Columns > Published on February 1st, 2013

Watch Out For That First Step – It’s A Doozy: The Top 10 Time Loop Stories

Happy Groundhog Day! It’s a day steeped in tradition, a Pennsylvania German custom going back centuries to ancient weather lore, and even sharing conventions with the age-old Pagan festival of Saint Brighid’s Day. It’s the day we turn to our mighty groundhog and ask him if we must suffer six more weeks of harsh, bleak winter. If the groundhog sees his shadow, we’re screwed. If not, we can celebrate the early arrival of spring!

But thanks to the absolutely brilliant 1993 Harold Ramis comedy starring Bill Murray, Groundhog Day has begun to represent something else. Something less innocuous. More insidious.

Groundhog Day is now synonymous with the time loop!

You know, when a character gets stuck repeating a time period over and over again? The specifics may vary, but Tuesday never becomes Wednesday. February 2nd remains February 2nd for eternity, or at least until Phil Connors learns something valuable about himself and time is allowed to advance in its normal way.

It’s a popular narrative conceit because it allows a character’s personal growth to be at odds with the stasis of the world around him, creating an interesting, unwinnable paradox. But I suspect it’s also a popular plot device because it’s so damn fun.

So in honor of Groundhog Day, and in honor of Groundhog Day, I give you the best time loop literature. (Very slight spoilers below.)

1. 12:01 PM, 1973, Richard A. Lupoff

This short story is considered the inspiration for Groundhog Day and for all of the time loop stories Groundhog Day in turn influenced. Lupoff’s tale follows regular guy Myron Castleman, a New York City executive who begins experiencing the afternoon hour of 12:01 to 1:01 on an endless loop. He chases down a physicist who describes the phenomenon as a time disfiguration, but never discovers the cause or the solution.

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2. All You Need Is Kill, 2004, Hiroshi Sakurazaka

In this Japanese novel, military rookie Keiji Kiriya is killed in battle and wakes to find himself once again living the day before combat. He dies in battle again and is revived again, over and over, each time growing in skill and strength as he tries to avoid death, hoping that will conquer the loop.

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3. Before I Fall, 2010, Lauren Oliver

Often touted (by me) as Mean Girls meets Groundhog Day, Before I Fall is the story of one bitchy high school girl. Sam lives through a typical day, terrorizing less popular people and infighting within the confines of her hoity clique. She dies in a car accident after a party, and relives the day seven times until she learns, essentially, to be a nicer person. It’s a lot more poetic than it sounds.

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4. The Dark Tower Series, 1982-2004, Stephen King

The entirety of The Dark Tower series is a time loop. The first line of the first book in the series, The Gunslinger, reads “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” Good line, right? Glad you like it, because it’s also the last line of the seventh and final novel in the series, The Dark Tower. Roland Deschain, Gunslinger of Gilead, suffers countless trials, makes and loses friends, crosses worlds and centuries and loses a few fingers on his quest to the top of the elusive Dark Tower, and what does he find there? The beginning.

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5. HELP! I’m Trapped In The First Day Of School…Forever, 1994, Todd Strasser

This book is one of a series of HELP! I’m Trapped children’s books by Todd Strasser, usually involving a machine that switches bodies for some Freaky Friday antics. However, the year after Groundhog Day, Strasser wrote about an eighth-grader named Jake who is forced to relive the first day of school…FOREVER. (Really, the first day of school isn’t so bad. No homework yet, no tests. Finals would make for a worse fate.) There’s even a Groundhog Day reference, as the kid wakes up having dreamt of a groundhog in the first chapter. Oh Todd Strasser, you clever minx.

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6. I Am the Cheese, 1977, Robert Cormier

This isn’t a sci-fi or fantasy example, but I think it still counts. I Am the Cheese is a dark mystery novel about Adam Farmer, who is biking from his home in Massachusetts to visit his father in Vermont. As he bikes, he recalls various events of his life, but every memory is hazy, untrustworthy. Clues slowly unravel until we learn that Adam’s mind is protecting him from the troubling truth of his life, forcing him to relive this week over and over so he’ll never have to face the heartbreaking reality of his situation.

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7. The Neverending Story, 1979, Michael Ende

You’re aware of the 1984 film, but you may not be as familiar with the German fantasy novel from which it’s adapted. Well in the book, events unfold in much the same way, with little squirt Bastian reading about the adventures of Fantastica (Fantasia in the film) and affecting how the story unfolds with his own imagination – but it makes plain what the movie only implies, that the narrator/reader loop of The Neverending Story is, in fact, neverending. The title sorta gives it away, after all.

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8. Replay, 1987, Ken Grimwood

Like “12:01 PM,” Replay is considered one of the classic forerunners in the time loop genre. 43-year-old radio journalist Jeff Winston’s time loop is a little wider than most of the others on this list – he relives various points of a 25 year time loop, dying of a heart attack in 1988 and repeatedly being resurrected at different points in his life from 1963 forward, until he reaches 1988 and dies every time. During one of these cycles, he meets and falls in love with another replayer, Pamela Phillips, and together they relive their lives over and again as they try to understand what’s initiated this series of unstoppable cycles.

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9. The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, 1915, P.D. Ouspensky

25 years is nothing. Ivan Osokin’s got ol’ Jeff beat – he relives his entire life! He realizes that he remembers living this life already, and he has the knowledge of past mistakes to guide him this time around. And yet even with this knowledge, Ivan finds himself stymied, constantly making the same mistakes again despite his best efforts.

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10. That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is In French, 1998, Stephen King

Ennui? No, probably déjà vu, huh? King’s 1998 short story, from Everything’s Eventual, tells the tale of a woman on a road trip that never ends, a trip that repeats the same events without ceasing. Of course, since it’s Stephen King, terrible things happen, and this poor chump’s almost definitely in Hell, where things are boring and repetitive.

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I have to admit, as this is a pretty specific sub-genre, I’ve probably stolen all the good choices. But prove me wrong! Give me some of your favorite time loops in the comments. And if you can’t think of any books - movies and TV totally count. That Supernatural episode is a classic.

About the author

Meredith is a writer, editor and brewpub owner living in Houston, Texas. Her four most commonly used words are, "The book was better."

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