Books Monthly May 2020 The Stephen King page - this month: The Dark Tower Graphic Novels...
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Stephen King: 11:22:63

The day that changed the world - what if you could change it back? In the month that sees the publication of Stephen King's new short story collection (four novellas), I'd like to turn my attention to one of my favourite King books, 11:22:63, which was first published on June 1st 2011.  After all, you can read about IF IT BLEEDS on the new fiction page, this page is reserved for random jottings about King's books. Last month I railed at Marvel Comics for not choosing a half-decent artist for the graphic novels, which I gave up buying or acquiring long ago. Next month my Enid Blyton page will rail against the artwork on the front covers of Enid Blyton's major series such as Malory Towers and St Clares. But I digress: this month's Stephen King page concentrates on one of my favourite stories, the one about Jake Epping, who is able to go back in time to the late 1950s, build himself a new career as a teacher in high school, and wait around until the fateful day in November 1963 in the hope that he can change the past and save Kennedy from assassination.

The consequences are quite extraordinary, and quite frightening. I can't fault 11:22:63, and I really enjoyed the DVD of the "first series" - I doubt there will be a second series now, because they sort of wrapped everything up in the first series. Like Under the Dome, they would have to make it up, and no one can create something out of nothing. Most film and TV adaptations of Stephen King's work succeeds if they mostly leave it alone. The Dark Tower film only works because you have to think of it as a standalone thing, entirely (well, not entirely) disconnected from Stephen King's mamoth fantasy creation which is his magnum opus. If you start to compare The Dark Tower movie with the books, you won't get far. Most people always wanted a Clint Eastwood type figure to play Roland Deschain, and although Idris Elba is one of my favourite actors, and plays his part well in the film, it simply isn't The Dark Tower and he simply is not Roland Deschain of the line of Eld.

As for 11:22:63, I think it's done very well indeed, and although it's not my favourite film adaptation of a Stephen King work, I love the recreation of 1960s small town America, and the cast are all pretty good. Sarah Gadon is particularly good as Sadie, James Franco is excellent but just not tall enough. The book, though, is pretty much perfect, and hugely enjoyable (for me, at any rate). I suppose part of the appeal of the story is that much of it is set in the late 1950s. As soon as Jake finds himself back in 1958 America, he's gone. Nothing else matters to him, and he spends several years in that timeframe, gathering his  thoughts, making new friends, returning to teaching and bringing all of his 21st century knowledge back with him. I believe he makes three distinct and separate journeys back in time until he gets caught up in the shady world of small-town gambling, and starts to make errors of judgement concerning rock and roll songs and their lyrics.

His liaison with Sadie is brilliantly written, but for me, the crowning glory is when he comes upon Richie Tozier and Beverley Marsh from IT, practising their jive routine for a forthcoming talent show. This is Stephen King at his best and most enjoyable, because IT is for me his finest novel, a massive novel again mostly set in the 1950s - it's obviously the period of his life with which he associates the most, and his memory of that period, like mine (I'm a year or so older than King) is paramount in his mind. My memories of 1950s Britain parallel King's memories of 1950s small town America, which is what he's best at writing, as far as I'm concerned. I happen not to agree with him regarding the assassination of John F Kennedy - that's not important in terms of the book, and probably doesn't alter the fact that Lee Harvey Oswald at least made an attempt on the President's life, even if the ballistics suggest that one of the men on the grassy knoll fired the fatal shot. But when you think about it, King's book only really works if the theory that it was Oswald and no one else was involved is the correct one. Again, it doesn't really matter if you accept that King's version of events, which is, after all, the official version of events, is the correct one.

