7 Epistolary Time Travel Stories

Books

The epistolary novel—that is, a story told through letters—dates back all the way to the 1400s in the earliest versions of the form, counting Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as famous examples.

But what about the first time travel narrative told through correspondence? Could it have begun with a short story in 1959—or might one theorize that the epistolary time travel story will exist, has always existed, throughout the timestream? That certainly feels like the case with Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar’s new novella This Is How You Lose the Time War, featuring a pair of transdimensional pen pals.

At any rate, the form lends itself to a twisty story filled with predestination paradoxes created by the scratch of a pen or the typing of a key—literally writing the future, or the past, into being. And even as the method of delivery evolves from a traditional letter to more creative interpretations of communication, the connections forged on the metaphorical page remain as compelling. From a magical mailbox inspiring a meet-cute to rival time war agents leaving love notes across time, these seven stories prove that every time travel story has at least two sides.

“The Love Letter” by Jack Finney

Delivery method: writing desk with hidden compartments

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What’s the story?

In 1959, bachelor Jake Belknap buys a seemingly simple desk from a secondhand store, it having been sold from a nearby Brooklyn brownstone. But when he happens to sit down at the desk on a particularly existential night of wondering if he’ll ever find someone to love, what does he discover but a secret hiding spot, and a note inside?

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It’s not so much a letter as a cry for help, from one Helen Elizabeth Worley in 1882. Charmed by her open-ended salutation (“Dearest!”) and moved by her own desperate longing, Jake impulsively writes back, validating Helen’s every forbidden thought. With the convenience of his vintage stamp collection and knowledge of a nearby post office that was still standing in the 1800s, Jake is able to reach Helen across seventy-odd years. After just a letter or two, they both believe themselves to like the other person enough to potentially fall in love… if only they could meet.

Pen pal paradox?

There are only so many hidden compartments in one desk, however; and once each is opened, Helen cannot place anything else within it. Jake doesn’t realize this until there is one compartment left, so he implores her to send something worthwhile. Instead of the long love letter he expected, however, he receives simply a photograph of her, with the inscription I will never forget. And when it finally occurs to him to track down her grave, he sees her true final missive to him, hidden in plain sight: I never forgot.

Successful delivery or return to sender?

Helen’s gravestone is a nice little touch, but that’s all we’re left with in Jake’s telling. Unlike other stories on this list, we don’t get a sense of how opening himself up to Helen’s love actually changed him for the better. Then again, there’s always the Hallmark movie version.

Frequency

Delivery method: ham radio broadcasts during the aurora borealis

What’s the story?

Over time, the definition of epistolary stories has broadened to include other forms of communication—from newspaper clippings to voicemails to, in this 2000 film’s case, hitting just the right radio frequency to reach across time and space. In 1999, cop John Sullivan (Jim Caviezel) finds that his dead father’s old ham radio starts broadcasting during a rare solar flare. On the other end? His dad, firefighter Frank Sullivan (Dennis Quaid), in 1969, the night before his death.

Pen pal paradox?

It’s easy enough for John to warn Frank of his impending fiery doom so that he makes it out alive. But then details in 1999 start changing: instead of John losing his father to fire, his mother is murdered by a serial killer, and Frank is still fated to die in 1989 from (irony of ironies) smoking. When his father’s old friend assigns John to investigate the cold case of serial killer “the Nightingale,” he uses his knowledge of the past and his father’s action in the past to try to save his mother.

Successful delivery or return to sender?

Like The Lake House, this epistolary time travel movie tends toward the cheesy (they get you with the ol’ “past injury influences present action” bit), but Caviezel and Quaid foster a tender father-son dynamic that makes it worthwhile. While the movie was adapted into a 2016 CW TV series of the same name, with a female lead no less, it only lasted one season.

The Lake House

Delivery method: magical mailbox

What’s the story?

The Lake House feels like the urtext of the epistolary time travel story, despite the fact that it came out only in 2006—likely because of how it so commits to the delightfully cheesy conceit of a time-traveling mailbox through which doctor Kate Forster (Sandra Bullock) and architect Alex Wyler (Keanu Reeves) exchange letters.

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Ostensibly both tenants of the same idyllic lake house—not to mention unintentionally sharing custody of an adorable dog—they soon discover that they exist exactly two years apart, with Kate in 2006 and Alex in 2004. Though it takes a few back-and-forth notes to be sure that neither is pranking the other, their status as time-crossed lovers becomes cemented once Kate predicts both the dog tracking pawprints through “their” house as well as a surprise cold snap. There’s also the nifty mechanic of watching the mailbox flag go up and down when the other receives a letter.

