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Book Review: Revival by Stephen King

“A brutal and uncompromising novel.”

Revival Stephen King UK CoverOn the dedication page for Revival Stephen King lists a selection of genre luminaries that includes the likes of August Derleth, Mary Shelley, HP Lovecraft and of particular note Arthur Machen, who is the only author to have a specific text mentioned; his 1894 short novel The Great God Pan, which King states “has haunted me all my life”. The influence of these authors and their most notable works can be seen throughout this book although it still remains quintessentially a Stephen King novel.

Revival tells the story of Jamie Morton over the course of five decades from his childhood in a small New England town, through a period of drug addiction in his thirties, to his senior years working as a recording studio manager and session musician. Throughout this time Jamie’s life seems intertwined with that of Charles Jacobs, who first enters his life at the age of six when he takes the position of minister at the Morton family’s local church. Something of an amateur inventor and fascinated by the healing powers of electricity, their bond is sealed when Jacobs helps Jamie’s brother to speak again after an accident. Tragedy soon befalls the minister, however, and denouncing God and mocking religious belief the young pastor is relieved of his position and exits Jamie’s life. This opening section is a showcase for everything we have come to expect from a Stephen King story. Setting and characters are established with seeming ease and within fifty pages the reader is emotionally invested enough for the author to elicit a tear to the eye with perhaps his most devastating scene involving a child since Pet Sematary. Some casual readers, perhaps trying King for the first time, may close the book at this point and move on to something less troubling to their sensibilities. Also in this section King uses his technique of foreshadowing to hint at the bad events to come, which has often drawn criticism that it can detract from the impact when the scene eventually comes. It’s a valid point to make but there is no doubting that it also keeps the reader turning the pages and is a strong element of King’s years of success.

When next their paths cross it is 1992 and Jamie is a drug addict. Recently sacked by the band he was touring with and with his credit cards maxed out, he goes looking to score some drugs at a local fair. There he encounters Jacobs working as a carny act using electricity to create gimmicky photographs for pretty young students. They form a tentative friendship and, using a modified version of the same device that cured Jamie’s brother, Jacobs is able to stem Jamie’s addiction and the pair spend some time working Jacobs’ act together. Still struggling to overcome his issues, this period finds Jacobs becoming ever more fascinated by what he terms ‘special electricity’, particularly its healing abilities and where he believes it originates from. There are some problems with this section of the book; the depiction of Jamie at this, his lowest ebb, feels too similar to the adult version of Danny Torrance in Doctor Sleep and there is little added to the plot beyond detailing where the two characters have been over the previous years and hints as to Jacobs’ ultimate goal. There are some nice Easter eggs which will catch the eye of King’s constant readers and it establishes that Jacobs has some strange ideas and obsessions but his ‘cure’ feels too simplistic and rather a wish-fulfilment exercise, which is perhaps understandable for an author with King’s well documented struggles with substance abuse. This section of Jamie’s life ends as Jacobs heads for pastures new and puts in a good word for Jamie at a recording studio run by a man Jacobs had previously helped.

The final segment finds Jamie firmly into his fifties but finally in a place in his life where he is comfortable in his own skin, doing a job he enjoys, and surrounded by good people he admires and respects. Their lives intersect once more when he, accompanied by the boss also acquainted with Jacobs, attend a large revival show in which Jacobs is performing in his new persona as a faith healer. Once more he is using his electrical invention to heal the sick. Jacobs’ mesmerising hold over Jamie again takes effect and he finds himself joining the man at a remote resort where he hopes his years of research and obsession will come to a head. Their story culminates in a bombastic finale that wears all the aforementioned literary influences on its sleeve and creates a bleak ending reminiscent of King’s earlier work in novels such as, the previously noted, Pet Semetary and Cujo.

To return to those influences once more, it is plain to see the influences of Shelley, the use of electricity strongly echoing Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus, and HP Lovecraft, with its concept of a world just beyond the realm of human understanding, but the clearest impact on the story is that of Arthur Machen. Nor is this the first time King has cited Machen as a strong influence; the story ‘N’ from his collection Just After Sunset, was essentially a modern day examination of the themes found in Machen’s story and works well as a companion piece to Revival as they both examine the compulsion at work in the desire of characters to see beyond the veil of our consciousness, despite knowing full well it may be physically and mentally damaging. Jamie knows he is being manipulated but seems unable, or perhaps unwilling, to go against Jacobs’ wishes. Ultimately he feels as much a sense of need to know as Jacobs himself.

Much of the publicity for the book, and indeed the blurb on the inside flap of the dust jacket, describe this as ‘the most terrifying conclusion Stephen King has ever written’. It isn’t, falling short as it does of earlier novels like the devastating work found in Pet Sematary, IT and The Shining, but it certainly is his strongest and most effective for some years. In Revival there is a genuine sense that anything could happen to Jamie and Jacobs. The most refreshing thing about Revival is that it isn’t a straight battle between good and evil. For all his obsession, and there is no doubt it causes him to do some reprehensible things, Jacobs is a far more rounded character than simply a pantomime villain to hang a plot on. He is a broken man driven by grief and a loss of faith to find his own answers to the question of where we go when our time in this plain of existence draws to a close.

To anyone who has read a significant portion of King’s bibliography some of the themes that run through the novel will be familiar. Once more addiction and personal injury recovery, both elements to have had a strong bearing on King personally, are weaved throughout the narrative and bring to mind stories such as Doctor Sleep, Misery and ‘The Little Green God of Agony’. The opening of a Pandora’s Box of technology and its consequences is probably the most common of all King’s recurrent themes, seen in works such as Tommyknockers, ‘Word Processor of the Gods’, Firestarter, and most notably The Stand.

It is great to see King return to the realms of the more full-on horror and supernatural of the books that made his name and, after the miss-fire of Doctor Sleep, showcasing he still has the literary skill to produce a brutal and uncompromising novel that strikes right at the darkest heart of the genre.

ROSS WARREN

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback (373pp)
Release date: 11 November 2014

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1 comment

  1. Lex Sinclair

    I just purchased Revival and can’t wait to read it. Incidentally, excellent article. I definitely recommend this book to anyone.

    Lex Sinclair: author of (NOBODY GOES THERE, THE FROZEN MAN, THE GOAT’S HEAD & THE LORD OF DARKNESS).

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