As a lifelong “Constant Reader” of the books of Stephen King, I am happy to report that his newest novel Revival hits all of those notes we have come to expect as fans of his writing. And in the end he smashes those notes hard, and we readers definitely feel the impact. Taken only with the promise from King himself that the new book is a “straight-ahead horror novel”, I just burned through this one in a few sittings and don’t expect to forget about it any time soon.
All the classic themes of King’s fiction are here : faith, tragedy, disillusion, addiction, curiosity, obsession and death, and we get right to it in a great opening set in the Autumn of 1962 in (you guessed it) a small town in Maine. Our narrator is a six year old boy playing with a birthday batch of green army men when we first meet him, and right away a shadow falls over young Jamie Morton. This shadow, which King refers to as “the fifth business” -the joker that pops in and out of your life at odd intervals over the years – is a young minister named Charles Jacobs.
Jamie quickly develops an easy friendship with the new preacher and the two become linked throughout their lives, for the better and the worse. Jacobs proves to be a great inspiration for the children who visit his Parrish, and his wife and young son integrate themselves into everyday life of the small New England town. As he gets to know the new Reverend, Jamie learns that Jacobs has a love and special understanding of electricity, and begins a series of experiments that will continue for the rest of their now-intertwined lives. It starts off harmless enough, as Jacobs shows young Jamie an experimental photoelectric cell that he built to create the illusion of a plastic Jesus walking on water. This makes clear the Reverend’s secret side, one that possibly believes more in something else than he does in the light of the Lord.
The Morton family is large, and we see the events of the story through the first person account of Jamie, but the rest of the family is important in many ways. His brother Connie is a huge part of the transformation of Reverend Jacobs, as he loses the ability to talk in a wicked skiing accident. After some time as a frustrated mute, Jamie convinces Con to let the trusted Reverend try one of his experiments on him, which is a great success. It is, of course, a slippery slope and the reverend begins to lose his way, believing that electricity is more powerful than God. Then one day, a tragic accident takes Jacobs wife and son from him in a graphic and horrible way, and the way of god is lost to him. He gives a sermon as honest as it is blasphemous, shaking the faith of everyone in the church that day, and then vanishes.
After what comes to be known as “The Terrible Sermon”, life keeps right on going for every one else, including Jamie. In the best King tradition, we follow along as Jamie grows up, has his first love, and follows his own path through life. Although Jacobs is gone, his influence is present all through Jamie’s passionately-written formative years as he has an electric first experience with sex, discovers his talent at picking the guitar, and falls in love with hard drugs.
It is later, when Jamie finds himself at his lowest point – homeless, jobless, and strung out – that his old fifth business shows up again. After leaving the hokum of religion behind, the reverend has now become a different type of con-man, a carnival barker with some impressive electrical experiments that wows the crowd night after night. Of course it is all smoke and mirrors to obscure his true experiments with what he refers to as the “secret electricity”, and it becomes obvious to Jamie that his old friend and mentor is continuing down a frightening path. However, it is a path that Jamie is now bound to, especially after Jacobs “cures” him of his heroin addiction and nurses him back to health.
Years pass again, and now we see life from the perspective of middle-aged Jamie, who has worked successfully as a music producer for many years, without so much as a thought to the drug that almost ended him years before. Tragedy comes and goes, and it all feels much like real life, and then the wild card rears his head again. This time Jacobs again embraces his Preacher persona, with added cynicism, and he is found traveling the countryside giving out miracle cures to the bumpkins who show up to sing and dance and speak in tongues. Many of these cures are genuine, and Jamie learns the hard way of their side-effects but is powerless to stop his old friend from continuing his experiments.
It all gets darker from there, as Jamie, now an old man in the present day, does some detective work and learns that the after effects of his old friend’s cures range from mild annoyances to screaming fits of horror, suicide and murder. Jamie proves to be a fascinating character, especially in these later chapters after we have grown old with him. He knows the difference between right and wrong, but he also knows that there is something else, a grey area that his old mentor has discovered – and he is spellbound with curiosity as well as loyalty.
At just over four hundred pages, Revival is relatively short for a King novel, and the conclusion comes at the reader with frightening speed. We as readers are meant to feel just as trapped as Jamie during the final moments, forced to stare into the abyss at last. It is no coincidence that King dedicates Revival to classic horror pioneers H.P. Lovecraft, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker and Arthur Machen. Although in recent interviews with the author, he claims to have chosen to believe in God, the bleak climax of the novel tells a frightening version of truth and pulls no punches, giving us a nightmarish vision of an afterlife so horrible it brings about more questions than answers.
In the end, the novel poses one horrible new question, and paints an even more terrifying picture of the answer.
What if all religions, including atheism, have it wrong?