Book Review: 11/22/63

“Life turns on a dime. Sometimes towards us, but more often it spins away, flirting and flashing as it goes: so long, honey, it was good while it lasted, wasn’t it?”

It’s been said before, and it’ll no doubt be said again – but just because Stephen King has dedicated so much of his career to writing books about the macabre he’s considered as a lesser writer by many critics. Which is a real shame because, as King once said when asked why he writes that genre, – “you assume I have a choice…”

But then, suddenly, from nowhere a book like this lands. A book that King has wanted to write since 1972 but was initially put off by the amount of research he’d have to put into it (he was still full-time as a teacher back then).

“I know life is hard, I think everyone knows that in their hearts, but why does it have to be cruel, as well? Why does it have to bite?”

I could tell you the plot in a nutshell – a lonely high school teacher discovers a doorway into the year 1958 and decides to stop JFK’s assassination in 1963. But that would be too easy and, for lack of a better term, way too simple. This is far more than a time travel novel. At it’s heart it’s an absorbing love story – a love story so strong that everything else (such as stopping that fateful shooting) almost filters into the background.

When this was released the critics initially gave it some stick for hopping genres – but, as long as you can make it work, why not slip between thriller, romance and historical period piece? King does make it work. I’m sure of that. I enjoyed this book immensely, and towards the end I woke up two hours earlier than usual to read just a few more chapters. It has that formula you just can’t bottle, the formula only bestsellers have…that mysterious elixir that sucks you into the story and makes one page turn after the other, as if by magic.

“For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life. Behind it? Below it and around it? Chaos, storms. Men with hammers, men with knives, men with guns. Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand. A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.”

The only negatives were the same problem that I have with a lot of King’s work…you probably know where I’m going with this…but, it was just that bit too over descriptive. But then again, maybe that’s actually a positive – perhaps it brings you further into the story? I also feel that this perhaps went on for a hundred pages longer than it should have, this might have put some readers off.

I also have to comment on the main character, Jake Epping, I couldn’t help but think that he was pretty much 30 year old Stephen King himself. With just a few things switched around. 6’4, not thin but not fat, English teacher, wants to write books – I mean, I know that sums up a lot of King’s characters in general, but there was something extra about Jake. Something so genuine, that I felt as if King was simply describing what he’d done if he were in that situation and how he’d look to stop the notorious Lee Harvey Oswald – who is one of the other main characters here, but always watched at a distance – almost like an evil zoo animal.

“On the subject of love at first sight, I’m with the Beatles: I believe that it happens all the time.”

The scene where Jake races against time to rescue his girlfriend from danger is so well-written that I felt hairs stand up on my arms and I’ll be damned if some of the climatic pages toward the end didn’t nearly draw a tear from my usually dry eyes.
The research here is simply incredible too. He does mention it in the afterword, but wow! The hours (days) King must have put in…I can only imagine. I actually feel like I’ve been to early 1960s Dallas…and I’ve never even set foot in Texas!

“I can love you if you’re a man, and I can love you if you’re a hero- I guess, although for some reason that seems a lot harder- but I don’t think I can love a vigilante.”

The way that time is explained here is also something else, it almost becomes a character – often the villain of the piece. You’d have to read this to fully understand, which I hope you do. But time doesn’t like being changed, and what’s more time is full of coincidences and repeats where the details have been slightly changed…and, unless you’re a time traveller, you’d never notice them.

I implore you to pick this up so you too can enjoy a tense, endearing genre mash-up that will sit on the shelves of your mind for long after you’ve taken in the final words.

“Dancing is life.”

 

Stephen King’s IT

IT is the story of a bunch of long-lost friends who go back to their home town to face something that has scared them since they were children.

“He thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts.”

Revisiting the past can throw up a lot of memories, and while ‘IT’ is a horror story, it covers a whole lot more. I could relate because, as an adult, ‘IT’ also took me back to when I was younger. When I was about thirteen I happened to pick up a battered copy of King’s ‘The Dark Half’ at a secondhand sale. Up until that point, as a reader, I’d always read ‘adult’ books but mostly westerns, spy stories and adventures.

But discovering Stephen King’s work opened up my eyes to a whole different genre. From that point on, and even now, I couldn’t help but be interested in the macabre. So, as a teenager, I devoured a vast majority of King’s backlog. The Stand, Salems Lot, Firestarter and even the lesser-known Insomnia – flashed before my eyes and disappeared into my mind.

As I got older, however, things changed and I moved away from King’s work. I got to that age where socialising becomes more important and, save for the odd novel, my reading fell to the side. I’m pleased to say that as I hit my early twenties my passion for books fully came back, but I never returned to King.

IT was one of his works that I hadn’t read and after seeing a teaser for the upcoming movie I mentioned it, and so my girlfriend kindly got me a beautiful copy. Thus I committed to 1000+ pages of King once more. Travelling back in time to revisit an author, and an imagination, that had gripped me so tightly in its thrall as a teenager.

IT

The book unfolds like a weird and very lucid nightmare. An endless stream of interupted thoughts and unusual occurances whirl around the characters’ heads. All the while followed by a niggling sense of inevitability as they’re brought towards their fate.

“Swear to me swear to me that if it isn’t dead you’ll all come back.”

A series of child murders have been happening in a small American city and a bunch of 11 year old outcasts who call themselves ‘the losers’ have their suspicions that the killer isn’t mortal. Of course none of the adults will believe them…or even raise a hand to help them. The theme of isolation becomes more and more relevant as things go on – which is great writing, because isolation is often the root of fear – imagine how you’d feel if you were seeing things that no one else could see? As if life wasn’t tough enough they’re also constantly threatened by the local bully, who ends up becoming one of the most fucked-up ‘human’ characters that King has ever created.

