I'm about to go deep, so let me begin with a Golden Girls reference. There is an episode -- not a particularly good episode -- where Rose has this bizarre notion that Bob Hope is her father. It's awkward and somewhat uncomfortable, but no matter what the rest of The Girls try to do to convince her that she's being crazy, she doesn't listen. She's convinced, despite all logic and reason, that Bob Hope is her father.
I have a similar twisted feeling for Stephen King. Over the years, for better or worse (and that is an extremely debatable either/or), Stephen has been the single biggest male influence in my life -- having no living male relatives, he's sort of become my fantasy dad. Because of the (imagined, yes, I know) familial connection, I sometimes have a hard time reviewing his books. Luckily, he gives me many opportunities to practice. Stephen King can never be accused of being a slacker, but in the last couple of years he's been particularly prolific, gifting fans with two books a year. Revival, his latest, is a weird hybrid of a novel. It doesn't in and of itself break a lot of new ground in the King literary canon, but it is in a lot of ways a strange synthesis of his three most recent novels, and is probably the strongest of the bunch.
With such a vast body of work behind him at this point, it's sometimes hard for me to think of Stephen King as a writer that's still influenced by other horror writers. Book stores have a separate horror section primarily just to have a place to conveniently keep all of his books. Critics have accused him of cannibalizing his own stories for inspiration at this point, most notably in the later Dark Tower volumes. However, like a much more sinister Homer, he begins here by invoking his muses, beginning with Mary Shelley. In the way that Frankenstein's monster was built from different parts of different beings, Revival almost seems to be built from Stephen's last three books.
We begin at a small town in -- where else? -- Maine, with Jamie Morton celebrating his sixth birthday in 1962. Jerusalem's Lot was still standing, then, in case you were wondering, and Castle Rock's unfortunate rabies outbreak was still some years away. Stephen always writes about childhood very well -- possibly better than anyone since Ray Bradbury. But while Bradbury had a thick layer of rose tinted gloss painted onto his thick glasses, Stephen's are clear, with just the slightest bit of RuPaul's Vaseline-blurring on the lens. Childhood isn't romanticized, and that's part of what makes it so compelling to read about. Lately, Stephen seems to be in a reflective place, and the perspective of an older man looking back and remembering his youth has just the right blend of nostalgia, clarity,sadness, and regret that made Joyland such a beautiful book. It is here that we meet Charlie Jacobs, the young new minister of the local Methodist parish, and one of the most interesting characters Stephen King has created in recent years. Jacobs has an obsessive interest in electricity, and I'm sure that seasoned horror readers can immediately see the dark and twisted path this can take, even in these early pages of idyllic small town life. Revival carries the theme of electricity throughout the whole story, and Stephen's prose is really on point here. The writing in this early section is sharp, direct, and powerful, culminating in some of the most heartbreaking passages of death and grief since Pet Sematary.
The middle of the novel takes a breather, and we're taken through the depths of Jamie's addiction and his aimless, wandering years. However, unlike parts of Doctor Sleep, which turned some of this into aimless, wandering prose, Revival stays on a fairly direct path through this middle section, editing out some of the superfluous junk. The bulk of the novel is set here, and the horror is less supernatural in these pages and more an example of the way that real life in and of itself can be pretty horrific. Charlie Jacobs resurfaces sporadically, giving the narrative a much needed jolt that Doctor Sleep sometimes lacked. I don't want to give away too much, but Jacobs' shadow casts itself over Jamie's entire life, despite being off-screen for the bulk of it. The pacing here is strange, but effective. One gets the sense that if this had been written during one of King's less focused periods, the book could easily have doubled in length, but this would have been detrimental.
As Mr. Mercedes really came to life near the end, the last 50 pages of Revival really do seem as if they were struck by lightning. The story itself, as well as Stephen's writing, suddenly twitches on the stone slab of the laboratory and comes to horrible, abominable life. As if in response to some of the criticism from cranky horror enthusiasts in recent years, these last pages are Stephen King firing on all cylinders and reminding us of why he is the master of horror and why no other author can touch his success -- always commercially, and recently, finally, critically. Jacobs is a fantastic villain, because I hesitate to even call him that -- at every step of the way, one can empathize and even cheer him on.
