Monday, January 19, 2015

Revival by Stephen King (2014)

Revival by Stephen King (2014): Cruising in under the radar after the big splash that was 2013's award-winning Doctor Sleep, Revival is what Doctor Sleep purported to be: a return to full-blown supernatural horror by Stephen King. Like King's It, Revival is a horror novel that salutes a lot of other fictional horrors. It mainly concentrated on the horrors of the big screen in its overt references; Revival mainly goes after written horrors right from its Dedication page onwards, as King lists several horror writers and one horror novella (Arthur Machen's spectacular, more-than-a-century-old "The Great God Pan") to whom he's dedicated Revival.

We've seen King grapple with Machen's novella recently, in the mostly successful 2008 novella "N.", collected in Just After Sunset. And you don't have to have read "The Great God Pan" to enjoy Revival. Though you really should read it in any case. It's swell!

To use a baseball metaphor that seems appropriate to the baseball-loving King, Revival first appears to be a solid double hit by a slow-footed power hitter who's lost some bat speed in recent years. But the double falls into a gap between outfielders. Things start to happen. When the play is over, Revival's delivered a lurchy, gasping, but successful (and terrifically exciting) inside-the-park home run. It's not the sort of towering, out-of-the-park slam that was a novel such as The Shining. But it's impressive nonetheless, maybe more impressive for its relatively greater rarity.

Revival begins in very-small-town Maine. We're somewhere near other King towns such as Castle Rock, but Castle Rock or Derry would be a metropolis by comparison. King gives us something new with the Morton family, from which his narrator Jamie Morton springs: a family with more than one child, and the family dynamics this entails. It's rare ground for King, who's generally depicted one-child families (though sometimes, as in It and "The Body," families whittled down to one surviving child by tragedy). King is out of his comfort zone, which is good. The family stuff works. So, too, does having Jamie Morton grow up to be a recording engineer and occasional session musician rather than the standard writer-protagonist of so many King novels and short stories.

Told by Morton in the present day, Revival shows Jamie Morton's long, intermittent relationship with his town's preacher, from Jamie's boyhood in the 1950's and early 1960's to 2014. Three years into Preacher Charlie Jacobs' small-town tenure, a terrible tragedy ends his priesthood, and his belief in God.

The aftermath of this first tragedy (there will be many more, for many people) sees King write one of his finest scenes of non-supernatural horror. Jacobs gives a nihilistic, God-denying sermon at his church. That's not the horror. The horror comes with the townspeople's reaction to his sermon, a reaction that rings utterly true and horrible in its smug, nasty religiosity buttressed with the most awful, judgmentally toxic gossip. It's a great scene of horrific mourning, one to stand with the funeral scene in Salem's Lot.

Then... we're off. I'll leave the specifics of the plot for you to discover yourself. Jamie Morton's post-teen-aged problems parallel those of many other King protagonists; the solution to these problems is different from what we've seen before in King. Jamie and Jacobs form a twinned narrative, two addicts whose addictions ultimately merge into one.

Along the way, King nods both explicitly and implicitly to 200 years of written horror in English. Jacobs' obsession with electricity and what it can accomplish in the realms of life and death gestures towards that early megalith, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Obsessions with death, the dying, and what lies beyond death nod to Poe (perhaps most notably in one scene to Poe's short story "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar"). 

And there are many, many others, including Machen, including H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Bloch and Ray Bradbury. King also nods to himself nodding to H.P. Lovecraft in one of the horrific images offered at the climax of the story, an image which echoes something in King's explicit Lovecraft homage, "Crouch End." 

There are other King-on-King moments dotted throughout Revival, mostly to good effect, from the tiny, sinister "Billygoats Gruff" door in It to the terrible, hidden invaders of "The Ten O'Clock People." And for those of you who've read King's non-fiction horror survey Danse Macabre, there's a notable riff on something King discusses therein -- the Ray Milland-starring horror movie X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. Seriously. And it works. And HE CAN STILL SEE!

Certainly, the horror takes awhile to build in Revival. And you may at points think you know where the text is going. Does it go somewhere unusual for King? Good question. It goes where it goes. I think the climax is terrific and utterly earned by what's gone before. Implications for everything that happens earlier in the text allow for a re-evaluation of the events we've read about... and, possibly, a re-evaluation of the narrator. Possibly. In any case, really a terrific and enjoyable horror novel from young Mr. King. I hope we'll be seeing more from him! Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. A friend who knows I don't read current King insisted I start after she'd read REVIVAL herself. This review is convincing as well, but... I read the first few pages of the novel on Amazon and I dunno if I can take more tales of small-town '60s kids growing up, even if the payoff is incredible. Will definitely keep this review in mind, however, so thanks.