Pen pal paradox?

Aside from saving them a hell of a lot on postage, the TARDIS-like mailbox can transport more than just letters: a thoughtful scarf from Kate, an annotated map of Alex’s favorite Chicago spots that lets them share a walking tour, a copy of Alex’s father’s posthumous memoirs on the day of his death.

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Their correspondence, in rambling letters and impatient quick-scribbled responses, both creates paradoxes and fulfills time loops; the movie seems to play fast-and-loose with time travel rules about how much you can change the past (like planting a surprise tree) versus fitting into the established fabric of time.

Despite the rom-com’s often overbearing earnestness, there are some clever moments, like when Alex charms his way into Kate’s birthday party in 2004 and even kisses her—a fond but vague memory for her that sharpens only after they’ve been writing each other for months. But if they’re so head-over-heels for each other, then why doesn’t Alex show up for their dinner date in Kate’s present?

Successful delivery or return to sender?

Watching this at a sleepover in 2006, the twist of “one of us is dead in the other’s timeline!” was still fairly unique in time travel stories, or at least what teenage me had been exposed to. Now you can see it coming a mile away. The Lake House’s big reveal comes on so suddenly, and gets resolved equally quickly, that it’s difficult to really key into the emotional roller coaster of the last ten minutes.

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That said, on a rewatch the solution is deceptively simple: just wait. As a teen I was scratching my head thinking, “That’s it?” but, as an adult, I see how begging someone to go through linear time is the greatest request you can make in a time travel story. Still, this is a movie to be giggled at over wine, not to actually be taken seriously.

Doctor Who, “Blink”

Delivery method: DVD Easter egg extras courtesy of a transcript

What’s the story?

In one of the new Doctor Who’s most memorable (and quotable) episodes, Sally Sparrow (Carey Mulligan) encounters the Weeping Angels in then-contemporary 2007, after they trap her friend Kathy in the past. When Sally tracks down Kathy’s brother Larry to share her condolences, she instead discovers that he has been following a most peculiar phenomenon: odd Easter eggs of a man having a one-sided conversation, spread out over 17 DVDs… all of which Sally owns.

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When Sally places the disc in a DVD player, she finds herself “talking” to the Doctor (David Tennant) despite the fact that he has recorded this video while trapped in 1969. In some cases, having seen the Easter eggs before, she can anticipate the Doctor’s next line; in the most baffling moments, he seems to respond to her exclamations as if they are actually conversing. In the Doctor’s case, he’s reading from a complete transcript, despite the fact that this exchange cannot happen until Sally plays her part in 2007.

Pen pal paradox?

“Look to your left,” the Doctor says—an ambiguous line that Larry, with all his rewatching, has not been able to decipher. Until Sally does so and sees Larry himself, who has printed out the Doctor’s lines and is writing in Sally’s half of the conversation. After defeating the Weeping Angels, Sally runs into the Doctor and hands him the completed transcript, telling him that he’ll need it.

Fittingly, this is the episode that coined the series’ description of time travel as “wibbly wobbly, timey wimey.”

Successful delivery or return to sender?

That sentence may have gotten away from the Doctor a bit, but this episode is a brilliant riff on the epistolary time travel story.

The Incarnations by Susan Barker

Delivery method: taxi cab

What’s the story?

In the lead-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in China, Beijing taxi driver Wang Jun discovers an unsettling anonymous note in the visor of his cab: “I watch you most days.” The letter writer, calling themselves Wang’s soulmate, explains that, even though Wang may not know them in this life, the two of them have been intertwined in six reincarnated lives over the past one thousand years.

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Concubines in the Forbidden City; classmates during the start of the Cultural Revolution; 19th-century prisoners of Chinese pirates; incestuous relations—the letter writer describes their gruesome, intimate pasts with Wang in a series of missives that increasingly threaten his current incarnation, including his wife and daughter.

Pen pal paradox?

The past lifetimesdescribed by the letter writer, whether they were cut violently short or proceeded until death, all seem to be self-contained experiences with no impact on the present—though clearly the letter writer remembers all of these incarnations well enough to influence their actions in reaching out to Wang.

