Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Wordcraft -- Stephen King on changing history

Stephen King couldn’t have appeared more casual as he strolled onto the stage of the Majestic Theatre in downtown Dallas last week to discuss his new book, “11/22/63,” about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on that date. Smiling and applauding crowds packed the auditorium, but I wondered whether he recalled the smiling crowds that had surrounded the soon to be murdered president.

Perhaps Dallas Morning News journalist Lee Cullum had the same thought. But to her question about what most terrifies the master of horror, he replied, with a deadpan expression, that the true horror was what might lurk in the back seats of all the cars people forgot to lock on their way to see him.

King’s newest book, however, isn’t about his signature horror genre but about the struggle of a man, Jake Epping, who finds a time tunnel -- a “rabbit-hole,” in King’s words, to the past, in the back of a trailer in a tiny town in Maine. A rabbit-hole he will go down in an attempt to prevent Kennedy’s assassination.

Prevention, of course, means knowing whether Lee Harvey Oswald, the man arrested but never tried for Kennedy’s murder, was the real assassin.

“From the book,” Cullum said to King, “it appears you are almost certain (Lee Harvey) Oswald acted alone. Why?”

“I’m afraid the conspiracy people will jump up and say ‘you lie,’” King admitted. “But I’m ninety-eight percent sure it was Oswald acting alone.”

The reason, he said, is the gun. “Follow the gun. It was Oswald who ordered the gun. He picked the gun up at the post office. His wife photographed him with the gun. It was only his gun.”

Still, King leaves room for speculation. If Oswald’s original intent was to assassinate Kennedy, why did he get a job at the Texas School Book Depository where the fatal shots were fired before Kennedy announced plans to visit Dallas, King wondered. What difference might it have made, if Oswald’s estranged wife had been willing to reconcile with him?

“There are forces that decide ninety-five to ninety-eight percent of our lives. The rest of it is wild.”

And why another book about the Kennedy assassination now?

At least partly, King said, because of his belief that history repeats itself -- and not just for his time traveling hero, Jake Epping.

King first tried to write a book about the assassination in the 1970’s, he said, but the experience was still too raw. The urge resurfaced after the election of Barack Obama, who King saw as paralleling Kennedy in many ways, including “the hate that surrounds him,” and with the rise of the tea party movement he equates with the political extremism of Dallas in the 1960’s.

But even for time traveling Jake Epping, the past proves hard to change. As Epping learns, “the past is obdurate. It doesn’t want to change.”

“I think (opponents) sensed in Kennedy the possibility of a real change in society and that scared them,” King said. And then he noted that despite the hatred, people cheered the president along the motorcade route. “The political atmosphere was very dark, but really, there was only one Oswald. But all it takes is one.”

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