Stephen King’s Needful Things was the book that turned me on to reading and writing again, after a long hiatus. The book set the bar quite high for other thrillers and here’s why:
King is a master of atmosphere. Other authors focus on creating a terrifying villian. King, however, simply traps his very human characters in a horrific situation, like putting two starving guinea pigs in the same cage, then watches them eat each other. These characters are going about their ordinary lives when something changes, be it an invisible dome snapping down over their town or a mist that rolls in with monsters in its wake or an old shopkeeper who sells people the things they want for a simple favor. This change is what all of King’s readers have come to love about his writing.
He sets a scene so thoroughly that it smells and tastes like you are sitting at a diner, drinking a gritty, bitter slosh of coffee while you overhear the conversations that carry on around you. Then an unseen hand turns the dial on the thermostat up just a little and the scene shifts. Soon, things are tense and that tension doesn’t let up when the villain leaves, because something has changed in the ordinary people that still live in the hamster cage.
I could go on about Stephen’s knack for plot-craft, but I intended to talk about 11/22/63, and that I shall. Truthfully, I could have used a little more of that sense of foreboding. The entire novel was heavy on the nostalgia, but a little light on the suspense for my tastes. There were those moments when everything is going wrong, but I didn’t feel as compelled into finding out just how bad things could get, because there were a few too many rays of sunshine in this piece. This could be what some readers are looking for. They don’t want a white-knuckle thriller, just an escape to a different time. If that’s what you’re out to find, then this is a great book. King doesn’t just write suspense or horror, after all. He’s the author of The Green Mile and Shawshank Redemption as well, both beautiful works of the nobility and strength of the human spirit. Others have felt this one falls closer into that category. I felt he was trying to straddle the fence a little and could have gotten off on either side.
The premise is interesting. You walk into the pantry of a diner in 2014 and out into the past. You could stay for five years, but when you go back into the diner, you’ve only been gone for two minutes. You go back into the past, but it’s always the same day and every time you go back, you reset everything you did to the timestream on the trip before. Now, one of the characters thinks so much of the world’s evil could be undone if someone could just keep JFK from being assassinated. Then the mission begins. An ordinary goes back to stop a killing (a few killings, actually).
I would like to have seen a little more darkness and desperation in the main character, Jake Epping. For most of the novel, he seems to wander around trying to figure things out, making up life as he goes along. It’s believable. He’s not a superhero and stepping back in time would definitely put you on your heels, but I didn’t get much of a drive from him for most of the book.
One thing that King does excel at in this novel is his research. It is exhaustive. He knows everything from obscure dog-racing scores to the kinds of cigarettes smoked in his locals fifty years ago. That was, perhaps, the most impressive thing about the book for me. It gave the whole story an air of authenticity is critical to works of science fiction. It took a while, but his theories of time-travel presented an unusual slant on the organism, or machine, of time and how our actions affect the nature of reality. It was a payoff, however, that I would have like to have come sooner.
Overall, this is a very enjoyable, believable story, but I would not say it is one of King’s best. The suspense is quite watered down by the length of time it takes to tell the tale and the span of years that it covers. Suspense is not everything, however, and if you want a story that is one part thriller and three parts homage to the 50’s, then this is the perfect tale for you.