Some say that Stephen King is at his best when he is turning away from the horror genre that has made him famous. Judging by the quality of the likes of Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption it is not difficult to see why. This raised a few eyebrows on release – Stephen King doing time travel? Very little of his work has been out and out sci fi until this one.
What he does do well though, and in a non-kitsch way that appeals all over the world, is Americana. There is something honest about how he views small town America and particularly his beloved New England state of Maine. So this was going to be a sure-fire hit with King’s brand of modern American writing and the still very hot topic of what occurred in November 1963.
It is 2011 and in Lisbon Falls, the owner of the local restaurant has a secret – in his basement is a gateway to the past. It takes anybody who steps through back to Lisbon Falls on 9th September 1958 – always the same day and no matter how long they are in the past, only two minutes will pass in the present. After a few trial runs to change local events, teacher Jake Epping finally steps into 1958 in order to stay for five long years in which he will attempt to stop the assassination of JFK.
Epping seems to enjoy this new world, commenting on how sociable, helpful and genuine people are. He laments the loss of this in 2011; but it isn’t all a bed of roses. It is 1958 and there has not yet been the Civil Rights Movement so in amongst the cherry pie and friendliness, there is also segregation. Most sobering is when our protagonist stops at a Gas Station to use the toilet only to find that blacks are expected to do their number 1s and 2s in the stream behind the shop after walking down a narrow path lined with poison ivy. No rose coloured specs here and just when you’re thinking what a happy world of hospitality this is, King brings you back down to earth with something like that.
King was only 11 years old in 1958 so much of his memories of growing up in Maine have undoubtedly fused with the meticulous research he put in in order to properly convey the late 50s and early 60s USA. The text flows very well for such a doorstop (almost 800 pages) and you’ll easily find yourself flying through 100 pages in an evening and not noticing. Easy reading is what King does best.
I said at the beginning that this was off-genre and it is, mostly. However there is a feeling once Jake has made a couple of trips that there’s something else going on. There are tentative hints until roughly halfway through when King finally starts to reveal that which made him famous; oddly though it doesn’t pan out to anything but this book has a lot of layers and subtext that I’m sure those interested in the period might get before they are explained.
This is already going down as one of King’s finest pieces of work. I can’t argue with that assessment.