaphor for King’s ability to revisit the same genres and time periods without ever getting stale.
I wanted the rights to the book, but J. J. Abrams has them and is adapting the novel into an online miniseries. I love J. J. Abrams as much as the next person (though I bet there are some pretty ardent Lost fans that I’ll never match in fervor), but come on. That guy gets to do everything.
I’ve been accused of being ubiquitous, of occupying too much cultural ground, of being a pop culture hog, like a guest at a wedding who sticks his dirty fingers in every cake and pie. Maybe that’s all true. But Abrams has had a few TV series. He took on Star Trek, and is now doing my personal favorite, Star Wars. He co-authored a meta-novel called S., which involves a master narrative that serves as the basis for a meta-narrative told though handwritten margin notes between a grad student and an undergraduate student. Yes, he has the track record and know-how, so I understand how he got the rights to 11/22/63, but still, why do I get so much flack for doing it all? I ain’t the only one.
My favorite King material deals with his home state of Maine, the 1950s, madness, or all these things at once—books like It, Different Seasons (which contains the stories “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” “Apt Pupil,” and “The Body,” which were all adapted into movies), Carrie, The Shining, and 11/22/63. These books do what horror and science fiction do best: They talk about who we are as humans, how we deal with each other, and our psychology, through the horror genre, in order to get at something even more true. Stories like “The Body” and “Apt Pupil” don’t even have any fantastical elements, but the death and violence at their centers bring out the darker subtexts of their coming-of-age plots.
It uses a mad clown in order to get at the deep social forces among people living in in close proximity to one another. Carrie and The Shining are brilliant manifestations of bullying and alcoholism with the added complexity of the supernatural. The beauty of such allegories is that they are supported by their own rules—the fantasy worlds work whether you read into them or not. They don’t depend on the allegorical level.
11/22/63 does everything King is good at and more. His time-travel premise allows him to go back to one of his best eras for subject matter: the 1950s. Of course he doesn’t need his characters to time-travel in order to write about the 50s. He could just set his story in the past, as he has done many times before, but the time-travel aspect allows us to go on the ride with King the writer as he set-designs the past. In stories like “The Body” and It, King does the same period scene-setting, but he isn’t able to call attention to it in a meta way like he does in 11/22/63. In the books that simply take place in the past, King can give us a plethora of details: the duck’s-ass haircuts, the slang, the old cars like Sunbeams and Chryslers, the dated racism—but he can’t underline them with the characters’ reactions as he does with his time traveler in 11/22/63.
When the school teacher goes back to 1958, he can marvel at the ease that everyone uses the terms “Jewed” and “Gypped”; he can savor the taste of milk, lobster, and beef compared with their adulterated equivalents in the 2000s; he can be surprised at the lack of all the online amenities that he’s used to and marvel at his own dependence on the electronic universe.
King is one of our greatest storytellers, and by incorporating time travel into 11/22/63, he is able to go back to one of his many creative wells and again find something original. I’m sure J. J. Abrams, as the torchbearer for the Trekkies and now the Lucas legacy, will be the perfect shepherd for King at his best.