A lot of Stephen King’s older works revolve around younger (or at least simpler) themes: little boy versus the haunted hotel, aliens from outer space, teenagers fighting a demon-possessed car. His more recent books seem to be taking a gloomier tone, and involve a lot more soul-searching. The main characters are all getting older, and having to come to terms with their eventual mortality. Books like Revival feature all of the mundane nastiness that can come from real life, like cancer, and substance abuse, and domestic homicide. And, of course, stupid and pointless accidents.
Jamie Morton is six years old when he meets Reverend Charles Jacobs, the cheerful, intelligent young minister who moves to Harlow in 1962 to become the town’s new preacher. Three years later Jacobs responds to tragedy by throwing away his faith and his career in one blistering sermon that alienates most of the town and kills whatever faith nine-year-old Jamie might have had left.
In 1992 Jamie stumbles across Charles Jacobs again. Jacobs has turned a passion for the study of electricity into something much more. It starts with impossible photographs taken at an amusement park; by 2008 he’s using his “secret electricity” to heal cancer and paralysis and congenital handicaps, curing people by the thousands. And Jamie gets more and more wary every time Pastor Jacobs comes back into his life. It’s not just that Jacobs obviously doesn’t believe a word of what he’s preaching during his tent-revivals; the cures are real even if the testimonials aren’t. It’s that the former minister-turned-carnival-barker-turned-revival-preacher is looking for something he won’t explain, and he isn’t even concerned that a small number of the people he’s cured have had some weird side-effects.
The plot to parts of Revival reads like a “best-of” Stephen King collection: after his small town gets turned upside down by a horrible accident, the main character has a teenage romance, loses at least one family member to cancer and another to violence, makes a name for himself in the music industry and, ta-daah, becomes an addict. (Heroin here, although it could easily have been coke or alcohol or prescription pain medication; King does love his substance-abuse themes.)
King also has his usual habit of telling you, way ahead of time, that something awful will happen shortly. He usually gives you enough information to guess what’s going to happen, and gives you enough time to wonder if maybe you’re guessing wrong. And then it’s still shocking when it happens anyway. The scenes of tragedy alternate with scenes where the main character actually gets to be happy for a while, just so it will hurt that much more when it all comes crashing down. I sometimes wonder if Stephen King and George R.R. Martin compare notes about the best way to torment their characters. (Okay, that’s probably unfair. Stephen King writes a lot of violence and murder and plain-old suffering and loss, but good grief he’s not that bad.)
The story covers five decades in the life of Jamie Morton, all of it being told by Jamie himself as he looks back, full of regrets. You’d think that memories of teenage love and garage bands and family reunions might drag a little at times, but this is Stephen King we’re talking about here, so there wasn’t any point where I was bored. It helps that everything, even the moments where Jamie was at least a little at peace with himself, are all tinged with this creeping sense of unease.
I found the pacing of this book a little strange. Most of it is Jamie’s reminiscences about his life, his family, and his almost accidental music career, second-guessing himself the entire time and wondering how things would have turned out if he’d done things just a little differently. The final revelation of everything that the story’s been leading up to covers maybe fifty pages. I tore through the entire novel in a few days, and by the end felt like I’d just read a short story. Not a complaint; I’d choose a Stephen King short story over water and food, and possibly air. It just didn’t seem like there had been enough story to fill all four hundred pages.
Secret electricity aside, I can’t work for a man who’s taking revenge on broken people because he can’t take revenge on God…
A big part of the horror in Revival is not just what Jacobs is looking for, but how much he changes while he’s looking for it. Jacobs is performing actual miracles, and none of it means a damn thing to him. It’s all been a way to rake in the cash to fund more experiments. The man who starts out the book giving a six-year-old tips on how to make a good mountain for his toy army ends up this frighteningly bitter, dismissive person who couldn’t care less about any side-effects his methods might have caused. In fact he actively feels that the people he cures don’t deserve any concern from him, or even any truth, simply because they’re holding on to what he thinks of as a pretty lie.
Complex characters and a decades-long story aside, there’s a very satisfying Lovecraftian feel to a lot of the book. It comes through in the occasional random phrase, or the odd things repeated by those who come out of Jacobs’s procedures just slightly…wrong. And of course it comes though in what Jacobs eventually finds. Yes, you do get to see the results of his final experiment, and no, it won’t make you happy. Stephen King may be spending more and more time wondering about the great hereafter and how he feels about it, but he’s not out to make anyone feel comfortable about it.