Short Take: This review has been brought to you by the letter E. All that stuff starts with E.
I’ve been a Stephen King fan for as long as I can remember. I actually read The Shining when I was eleven years old. Yes, it scared the crap out of me. Yes, I’m amazed my parents didn’t say anything when they saw me devouring a book that was clearly not intended for children. Yes, I’ve been hooked on Stephen King and horror novels ever since. And yes, I’ve been accused many times of having no taste when it comes to literature as a result of that.
But I think that Revival may be one of Stephen King’s best books yet. In a lot of ways, it’s like The Shining. It’s a smaller story, with fewer pages, and a much smaller cast of characters than some of his more epic works (It, I’m looking at you). The horror is quieter, more realistic – obsession, loss, and addiction play far larger roles than any supernatural beastie. Revival also focuses on a father-son type of relationship reminiscent of Jack and Danny Torrance – the love is there, but the need is always bigger.
Reverend Charles Jacobs befriends six-year-old Jamie Morton in the early 1960’s, in Maine. The minister, his lovely wife Patsy, and their adorable son Morris are new in town, but quickly create a warm, fun atmosphere in the church community. His hobby of tinkering with electronics and creating his own gadgets and gizmos is seen as endearingly goofy. Everything is wonderful until the day that Patsy and Morris are killed in a car crash. A couple of weeks later Jacobs delivers his final sermon, in which the grief-stricken man presents “evidence” to his congregation that there is no God. He leaves town immediately afterward.
From there, Jamie grows up, discovers blues guitar and heroin, and Jacobs reinvents himself multiple times. Using his discoveries about the nature of electricity, he becomes a carnival sideshow, then a faith healer, and finally an obsessive recluse. It’s just a random coincidence when they meet up again at a state fair, and later on, when Jamie sees that Jacobs is doing a tent revival and decides to check it out, it only makes sense. But as Jacobs becomes more fixated on what he can do with electricity, he starts pulling all of the strings available to him to turn Jamie into his accomplice.
It’s that relationship between the two men that forms the backbone of Revival. They are friends, and enemies, and teacher and student, and prisoner and warden, and mentor and protegee. They are also both flawed, human, and mourning the various losses in their lives. As always, Stephen King is at his best when he’s writing people.
Was Revival flawless? No, it wasn’t. Stephen King is a fantastic writer, but he tends to be pretty clunky with his foreshadowing. In fact, when Jacobs first meets Jamie, he LITERALLY throws a shadow over his innocent game. There are a lot of heavy hints as to which characters are going to meet an awful fate. For a story that does so much with such beautifully subtle language, these things feel like horseshoes to the frontal lobe.
And I have to say it. I’m not a baby boomer. So I don’t understand what was so magical about the late 50’s-early 60’s. Stephen King isn’t the only one guilty of romanticizing that period of time in America. Everything that takes place in the early part of this book is just so peachy-keen, so gee-golly-willikers wholesome and pretty and nice. I mean, in real life, women and minorities had it pretty damned hard then, but you’d never know it to listen to Stephen King (or any number of others who were around then). If you’ve read IT, you know that King is capable of looking beyond the shiny veneer of the “good old days”.
I can only guess that his intention was to create a complete tonal shift in Jacobs’ life – when he had his family, and everything was going well for him, versus later, when it all broke down. So maybe it’s not so much that Stephen King chose to ignore the reality of life for a lot of people for that time period, but instead, chose to be heavy-handed with the metaphor/foreshadowing thing again. Either way, it just rang false.
But the rest of the story… DAMN. It was such a different kind of horror, a kind of calm, quiet, subtle feeling of unease. Watching Jacobs go off the rails, knowing exactly why it’s happening, and being powerless to stop it – I think a lot of us have been there. That’s what Stephen King does better than just about anyone writing today. He creates characters that you care about, and even when the story goes a little off-track or the language a little too pulpy, you still want to know what happens to these people. And yeah, it’s a hell of a great story as well.
The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and one pat on the back for not using the word “Electrifying.” It was harder than you think!)