Saturday, May 9, 2015

Book Review: Revival, by Stephen King

I don't scare easily but Stephen King consistently writes books that frighten me. King cites H.P. Lovecraft as one of his major influences and it shows in his book Revival, which is a Lovecraftian tale expanded to novel length. The story begins in the early 1960s with the child Jamie Morton meeting the new Methodist minister Charles Jacobs. Jacobs and his beautiful wife are a hit with the small Maine town where they take up residence.  One of Jacobs's hobbies is the study of electricity which he uses to build gadgets for entertaining the children. Jamie's brother Conrad gets clotheslined in a skiing accident which damages his vocal cords and he apparently loses his voice for good. Jacobs tries an experimental treatment by applying a small amount of current to Conrad's throat and it immediately heals him. Jacobs waves it off, saying it was largely a placebo effect.

All is going well until Jacobs's wife and young son are brutally killed in a car accident. At their funeral, Jacobs takes to the pulpit and curses God, mocks religion as a racket, and leaves town. Jamie's religious faith is destroyed. He grows up to be a musician and a heroin addict. He hits rock bottom when he misses a gig and gets abandoned by his band in the middle of Oklahoma. He heads over to the state fair hoping to score some drugs when he sees Charles Jacobs again, working as a carny and using his electrical inventions to wow the crowd. Jacobs recognizes Jamie and promises to cure him the way he cured Conrad. He puts some headphones over Jamie's ears, gives him a jolt, and his heroin addiction vanishes immediately. As the decades go by, Jacobs uses his electric healing machines to hustle the rubes and make bank. But Jamie eventually learns that Jacobs has a more sinister purpose in mind: tapping into powers and realities that man was not meant to know. The story climaxes in the present day with Jacobs's final experiment. The use of his power has a heavy price.

Stephen King's stories take place against an elaborate cosmology inspired in part by Lovecraft. His Dark Tower series explicates it more fully and we see implications of it in many of his other novels such as It and The Stand. Like Lovecraft, King paints a universe where human beings are oblivious to the unseen dark realities that surround our plane of existence. We don't want to see those realities. Direct knowledge of them inspires madness and death. I think that's what made this novel effective at scaring me. Serial killers are human beings who have become evil in their brokenness. Not to get all armchair psychoanalyst, but real life criminals always made me wonder why they chose that life. Many children from single parent homes grow up to be criminals, but not all. Some children from loving nuclear families grow up to be criminals too. Either way, they're still human. We recognize ourselves to some extent, and we know that we are free to choose evil. We all choose evil from time to time, if not petty thuggery or staggering crimes.

Classic movie monsters such as vampires, werewolves, and zombies have been done so often that they hardly scare at all anymore. Vampires are now sensitive souls who are just looking for true love. Werewolves are hunky guys the girls swoon over. Zombies are now taken to be metaphors for the coming socio-political collapse everyone is expecting either consciously or subconsciously. Night of the Living Dead and its many sequels leave us wondering, "Maybe it's humans who are the real monsters." But even when they're played straight as scary villains, they have definite weaknesses that the heroes can exploit. We expect the heroes to triumph. The monsters still exist in a universe with recognizable scales of good and evil.

What makes Lovecraft's, and by extension King's, stories scary to me is that we are portrayed as not particularly important; cosmicism, they call it. The universe is a cold, scary, meaningless void upon which we project our mental constructs.

Hidden in that void are gibbering monstrosities that would devour our souls if they ever took notice of us. We are as insects to them, and gaining their attention is asking to get swatted. Curiosity killed the cat, and curiosity leaves us insane or deader than dead. Villains, and often the protagonists, are compelled by that curiosity or lust for power to push beyond limits we aren't meant to transgress.

Modern "horror" stories rely on the jump scare or gory depictions of violence. These days we've become so desensitized to these Hollywood tricks that a lot of horror flicks inspire laughs instead. A Nightmare on Elm Street, for example, scared me when I was a kid but as I grew older Freddy Krueger evolved into the Johnny Carson of the genre.

Revival is effective because of what it leaves unsaid. It's about establishing atmosphere. You experience a creeping dread the more you learn about Jacobs's plan. Like Lovecraft's work, the reader feels the profound wrongness of the preternatural beings the characters encounter. If the creatures are revealed, the narrative leaves the impression that we can't fully comprehend them, and that we shouldn't even want to. It's darkly mysterious. You don't want to know but you're compelled to find out.

Would read again.


  1. I've never read one of King's novels but just hearing about them makes me think that Maine is a terrifying place.

    1. I recommend his Dark Tower series. The first volume is short enough to read in an afternoon and it leaves you wanting more.

  2. With many of the characteristic Stephen King themes of the twisting of youth, faith, and hope, the story winds deeper and deeper down into madness and flat-out terror. This will certainly be a classic King horror story, and one that his fans will love.

  3. It's hard to say much about this book without spoiling the plot. You'll read more than 300 pages and wonder when the horror is coming, but when it hits, in the last 30 pages, you'll realize how important the slow build-up was to the denouement of the story. This is one of King's most interesting novels in years.