At the risk of coming off like some kind of snob, I never thought I’d go out of my way to read a Stephen King novel. But these things happen.

I’ve been plodding along with James Joyce’s Ulysses for a few months now (talk about baby steps; I may be done by Bloomsday [June 16] 2012. If not, definitely 2013. Definitely), and certainly didn’t intend to be distracted with another novel in the interim — especially not one that clocks in at 866 pages. As it happens, though, I was browsing through Kindle versions of new books on Amazon a week or so ago and came across 11/22/63 by the prolific Stephen King.

Aside from some short stories, I’ve never really read much of his stuff. It’s not that I’m not a fan of horror, or that I have anything against Mr. King, but if I’m going to read a volume that, in paperback format, could be big enough to accidentally squish a large rodent or small dog to death, it’s usually going to be something like the aforementioned Ulysses. Life is short, after all, and I want to make sure that I get a good chunk of “important” literature (as deemed by my English teachers in high school and college, anyway) under my belt before I shuffle off this mortal coil. I know that Stephen King has a borderline cultish fan base that will read anything he whips up (I hope he keeps his grocery list safe), but it was clear from the first glance at the title of this, his latest work, that it’s not in the tradition of his usual fare.

11/22/63: The Stephen King Novel for Science Fiction FansMost baby boomers, history buffs, and conspiracy theorists will recognize 11/22/63 as the day that president John F. Kennedy was assassinated while greeting the teeming masses by motorcade in Dallas, Texas. That much is fact. What’s been in dispute ever since — from the time of the Warren Commission’s investigation immediately following the tragedy to Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie JFK and countless books in between and beyond — is if assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was working alone, was part of an elaborate plot, or happened to be, as he himself stated before being gunned down by mob-tied Jack Ruby live on national television, a completely innocent “patsy.” I think that most people aware of the events of that day have at least some sort of opinion about what likely happened. It was a catastrophe that marked a turning point in the American — and perhaps global — consciousness, and it’s not hard to imagine that the ripples across history spreading out from this one act have given us a much different world than what might have been had JFK lived.

And this is what hooked me as soon as I spotted the title 11/22/63 next to the name Stephen King. I’ve always been fascinated by “what ifs.” Stories about alternative history, parallel universes, and time travel will almost always get a double take from me when they cross my path. I’ve been a fan of Doctor Who for most of my life (which incidentally premiered on November 23rd, 1963 — the very day after the JFK assassination). I’ve pondered the world that might have resulted by a Confederate victory concluding the American Civil War in Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, and shivered at a glimpse of what might have been had the Axis powers prevailed during World War II in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. And while most of these forays speculating how different the world could be if only something in the past had zigged instead of zagged are short investments of my own personal time (with page counts in the 10-300 range), I wasn’t sure I could find the hours and days to tackle something as epic as a typical Stephen King novel.

Still, could it really hurt to have a tiny peek at how Stephen King might present a work of alternative history? After all, I could quit any time I wanted to…

The Click to Look Inside! invitation on the cover graphic is what drew me in like a funnel cake pusher at a carnival. (“Hey, kid! First one’s free!”) So I downloaded the free sample of the first three chapters or so onto my Kindle from the Amazon site, and let my eyes take in the first page. Then the second… and so on. By the time I got to the “purchase book to continue” link at the end, the Amazon gift card I got for Christmas (thanks to my LockerGnome secret Santa) was already in hand — as good as spent. Within a week (and at least a couple of fervent, page-turning all-nighters), I’d read it in its entirety (I almost wrote “from cover to cover,” forgetting the sometimes distracting digital format entirely).

Have you ever gone to see a movie without knowing the first thing about it? No trailers, no late night interviews of actors or directors involved, and no television commercials — not even a peek at the movie poster in the lobby? Maybe you were dragged along on a date, or with parents as a youngster, but whatever the case may have been, you got a rare chance to see a story unfold without having any preconceived notions or expectations.

And it could have gone one of two ways: you either loved it, or you hated it. (I suppose it’s possible that you may have been indifferent about it, but then you probably don’t remember much about the experience and it’s all moot, anyway.)

I don’t want to spoil a thing about this book because, if you’re like me, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the way it twists and turns. You’ll put yourself in the protagonist’s position and wonder how you’d handle the power to nudge history in a different direction. Could you stomach ending someone’s life in order to save countless others? Could you overcome the chaos theory’s butterfly effect (made famous in the Ray Bradbury short story A Sound of Thunder) and ensure that your intended manipulations of the time stream don’t get tangled up with each other and actually cause the events you’re trying so hard to prevent? I’m not even going to tell you anything about the vehicle by which the main character travels in time, why he does it, or if the consequences of his actions bring about a heartwarming triumph or bitter failure. I’ll tell you that there aren’t any appearances of sentient cars, giant rats, or undead pets (though a few references to previous works will delight Stephen King aficionados who are paying attention).

How’s that for a spoiler-free review?

A film version of 11/22/63 is in development for a 2013 release. Let’s hope this turns out to more like Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption and less like… I don’t know. Maximum Overdrive? Graveyard Shift? When movie adaptations of Stephen King novels get made, you (to put it as kindly as I can) just never know if the ride’s going to be worth the price of admission.

As far as books go, though, Stephen King spins a fine yarn here (and I would get to reading it before the trailers for the movie start hitting the screen — 2013’s closer than you think). If you’ve never thought of yourself as a Stephen King fan, I recommend giving this one a try. If the first three chapters of the free sample don’t hook you, then at least you’ve not wasted too much time out of your day (not much more than it took you to read this post, anyway).