I’ve been reading Stephen King’s new book 11/22/63 this week. I believe I’ve mentioned it before. Basically, it’s a time travel novel in which a man goes back in time to attempt to prevent JFK’s assassination.
First of all, I’d like to say that, though I’ve read some time travel stories before, I don’t know that I’d ever attempt to write one. Dealing with the loops and paradoxes would be beyond my abilities to keep track of, I’m afraid.
But I do admire a good time travel story, and 11/22/63 is shaping up to be one. It also looks like it’s going to be much better than King’s last full-length novel, Under the Dome. That one was okay, but nowhere near the quality of his best one, The Stand. But, even the best authors write some lesser quality books. I wasn’t that fond of The Dark Half, and I’ve never read Delores Claiborne (I believe that’s how it’s spelled), though I’ve been told that it’s a good novel. I might try it someday.
But that’s neither here nor there. 11/22/63 is shaping up to be a good novel, and he does a really good job, so far, of dealing with little time travel details that would likely stand out. The basic concept is that a guy who owns a diner in Lisbon Falls, Maine, discovered a small time rift years ago, and he’s been using it for the relatively innocuous purpose of going back to 1958 and buying the supplies for his diner. The result of this is that he can sell you his Famous Fatburger for less than two bucks—an unheard of price in 2011 that prompts some to call it the Famous Catburger. But, since he’s getting his meat for less than a dollar a pound, he’s making a decent profit on his burgers.
Thing is, Al—the man who owns the diner—is a lifelong Democrat, and he gets an idea: why not go back to September 9, 1958, at 11:58 a.m.—the date the time rift always take him to—and just stay there until that fateful day in 1962 when Kennedy is killed? He’s studied the assassination and all its ramifications. He believes Oswald acted alone, and he is convinced that, if Kennedy lives, millions of lives will be saved, starting with all the boys who died in Vietnam, a war he’s sure JFK would never have escalated.
Unfortunately, he develops lung cancer—he smokes like a freight train, so no big surprise there—and he’s not sure he’ll live long enough to accomplish his task. So he enlists the help of the book’s main character—and narrator—Jake Epping. Jake is a high school English teacher who makes extra money on the side teaching GED classes, and he’s got a little agenda of his own: to go to Derry, Maine, and prevent a man from murdering all his family except one son—Harry Dunning, the school’s janitor and one of his GED students, whose essay about watershed moments alerts him to the murders.
Where this gets interesting and pertains to the subject this blog is supposed to be about is that Derry is the town of interest in King’s earlier novel It. Derry is where, in the summer of 1958, Pennywise the clown began murdering kids. Eventually, Pennywise is defeated—though not entirely destroyed—by several kids in the town. Only they can see Pennywise. Adults can’t. And Pennywise has an unnatural appetite for children.
Jake—pretending to be a man named George Amberson—arrives in Derry after the events told in It, but there are still signs of them. Posters are still everywhere warning kids to stay with their playmates and to not ever talk to strangers.
Jake doesn’t know just where the Dunning family lives, and it’s not like he can Google their names. It turns out that when you try to change an event in the past, something works to prevent that from happening, so he’s having trouble finding the Dunnings. Turns out there are several families by that name in town, and when he goes to the courthouse to view census records, it turns out they don’t exist because the building’s basement flooded and totally ruined all the paperwork stored there.
So, he wanders around town, hoping to discover the family that way, and happens upon Richie Tozier and Bev Marsh, two of the characters from It. They know that Pennywise has been defeated, and they can also tell that Jake is different. They are practicing for a dance contest, and it’s a style of dancing that Jake just happened to practice with his ex-wife. So, he helps Richie and Bev and they tell him where the Dunning family lives.
Okay. All that is building up to a concept I mentioned last week: über-worlds.
Über-worlds—to refresh your memory and save you from having to look it up in last week’s post—occur when an author shares characters and/or settings between novels. The concept is probably broader than that. I would guess that shared-world settings such as Robert Lynn Aspirin’s Thieves’ World and George RR Martin’s Wild Cards are probably über-worlds as well.
But the ones I love are the ones like I mentioned above: where characters and/or settings from one novel pop up in another, totally unrelated book. Of course, they don’t have to be unrelated. King does a lot of this in his Dark Tower series, including making a version of himself a character in the story, a concept called metafiction. He pulls Father Donald Callahan, the priest from ’Salem’s Lot, into the later novels in the series, as well as mentioning some characters from The Talisman, the novel he co-wrote with Peter Straub.