By culling the parts that worked from his most recent three novels, Revival claws its way to life as a working monster in its own right, but there are other gnarled hands at work here. As I mentioned, King dedicates this novel to "those that built his house" (I'll include a full list and some reading suggestions at the end of this review), starting, rightfully so, with the mother of the horror novel, Mary Shelley. But if Shelley was driving the plot until now, she takes a break and gives the wheel to Lovecraft near the end. King has flirted with Lovecraftian themes throughout his career and always named him as an early inspiration, but this is by far the closest he's come to actually writing in the Cthulhu mythos. There's an interesting usage throughout the book of what I call the Lovecraft Buddy dynamic, where the narrator -- the "sane" one -- serves mostly to inform us of the nefarious experiments and proclivities of the more psychotic (and therefore, interesting) character. The narrator usually has a degree of hero-worship, mixed with ethical or physical revulsion. It drips with the seminal juices of Eve Sedgwick's homoerotic literary theories, but I'll avoid that rabbit hole for now. It's sufficient to say that bromance aside, it's an effective way to tell a story of a mad genius without actually having to be one yourself and waste time getting bogged down in explaining the pseudo-science behind fictional experiements. I like Bradbury more than Asimov -- In fiction, I care less about the technical details of how the rocket to Mars works, and more about what we find when we get there.
And we do get there, finally. Fans of Lovecraft's will be pleased, and the uninitiated will be terrified. The conclusion is satisfying, disturbing, and frankly very unsettling -- so of course I adored it.
King's writing style is almost diametrically opposed to Lovecraft's. Most writers working within the Cthulhu thing try to imitate the absolute worst of Lovecraft's stiff overblown prose without any of his genius or imaginative scope to back it up. Stephen brings Lovecraftian language down a notch from the overwritten eldritch cyclopean peaks of its mountains of madness (as an example of how far removed those peaks are from contemporary writing, my spell check has an insulting red squiggly line under both of those words right now) and puts it into more natural prose. This actually helps to recontextualize what made Lovecraft truly terrifying before pop culture turned Cthulhu into a joke. I'm as much of a humorless and jaded Lovecraft scholar as any (aside from S.T. Joshi), and I'm giving Stephen a gold star for his effort here -- or rather, a dead, empty, burnt out star that suggests to the human mind hints of insanity and unimaginable terror beyond its red fading memory of impossibly distant vitality.
In his 1981 book Danse Macabre (a must-read for anyone wanting to study the horror genre), Stephen talked about the three descending levels of the genre. First, on top, is "terror" -- think about the sophistication behind the best ghost stories, the moment before the monster is revealed, the place where atmosphere alone is enough to frighten you out of your wits. The next is "horror" -- at its best, the moment where you meet the monster and it is not a disappointment. Think of the best parts of The Exorcist, with the demon getting into the heads of those at Regan's bedside and doing some serious damage. Finally, there is revulsion -- the pea soup moment. Revival is a great novel that works well on all three levels of horror writing. If you're a long time fan of Stephen King, you probably already own this book. If you're a fan that's fallen off the wagon in the last few years or are sometimes overwhelmed by the enormous doorstops he occasionally puts out, consider giving Revival a chance. More than many of Stephen's others, it is a true love letter to horror fans, and a great tribute to those that paved the way. Rating: A-
My reviews of Joyland, Doctor Sleep, and Mr. Mercedes:
These are the people that Stephen cites as inspiration for this novel. For those unfamilar with the names, I've included my own reading suggestions next to each one.
Mary Shelley -- Frankenstein, duh
Bram Stoker -- Dracula, duh
Clark Ashton Smith -- Lost Worlds, Out of Space and Time
Donald Wandrei -- The Web of Easter Island
Fritz Leiber -- The Best of Fritz Leiber
August Derleth -- Someone in the Dark
Shirley Jackson -- The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Lottery and Other Stories
Robert Bloch -- Psycho
Peter Straub -- Ghost Story
Artuhur Machen -- The Great God Pan