Book Review: Revival, by Stephen King (2014)



by Alan F. Zundel

Getting the payoff right in a horror story is hard. I remember watching monster flicks as a kid and tense anticipation building as I waited to see the creature, ultimately only to be let down: “Aw, it’s just a guy in a rubber suit!”

I don’t read horror stories now as much as I did back then, so I have not read a lot of Stephen King’s writings. I did read “The Shining” years ago and remember that I thought it was better than the movie. (Jack Nicholson’s acting was too over the top for me.)

More recently I read a couple of King novels that were not quite in the horror genre. First I read “11/22/63” (2011), a science fiction/suspense story about a time traveler who tries to stop the assassination of President Kennedy, because the premise was intriguing. Having enjoyed that one, I later read “Joyland” (2013), in which an amusement park employee tries to solve the murders of the ghosts who sometimes appear in one of the rides.

King has sold hundreds of millions of books over his career, so you don’t need me to tell you he is an entertaining writer. His prose is fluid, his plots are full of surprises, and he has a way with snappy phrases that describe something perfectly while making you smile at his cleverness.

His latest novel, “Revival,” is no exception to all that.

“Revival” involves the intertwining fates of two men. The narrator, Jamie Morton, is a six-year old child when he first meets Charles Jacobs, the young new minister at the small town church Jamie’s family attends. Reverend Jacobs has made a hobby of electrical experiments, and one day cures Jamie’s brother of a throat injury by using a home-made electrical device. When the pastor’s wife and son die in a terrible car accident, he loses his faith. He preaches a last sermon on the lies and illusions of religion before being fired and disappearing from Jamie’s life.

Jump to high school, where Jamie becomes a guitarist in a rock band and has his first love affair. This leads to a long music career, an almost as long heroin addiction, and his second meeting with Jacobs. Jacobs is now a carny doing a show involving amazing electrical photographs of the rubes at state fairs. Jacobs cures Jamie of his addiction, again using electricity, but Jamie finds the cure brings horrible nightmares as a side effect. He also learns that a young woman who had her photograph taken by Jacobs had disturbing aftereffects.

About ten years later Jamie discovers that Jacobs is performing miracle cures in a revival show as “Pastor Danny Jacobs,” and via internet research learns that many of those cured have had terrible fates afterward. He goes to Jacob’s secluded retreat to confront him about this, leading to their final meetings together and a climax involving a lost love, Jacobs’ hidden motives, and Jamie’s role in his experiments.

Reading the novel was a fun ride, all the way to the climax. King does a fine job of creating interesting characters in convincing settings, and his usual facility with words is in full display:

“Saint Paul was all too right about that dark glass. We look through it all our days and see nothing but our own reflections.”

“Above the TV was a framed picture of Jesus bringing a boy and girl a puppy. I was in no way surprised. In flyover country, they have a way of getting Christ and Santa all mixed up.”

“Branches swayed above us; leaves that might soon be ripped away by wind and hail were in agitated conversation.”

There was a moment in the middle of the novel when I thought I detected the plot machinery, with the two threads of Jamie’s life and Jacob’s career stitched together with less skill than I had come to expect from King, only to find that later developments pulled the two seemingly loose threads tight by a surprising twist.

As the story approached its climax I marveled at his ability to build tension with descriptions of a rain storm building, a device that could easily have fallen flat as a cliché. It was so effective that when I went to bed that night before finishing the novel I got spooked when I turned out the light—and I don’t consider myself someone who scares easily.

But getting the payoff right in a horror story is hard. I will refrain from any spoilers, but suffice to say my reaction was along the lines of “Oh, come on! Really? That’s where all this was headed?”

King tackles some weighty subjects with this novel—faith, tragedy, death, religion—but in the end had nothing very profound to say about them. Clearly the book was meant as a homage to the classic horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft, and horror fans may thus find the book more satisfying than I did.

Even so, I cannot feel cheated. As I learned long ago with those monsters movies, more than half the fun is in the anticipation. If you are looking for an entertaining time and focus on the journey more than the destination, “Revival” does the trick.

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