Saturday, January 05, 2013

Book Review: 11/22/63, by Stephen King


If you could change the past, would you? And, perhaps more importantly -- should you?

King hits another one out of the park with the absolutely engrossing story of Jake Epperson, a high-school English teacher from 2011 who finds himself saddled with the improbable task of preventing Kennedy's assassination. On the assumption that the world will be a better place (starting with no Vietnam) if he can take out Oswald before November 1963, he agrees, and finds himself a stranger in a strange land: America, 1958. (The impetus and details of his trip there, I will leave for the reader. Suffice to say it's the only supernatural device in the story. All the monsters here are human.)

The nod to Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder" (from which the "butterfly effect" theory takes its name) is made loud and clear -- one character even mentions the story -- but King's fleshed-out version of the tale hits closer to home, with fully-realized characters who become much more to the reader than players in a cautionary tale. The meat of the story takes place as "George Amberson" builds a double-life for himself in the years leading up to that fateful day in Dallas.

After some eventful stops, including the grim and familiar Derry, Maine, George makes his way to Texas, where he finds himself a job teaching high-school (back when you could easily fake your resume and identity) in idyllic small-town Jodie. There, he makes friends, falls in love with Sadie, the lovely high-school librarian with a tragic past, and drives a bitchin' car . . . all the while also observing Lee Oswald and his sad little family from near and far . . . and changing the course of history just a little bit every moment he spends there.

While there are obviously science-fictional elements to11/22/63, in some ways it's one of the most realistic of King's novels. It feels true, if you get my meaning. Take a spectacular attention to -- and obvious love for -- the period's details, add in what must have been an ungodly amount of research about that terrible day in Dallas, and finish with a star-crossed, complex, grown-up love story that gives The Time Traveler's Wife a run for its hankies, and you've about got the idea. And of course all of this is overlaid with the gripping sense of a ticking clock, as George's day of reckoning with Oswald draws inexorably closer. Can he do it? Will he?

Ultimately, 11/22/63 isn't a book about the Kennedy assassination, about bad guys or monsters, or even about time-travel. It's a book about choices, about the paths we take and the ones we miss, about how our best intentions can still go not-so-well. About how we change lives and let our own be changed in return. It's also propulsive, humane, sad, funny and thrilling reading. If you know someone who doesn't read King because they don't like all "that woo-woo stuff" (I'm looking at you, Mom), try slipping them this, and I can almost guarantee it will change their mind.  I do not know how Stephen King works his magic, but it just gets better with time.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Book Review: Ghosts by Gaslight, ed. Jack Dann and Nick Gevers


Lovers of the classic Victorian/Edwardian ghost story will find much to like in Ghosts by Gaslight, a generally excellent collection featuring names like Margo Lanagan, Laird Barron, Garth Nix and Robert Silverberg. It is, as other reviews have mentioned, slightly lighter on the "steampunk" than the subtitle suggests -- there are certainly no bloody big airships. if that's your expectation. However, the spirit of limitless invention and curiousity that pervaded the era hangs like London fog over the book, and the supernatural disruptions here generally occur as result of humanity's hubris, of meddling with forces beyond our ken in our hunger for invention, discovery and dominance.

So . . .  I'm going to start by being contrary: GbG contains plenty for the steampunk set: loads of mysterious clanking machines, menacing automata, eerie floating constructions, and far-out communication devices -- some of them downright terrifying. In Richard Harland's "Bad Thoughts and the Mechanism," a miraculous nightmare-removal machine reaches critical mass. An inventor working on wireless communication taps into a distressing uncanny signal in Peter S. Beagle's melancholy "Music, When Soft Voices Die." And in Lucius Shepard's novella-length "Rose Street Attractors," a peculiar scientist builds rooftop machines intended to improve London's filthy air. Curiously, they trap revenants rather than smog. And among them is his mysteriously murdered fiancĂ©e.

The collection also features plenty of Victorian supernatural staples like that ghostly lady bent on revenge; for starters, there's a dead twin in the mirror in "The Grave Reflection," by Marly Youmans. An unscrupulous spiritualist is after more than his patients' money in John Langan's uncanny "The Unbearable Proximity of Mr. Dunn's Balloons." A brave and resourceful young hero struggles with a supernatural curse and his own (vividly drawn!) terror in "The Proving of Smollett Standforth" by Margo Lanagan; and we see the brutal consequences of challenging the alien wild, in the bloody and cleverly-named hunting yarn, Laird Barron's "Blackwood's Baby."

On the lighter side, Garth Nix cross-breeds Conan Doyle with R.L. Stevenson, adding just a touch of Lovecraft, to gruesome yet hilarious effect in "The Curious Case of the Moondawn Daffodils Murder." And in "The Summer Palace" (set in the world of his Well-Built City Trilogy), Jeffery Ford's irascible bizarro-world Sherlock, Physiognimist Cley, faces off with a malignant drug-induced spectre, all the while controlling the unbearable urge to murder his witless partner, Chibbins.

Anthologies are often uneven by their nature (and there is at least one story here that just didn't do it for me), but Ghosts by Gaslight works: a rich tapestry, diverse in style yet thematically cohesive. So glad I picked this one up . . . it's a keeper.