As children ‘the losers’ are able to defeat the weird entity that is ‘IT’ and, soon afterwards, all but one of them moves well away from the area. The local bully’s friends are killed and he ends up being sent to the local asylum. By the way, if you’re interested as to why there are so many pictures of clowns whenever you see anything about IT, this is because the entity is able to manifest as your biggest fear…which, for children, can often be a clown.

“Oh Christ, he groaned to himself, if this is the stuff adults have to think about I never want to grow up”

Fast forward some twenty-five years and ‘the losers’, all now successful in their own ways, are called back to the town. Murders are taking place again and they feel that they have unfinished business.

itttt

I warn you now, this isn’t one for the faint-hearted. Sure, that sounds obvious as it’s a horror novel, but there are more themes here than just a nasty looking clown. Everything from abusive parenting to domestic abuse is covered in some depth – and there are a couple of scenes where the minors have sex, which I didn’t expect and didn’t feel were at all necessary to the narrative.

For me, overall, this was a triumphant return to the world of King. It thrilled me, it had me rooting for the characters and it took me back to what it was like to be a child. What it was like to believe that there are weird things in the woods, and what it was like to run from bullies and to think that some kid giving you shit in school was the most important thing ever.

People Stephen King Troops

IT, itself, is a fascinating villain and not one that I ever hope to run into in my day-to-day humdrum. What I liked as well is that, as scary as It was, It still felt beatable – which gave a sense of hope that is often never found in these books. An unbeatable bad guy is a cliche we could do with taking a break from.

“Kill you all!” The clown was laughing and screaming. “Try to stop me and I’ll kill you all! Drive you crazy and then kill you all! You can’t stop me!”

When this was first released, most reviewers were on King’s case about the length. I get that, and as an independent reviewer, it troubled me too – the book comes to around 1,300 pages. I’m not so sure that it needed them all. There were pages and pages of exposition, and reflections on all sorts of topics – everything from checking out a book at the library to how larger people are often light on their feet. A few times I had to fight my inner-editor to make sure that I didn’t allow myself to skim-read certain paragraphs and pages.

I understand that characterisation is important, particularly for the seven or eight main characters. But so many pages were spent delving into the backgrounds of some really unimportant people. For example I read all about one of the character’s school life – his IQ, his parents, how he killed his younger brother (not relevant to the story) only to see him get killed by IT some two or three pages later. All well-written, sure – but as we know it doesn’t feel like there are enough hours in the day as it is – so when we pick up a book we want it to be at least a little concise and nuanced at times. Occasionally brevity can often be the key to great writing (he says after writing a huge review).

“once you get into cosmological shit like this, you got to throw away the instruction manual”

All in all, you should read ‘It’ if you like the genre or if you want something different from your Gillian Flynns and Steig Larssons. It’s out there. It’s a raving, lucid nightmare of childhood fears, adult anxieties and some hairy fucking moments.

4/5 – if it weren’t for the extra 300/400 pages and some of the strange sexual scenes it would have hit the 5. It has definitely made me want to go back and search out some of the King stories that I never got round to reading back in my heyday…

I’m not clowning around…

So, a lot of my regular readers have said that they want a bit more insight into my day-to-day and why I’m not writing, as well as the usual creativity quotes and inspo.

That’s good – I pride myself on being able to deliver an anecdote, so here we go.

I haven’t written as much over the last few days as I’ve been engrossed in a book. Which is nothing new for me – these days it’s mostly non-fiction, but this one was actually fiction. I’ve bought into the hype of the new “It” film that’s coming out soon, and after I mentioned my excitement to her, my girlfriend was kind enough to buy me this copy:

IT
(Beautiful cover & the fact that there’s a quote from ‘The Guardian’ on the front just makes me like it more)

It takes me back. As a teenager the first real adult fiction books I got into were written by my main man, Stephen King. It made me love the ‘supernatural’ genre. As a creator, and as someone who likes to write fiction, I just love stories that bend reality and take the reader somewhere else. A place where things get eerie and where the usual, ironclad linear quality of life is bent way out of proportion.

So, here I am again – losing myself in one of King’s worlds. Back in the day my obsession started with the Dark Half, then Salems Lot – closely followed by The Stand, Firestarter, Insomnia, Rose Madder, Four Past Midnight and ultimately ending in King’s brilliant non-fiction work ‘On Writing’.

Shocked and entertained in equal measures, those stories were an elixir for my imagination – night after night I’d sit in my teenage bedroom. Tapping away at my keyboard until the dark, quiet hours of the night. Lost in a world of spooky stories and weird encounters – all inspired by Stevey King (and, after a while, James Herbert).

Anyway, back to the case in point.

So, it was the morning after I started “It” and the sun was shining down on another day full of possibilities. My girlfriend and I work at the same place – and as we walked in I ran-over the plot of ‘It’ to her. Taking time to mention ‘Pennywise’ – who, for those of you not in the know, is a villainous clown in the story.

My explanation soon ended, and as is the way of conversation, things drifted to another topic and then to another topic. Until our talk of ‘It’ was far, far away – drifting somewhere in the never-ending labyrinth of the past.

Thus the day ticked away. Some seven hours later we found ourselves walking back – the conversation about my current book far from our minds.

That was until I saw it.

At first I thought it was my imagination, but then we both saw it. At exactly the spot on the road where we’d been having a chat about clowns one had appeared. You can see it in the picture below.

Weird, ey? I’m sure it’s just a coincidence, but it wasn’t there before and had gone by the next day!

clown