Stephen King (stephenking.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons, even death may die.
Aficionados of the horror genre will instantly recognise this couplet as the work of H.P. Lovecraft, an excerpt from his fictional Book of the Dead, the Necronomicon. Referenced in Stephen King’s latest work, it forms one of the story’s central themes and provides a clue that Revival, the second King novel to appear in this, his fortieth year as a published author, is a return to the genre in which he made his name during the late seventies and most of the eighties. There is a distinctly Lovecraftian flavour to this story, though with a twist that is very much King’s own.
At the age of six, Jamie Morton, the youngest member of a large family living in small-town Maine, meets Charlie Jacobs, the town’s new minister and a man with a strange obsession with electricity. Following a tragic accident, Jacobs denounces God from the pulpit and disappears from Jamie’s life. But their paths are destined to cross again, and over the course of the next fifty years or so, they meet several times, each time Jacobs running a different scam, more obsessed by what he calls “the secret electricity”, and slightly more unhinged than the time before. Jamie has problems of his own and by the time he is in his early fifties he finds that he is in great debt to his old minister, and agrees to help him in one final experiment, the culmination of almost fifty years of research and experimentation.
For most of this hugely engrossing novel, King concentrates on the human aspect of the story. We watch as Jamie Morton grows from childhood to early adulthood and beyond to late middle age. What we know of Charlie Jacobs we learn through those time periods when the two men’s paths cross. While the scam is always different – Portraits in Lightning; the healing ministry – the subject of electricity remains a constant, and it quickly becomes clear that Jacobs has something planned, something related to the tragic accident that deprived him of his family when Jamie was still counting his age in single figures.
There are themes here that we have come to expect from Stephen King stories over the years: the question of faith plays an important part, here examined with a small twist that plays faith in the unknown (God) against faith in science (electricity) yet never manages to definitively separate the two; there is personal tragedy; examinations of the dynamics of family, and how they change over the years as the glue that holds them together first stretches, then, often, breaks altogether; the battle against addiction. Most importantly, as the Lovecraft quote that forms Revival’s core might suggest, is the question of death and what awaits us on the other side.
King never portrays Jacobs as a villain, yet the reader comes away with the distinct impression that if there is a villain in this piece, Jacobs would be it. There are parallels here with Rupert Angier from Christopher Priest’s excellent The Prestige (the obsession with electricity, and the attempts to turn it to one’s own will), and with King’s own Leland Gaunt; in this instance, rather than providing things, Jacobs provides cures, but the ultimate price that the buyer pays is no less substantial, and no less dangerous. As Mr Gaunt himself might advise: caveat emptor. There are also echoes of Pet Sematary: Jamie receives visits from the dead that feel very similar to the visits Louis Creed receives from Victor Pascow in that earlier novel. Through misdirection and clever plotting, King leads us to believe that we understand what Jacobs is trying to achieve, pulling the rug out from under us at the last minute and presenting us with something even more horrifying than we might have guessed.
There are, as always, links to King’s other works scattered throughout his latest novel. The most obvious is with last year’s Joyland, a place where Charlie Jacobs has set out his stall at some point during his career as a showman and charlatan. Once again, King immerses the reader in the world of “carny”, tying the two novels inextricably together, despite their widely different subject matters.
In the closing act, the tone of the novel changes completely, as King leaves his examination of the human aspect behind and presents us with a brief, but extremely disturbing, glimpse of balls-to-the-wall horror in a perfectly-judged tribute to the greats of the genre, people like Lovecraft and Machen, Ashton Smith and Derleth, the giants upon whose shoulders King has built his own career. You thought Pennywise was frightening? Or Kurt Barlow? Or the concept of Dreamcatcher’s “shit-weasels”? They all pale in comparison to the vision King presents in the closing pages of Revival, a vision that will make us re-examine all of the questions King has asked us to answer during the reading of this novel: that of faith, of family, of death. Abrupt and shocking, it shows that, even after forty years at the coalface, King still has the power to frighten and unnerve the reader, in ways that will stay with us long after we’ve finished the book and moved on to something else. Despite the Lovecraftian connotations, King presents a vision that is entirely of his own devising, and which asks us to reconsider any beliefs that we hold about who we are, where we come from and to where we are ultimately heading.
Revival is the perfect example of the long, slow build to a barely-glimpsed horror that is no less frightening for its brevity. Intensely personal, the book invites the reader to consider their own beliefs in order to understand the beliefs of the novel’s central characters, Jamie and Charlie. One of the finest novels King has produced in his long career, it is a welcome return to the pure horror that made his name, while still retaining the deep insight into the human condition that has defined much of his later work. Stephen King continues at the top of his game, one of our finest living writers. Revival is likely to become a firm favourite for many Constant Readers, an excellent example of the breadth of King’s abilities as a storyteller.