While the timeline itself does not appear to be in danger of instability, Wang’s growing paranoia at his stalker’s identity—and how close they could be to his family—influence his movements in ways that they would not have had he not opened that first letter.

Successful delivery or return to sender?

It turns out epistolary does not necessarily mean the story must contain back-and-forth letters, only that it be told through letters (or some other communication). Barker writes so compellingly—and that often means brutally—that the book spins out a half-dozen narratives that make the reader feel as if they too were a bit player in each of China’s key eras. But what really makes The Incarnations work is the nagging suspicion that it isn’t a time travel story at all, that the letter writer could just be making it all up.

Time Was by Ian McDonald

Delivery method: World War II book of poetry

What’s the story?

Ian McDonald’s quiet, romantic novella is not the first epistolary story to bring in a third player—the well-meaning, if somewhat voyeuristic, reader of these love letters in another time—but the trope gains more resonance when time travel is involved.

In London, book dealer Emmett Leigh acquires and sells an odd little used book—Time Was, a poetry collection by one E.L.—but pockets the love letter he spots pressed into its pages. Posting the text of Tom’s missive to Ben to some online history groups, Emmett is presented with all sorts of historical artifacts: a photo, a diary entry, even a still from a documentary in which they are the wrong age. And, eventually, another copy of Time Was, this time at a bookstore in Paris, containing a letter from Ben to Tom.

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Important as the letters are for touching base with one another as these two lovers jump in and out of time and across the globe, the real time travel is through the books themselves—each passed along with careful precision so that it and its contents can be recovered. It’s a clever play on the time travel trope of communicating via an object moving through linear time… so long as nobody puts it up on eBay, of course.

Pen pal paradox?

Tom and Ben are frequently separated for various reasons, some related to time travel and others concerning their respective jobs as Royal Engineer and Royal Air Force scientist. Yet their plan revolving around the Time Was editions is surprisingly straightforward. It’s only when Emmett inserts himself into the story, and chases down what he thinks was the precipitating event, that things start to get wobbly.

Successful delivery or return to sender?

Time Was is at its most clever when Emmett is deciphering the concrete evidence of photo, video, text, and oral tradition. While segments in which the readers (that’s us) actually meet Tom and Ben in their own original time provide some useful context, overall their story is left frustratingly unresolved. This novella feels like the beginning and end of a longer saga, with all the metaphorical pages ripped out of the middle.

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Delivery method: letters revealed by burning and boiling; letters whittled onto stolen bones and fossilized fish; letters seeded and tended and plucked at the utmost ripeness

What’s the story?

On a distant, bloody battlefield in one of thousands of strands of reality, Red claims victory for her Agency—the brutal, rigid foot-soldiers of one half of the eternal, ever-shifting time war. But then, in the rubble, she finds a letter that says burn before reading. Unable to resist the taunt, Red meets her match: Blue, deep-cover spy for Garden, whose own interferences with time are more subtle yet still choke out the Agency’s changes as viciously as weeds.

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A letter this clever, this audacious, deserves a response. And so Red and Blue begin leaving one another notes, dispatches, epistles, bulletins across strands—all while sabotaging the other’s mission in cheeky ways. But what begins as a relatively low-stakes bit of intellectual sparring soon turns emotional, because you can’t write this many increasingly creative letters without putting something of yourself into them. And so, as they begin to fall in love, these rival time agents begin to wonder how much they actually want to win the war for either side.

Pen pal paradox?

Red and Blue’s entire missions are based on undermining the other side, so very much yes. Empires raised by the Agency’s hand are undone by Garden; Garden’s intel is snatched by the Agency and used against them; multiple Genghis Khans coexist, some of them even peaceful. As Red and Blue chase one another up and down the braid of time, plaiting and yanking out strands, there is no one reality to maintain—only the drive to win one more time than the other side.

Successful delivery or return to sender?

Part of the story’s charm is in Gladstone and El-Mohtar having co-written the novella in person at a retreat and on other visits—ironic considering that Red and Blue are almost never in the same place at the same time.

The worldbuilding is superb, especially in the highly detailed snapshots of dozens of alternate realities, but the true star is the letters themselves, set off from the action like treasured artifacts stored for posterity—when, again ironically, their very existence threatens the fabric of reality. The kind of story that can be stretched (as it will be in the television adaptation, which has been optioned) or condensed as needed, This Is How You Lose the Time War wonderfully delivers on its premise.

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