Scribner • 2014 • 405 pages
A Novel Critique
In an interview with the site GoodReads.com, interviewer Catherine Elsworth quoted King’s publisher at Scribner, Nan Graham: “I asked Steve whether it really had to be this dark, knowing before he answered that, yes, it does.” King fueled the fire with additional hints that the book was intense, saying, “It’s too scary. I don’t even want to think about that book anymore. It’s a nasty, dark piece of work. That’s all I can tell you.” King’s site, StephenKing.com, set up what could be considered grief counseling for readers with a page called “Prepare for Revival,” which invited readers affected by the book to, “explore and anonymously share your innermost thoughts on the major themes contained within the story. Users can safely and securely post their experiences and feelings about Faith, Tragedy, Disillusion, Addiction, Curiosity, Obsession, Death and The Afterlife.”
Certainly some of this seems a little like over-the-top hype to lure back horror readers who might have drifted away in recent years. While Doctor Sleep was indisputably horror, most of King’s successes over the past few years have placed firmly outside the genre: the time-travel thriller 11/22/63, the fantasy parable Wind Through the Keyhole, the straight-up thriller Mr. Mercedes, and the nostalgic supernatural mystery Joyland were all excellent novels, but there was nothing in the way of bone-chilling terror for which King is known.
The opening pages of Revival don’t seem to offer much in the way of that, either. King introduces us to Jamie Morton, first seen on is sixth birthday in rural Maine, 1962. We also make the acquaintance of a friendly new minister in town named Charles Jacobs, and his family. The first time Jamie meets Jacobs, the man’s shadow portentously falls over him while he’s playing in the dirt. That shadow never quite leaves. Jamie takes to calling Jacobs his “fifth business,” a movie term describing a character who “pops out of the deck at odd intervals over the years, often during a moment of crisis.” Other terms – change agent, even nemesis – seem incongruous to the careful way King crafts Jacobs’ character: a nice guy, with a healthy belief in both God and science, especially electricity. In an early bit of foreshadowing, Jacobs shows Jamie a playset of Jesus walking across the water, explaining that what looks like a miracle is only electricity. “It’s a magic trick!” young Jamie exclaims, “Like Jesus walking on the water to that ship.” Jacobs responds, “Sometimes ... that’s what I’m afraid of.”
Carefully, King sketches out scenes of Jamie’s life – including one of the more safe and sane home lives King has ever constructed. He’s got three brothers, one sister, and parents who love them all. Later, he discovers an interest in playing rhythm guitar, and develops a crush on local cutie Astrid Soderberg. Slowly, we grow aware that King is building the history of a life from the ground up – something he hasn’t really attempted before. While the architecture of the book is more John Irving than what we’d typically associate with Stephen King, Revival moves at a swift pace akin to that of Firestarter. Though the book moves fast, King doesn’t skimp on the details of Jamie’s life; as in the middle section of 11/22/63, Revival gives its main character time to breathe, to live. It’s not that there isn’t a sense of urgency in the book – there is, and King ratchets that up as we grow closer and closer to the finale – but Jamie is a fascinating good guy, and many of the best parts of Revival involve simply watching him grow up, dabble in music, and fall in and out of love.
There’s his fifth business to contend with, though, and one of King’s most ingenious tricks is in keeping Jacobs off-stage for much of the book’s time, cropping up in Jamie’s life at tragic intervals. In this way, King recalls the relationship between Johnny Smith and Greg Stillson in The Dead Zone, only Jamie and Jacobs are far more intimately intertwined. An early disaster sends Jacobs out of young Jamie’s life for years, but not before he performs a miracle, restoring speech to Jamie’s suddenly mute brother. This has Biblical implications (Christ healed a deaf-mute, as recounted in Mark 7:31-7:37), but as with the playset of Jesus walking across the water, Jacobs dismisses this as having more to do with electricity than God. As Jacobs’ seeming blasphemy and distrust of religion deepens, so too does his interest in electricity ... not to mention his madness.
Slowly, Jacobs’ true nature asserts itself, just as Jacobs asserts himself into Jamie’s life. Midway through the book, Jamie’s rock and roll lifestyle catches up to him and we find him at rock bottom, wanting only to score more heroin and not caring if it kills him. Addiction has long been a theme in King’s work, but here we get intimations of adult Danny Torrance in Doctor Sleep ... but Danny Torrance didn’t have the miracle cure Jacobs provides with his ever more sophisticated knowledge of electricity – both regular and secret. It is Jacobs’ faith in this secret electricity that slowly drives him insane, but because this change is subtle and rooted in deep pain, Jacobs never comes across as an over-the-top villain (as some of King’s more colorful bad guys occasionally do, like Norman Daniels in Rose Madder or Big Jim Rennie in Under the Dome).
But do the reports of the book’s overtly terrifying nature hold up? For much of the book’s length, there’s a general feeling of unease, punctuated by some fairly horrifying aftereffects of Jacobs’ misapplication of his secret electricity ... but nothing that necessarily seems “too scary.” But as we march into the book’s final thirty pages, we get a vision of what Jacobs’ desperate desire to look into the realm beyond death actually uncovers ... and what death actually means.
The implications of this (as well as the chilling epilogue, which recalls the litany of the dead in the closing pages of The Green Mile, but far more violent) resonate with deep, primal horror. Books like Pet Sematary and The Dark Half are certainly scary, and edge into taboo territory, but Revival cuts a deep gash into our most deeply held beliefs about death and the afterlife, no matter what those beliefs are. What results is King’s most profoundly unsettling novel to date, one whose terrors aren’t as easily shrugged off as vampires, malevolent ghosts, or even rabid St. Bernards. For the first time, King has crafted a story of a life lived entire ... only to undercut it all by showing us what happens next.