In fact, he goes on to say that some view über-worlds as an author being pretentious. That’s a thought that truly never occurred to me, chiefly because I enjoy the concept so much. I think he does, too.
Now, while I doubt very seriously that I’ll ever include myself in one of my novels, I do like referencing other characters. As I stated last week, I borrowed a couple of my daughter’s characters for Spree, and it ended up going a little further than I originally intended. That’s all right. It made the story richer, as far as I’m concerned, and even gave me a better ending for my cop.
But I also made a very oblique reference to my Rural Empires setting when my main characters buy a custom van from some bikers in Mobile, Alabama. The bikers state that they’d built the van to run drugs in. After all, they reasoned (possibly even correctly), what cop would suspect anyone in such an obvious vehicle of doing anything worse than speeding? It turned out they couldn’t run drugs because of the Mexican cartels. But, the man says, he’s got something in the works up in Arkansas that might help. They just gotta hang tough a little longer.
That’s all I say about it, but it’s a reference to the Ledbetter family, my marijuana-marketing Rural Empires set of characters. I have yet to write a book about them, but it’s coming. I just gotta do a set-up story with my old buddy Lyle first. I’ve had too many people suggest that I do an entire series of books with him in them, and it looks like I might be able to oblige them, even though I never intended to write a series with him as the central character.
But Rural Empires is a shared setting, no doubt about that. That wasn’t my aim. About a quarter of the way (or so I thought then) into writing what became the Pipeline duology, my cousin came up to me at Thanksgiving of last year (2010) and told me he had an idea for me to try and write. It was one of those weird “coincidences” that seem to happen when you’re onto something good: all kinds of helpful ideas and people come along to make it better.
Jeremy’s idea was to have two families in Washington County (Arkansas) who were deep into the drug trade: one that trafficked in meth, the other in marijuana.
Can you see where this is going?
I loved the idea. It was even his thought to call it Rural Empires. But, he doesn’t claim to be a writer, so he brought the idea to me, and if I’m ever published, he’ll get full credit. At first, I wasn’t sure how to go about such a thing. For one, I was so involved in Pipeline—and this was back when it was supposed to be a 90,000-word (approximately) stand-alone novel—that creating an entire setting with two families was beyond me. It was a great setting, and I was intrigued. I just didn’t quite know how to go about laying the groundwork.
Then a thought occurred to me: I needed a way for Lyle to go from being a small-time meth cook to a big-time dealer. A distributor, even. So I decided to explore the family that traffics meth, and the Higgins family—specifically Sam and Ina, the patriarch and matriarch, and their sons, Zeke and Carl—came to life. They were Lyle’s way into the business, his ultimate connection to one of the cartels. I also managed to come up with a basic concept for the Ledbetters (they had a different name at first, but I can’t remember what it was now) while I was writing, and that’s what finally spurred the idea for the new Lyle Villines novel (I’m thinking of making them a series—or sub-series—of Rural Empires, tentatively called Pipeline, but it’ll depend on if I get published and what my agent/editor thinks) in which some old events come back to haunt him—and have some consequences for the Ledbetter family. Some of them not so good.
So is the über-worlds/metafiction concept pretentious? I can see including yourself as a character as being so. On the other hand, I’ve always wondered how Stephen King’s characters could deal with something that’s become part of our culture: the phrase “This is like being in a Stephen King novel.” The rest of us can get away with it, but what if you’re Stephen King? Is it presumptuous of him to have a character use that phrase, especially when you consider how important the everyday world is to his stories? It’s quite the conundrum, and maybe making himself a character is his way of dealing with it in one fell swoop.
I love the idea of über-worlds, though. I always have. I can imagine the glee King must have felt as he wrote the scene including Richie and Bev because I’ve done a limited amount of it myself. Having critiqued my daughter’s novel, using Dale Navarro and Jen Xu was a little like running into old and beloved friends from the past. The hard part is in keeping yourself from overindulging in it, which I think King came perilously close to doing in 11/22/63. Of course, when you skate right up to the point of overindulgence without going over the edge, you sometimes come away with something deeper and richer. In this case, it worked because I came away knowing a little more about what happened with Richie and Bev after the close of It, or at least the part of it that took place in 1958.
So what do you think? Are über-worlds pretentious? Or can they be fun?
Or, third option, does it depend on how they’re handled?
Give it a think, and let me know what you decide.
PS. The new Lyle Villines novel’s working title is Hillbilly Hunt. Make of it what you will.