The joy of the book is the celebration of small town America in the 1950s, when everything was much simpler, much cleaner, things tasted better, and people were just so much nicer. Without getting too far into politics, it's obvious to me that things turned sour in the western world when Thatcher came along and stood everything we ever believed in on its head, and she told people not to believe in looking after each other, as good Christian people did, but to concentrate on "self, self, self". The result is at least three generations of selfish, nasty people, people who lack moral judgement and plain good, old fashioned concern for their fellow man. In Britain we have a conservative government made up of members of parliament who have no money worries, who abuse the expenses system (after being found out and castigated several years back), and who do not believe in the welfare state or the national health service. Whether or not the tories (conservatives) have changed their minds about the NHS in Britain after the corona virus crisis remains to be seen. Far too many of them have shares in all of the private health care companies to come out of this without a stink. They have never believed in our NHS, and I think they will be hoping that we, the electorate, don't have long memories when it comes to the next election. It seems to me that in the USA, they have a similar collection of privileged assholes, led by a man with no grasp whatsoever of reality, lacking humanity, lacking anything, really, and both here and there, the current right-wing politicians make Margaret Thatcher look like Mother Theresa.

That is why it's such a joy to read about a time when there was hope; the time when John F Kennedy was all set to change the world for good. The right wing politicians saw what he was up to, saw what he intended to do, which might ultimately have destroyed them and wrested power away from these good for nothing, evil far right men and women for good. And they decided to end his life. When Kennedy was assassinated, it was about the time that the Beatles were about to turn the musical world on its head, it was a time when a world-wide earthquake turned the whole world on its head and the dreams and aspirations of the poorer people of America (and the world, as it happened), were dashed, because Johnson certainly wasn't a champion of the poor, was he? Kennedy had many faults, but he was a crusading politician, and would have done so much for the poor and the needy. This is why the book is so compelling - it describes a time when, to borrow a line from a Jeff Lynne ELO song, "Ramalama ramalama Rock and Roll is King"..., when you could believe in the American dream, and people were basically good, and nice.

Most of my "best times" have occurred after Kennedy was assassinated, and so not in the 1950s. So why am I so obsessed with a time when I was becoming a teenager? My marriage, in 1966 (54 years this year); my wonderful wife and my three wonderful children; my learning and graduation from the Open University; my brilliant friends and colleagues at British Aerospace and then at Bernard Matthews; my creation of the longest-running and best book review magazine on the internet (22 years this year), etc., etc. These were my best times. And yet I still buy annuals I had for Christmas in the 1950s; I still read Retro magazine (best magazine of any kind on the market); I still look for anything to do with the 1950s. "It was the best of times..." but only from the point of view of a child. It was the best time to grow up, to be alive, to be at school, to be learning about girls, and music (trad jazz, skiffle, rock and roll, and a little classical music that led to an appreciation of such giants as Mahler, Bruckner, Prokoviev, Shostakovich, Canteloube, etc., and a new generation of brilliant film music composers, the new classical giants: John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Hans Zimmer, John Barry, Thomas Newman and Howard Shore).

It was a time when Bobby Darin was the greatest singer of all time, and when Sandra Dee was the highest paid actress in Hollywood (and the most beautiful actress in the world). It was a world of simple pleasures, a world of hope, described to perfection by Stephen King in 11:22:63. A world before Stephen King became the world's greatest living writer, and when Enid Blyton was at the peak of her powers and her profession. I don't long to be back in the 1950s, because I grew up and into adulthood, and what came after the 1950s for me was the best of times. But it seems to me that as a generation, we failed to learn anything from the 1950s. The cultural revolution of the 1960s brought us closer to Thatcherism and the doctrine of self. I like to think that through all the subsequent decades after the 1950s, I and my family kept and treasured our morals from the generation that lived through the second world war and the 1950s. We didn't forget, as so many people did, and it's important that people continue to read books like 11:22:63 because they encapsulate a time that most people have forgotten, a time that was good, wholesome and enjoyable. 11:22:63 is second only to IT in terms of the celebration of the 1950s. It is one of King's very best novels...

Next month: the Holly Gibney stories...

The small print: Books Monthly, now well into its 22nd year on the web, is published on or slightly before the first day of each month by Paul Norman. You can contact me here. If you wish to submit something for publication in the magazine, let me remind you there is no payment as I don't make any money from this publication. If you want to send me something to review, contact me via email at and I'll let you know where to send it.

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Next month on the Stephen King page: The world of Holly Gibney.