American Magic: Stephen King and 11.22.63?

Who’s watching 11.22.63?

There’s plenty of time to hop on over to Hulu and strap yourself in for the duration (because unlike most streaming service exclusives, 11.22.63 is being released on a more traditional weekly basis, as opposed to all at once for the bingers), and  I must strongly recommend that you do. It’s got great production value, a strong premise (TIME TRAVEL!), and James Franco. Most importantly, it’s another strong adaptation of a Stephen King novel, and it’s probably tipped the balance of things to the point of me having to publicly state that I’m a big fan of Mr. King.

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Here’s the thing about Stephen King: there’s no denying that he’s a national treasure when it comes to American literature. That being said, though I think he’s got fantastic insight on being a writer (it’s impossible to listen to him discuss his craft and not realize that he’s a true storyteller who really ‘gets it’) and I’ve enjoyed his stories in both book and movie form for years, I’ve always been hesitant about his stuff. He’s almost a guilty pleasure. Why? Not because there’s anything inherently shady in much of what I’ve read, but because a lot of it falls into that vague category that is “horror” or “suspense” and anyone who knows me is aware that I’m notoriously prickly about creepy content. It gets under my skin in a way that is almost dangerous for someone with such an active imagination, and so I generally avoid it.

But Stephen King is more than just a teller of scary stories. He’s a fantasist, though the way he approaches fantasy is often subtle, and frequently brilliant. There’s a monologue from the sadly-departed HBO show Carnivále that I absolutely adore for the way it analyzes what is, to me, the central drawback to American myth. In it, the speaker discusses the ancient conflict that is central to the show’s premise, a war between good and evil, and how it, along with the age of magic it represented, ended with the dropping of the atomic bomb; when “man forever traded away wonder for reason.” As far as I’m concerned, this hits the nail on the head. In a world after the advent of the atom bomb, the nature of fantasy is limited, and for a country that is so young (in the grand scheme of things), that’s a crippling blow to the folklore of the United States. There’s not much room for the stuff of fantasy in a world where any sort of epic conflict could be quickly ended by the push of a button.

So there’s the problem, America is not built for fantasy, and yet Stephen King manages to find a solution. In fantasy there is an important concept of a ‘secondary world’, made famous in both execution and articulation by one J.R.R. Tolkien. You’re familiar with it, whether you realize it or not. It’s merely the idea of another world, another universe, outside our own reality, where any given story takes place. It has its own rules and it has its own characteristics, and while it might mirror our own, it’s something entirely its own. Tolkien’s creation of Middle Earth is a great example of this, but if you’ve read any sort of fantasy story, you’ve probably experienced it. The secondary world is well and good, but I think it’s a pity when we rely too heavily on it, thus relegating the ‘primary world’ we live in to its mundane roots. Perhaps this is why I obsessed over The Chronicles of Narnia as a kid, and why on any given day I’m probably in the middle of some re-read of one of the Harry Potter novels: books like these have a clear world of fantasy, but the jumping off point is the primary world. There’s a connection between the two. But they’re not quite enough.

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The main conceit of fantasy is that it serves as escapism, and that crucial point is what marks the genius of Stephen King. More often than not, his stories are set in the primary world, often in the United States, and yet they are imbued with vital notes of fantasy. The Stand amazingly manages to live up to its billing as “Lord of the Rings in America;” it’s a sweeping epic that paints good against evil, has a decent amount of magical powers, and features a villain from another world (I doubt it’s a coincidence that the primary setup for this tale is essentially the neutering of America’s atomic capability). Carrie, King’s first published novel, is merely about the basic politics of a high school popularity contest…until you factor in the telekinesis. Salem’s Lot spends much of its time focusing on the everyday nature of a small New England town, and then manages to weave vampires into things without straying too far from the “Mayberry, USA” vibe. 11.22.63 is, so far, perhaps the best example of this because it’s a story with our national history at the center. In the show’s second episode, Franco’s Jake Epping tells an acquaintance that he’s just there to write about the ‘common man’, and in that moment he seems to be speaking for King. He might tell stories that seem familiar, but at their heart there is something more. The basic premise is a simple invitation: “Here’s the America you know from school, now come see the things your parents didn’t mention.”

Perhaps most important is the way that King allows his stories to intersect with some regularity. As time goes by, whether it’s in offhand comments or in more significant ways, his characters cross paths and pop up in unexpected places. That is mythology: the creation of some set of stories that might exist separate of each other, but are all presented as part of a greater truth. The way he weaves myth into the modern world of America so seamlessly, overwriting our history with one that is a bit more fantastic, he allows the country to find its magic again. Sometimes, to escape the realities of life, it isn’t necessary to find another world so much as it is to look at our world in a new way. It’s hard to deny the importance of that.

by Caleb Bollenbacher
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