Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Okay, controversial opinion time:

  If  Revival was Stephen King's last work of fiction-- if he wrote no more-- I would be fine with that. 

                   I know he can't stop, I know he won't stop, and I know he's only going to stop when he's all out of stories, and it's a long way to then. But here's the thing: I see Revival as a perfect riff on Stephen King-- all the things I love about him, all the things I think could be a little tighter, and all the things in between. While it may not have been his intent, with Revival, King's written the perfect bookend to his early work in suburban gothic horror, something that ties its past to the traditional pastoral setting while exploring new ways to be disturbing. It's a look at the numerous strange ways someone's life can go, and how we meet the same people in vastly different circumstances throughout our lives. It's about how people can mean so much in one instant and drift off in the next. And it's also a great pastiche of the older titles in the "existential horror" or "cosmic horror" genre, but without much of the difficulty or sheer dryness of those older works. It's a twisted morality tale with a villain who isn't exactly evil and a hero who could never be described as good. 

  And it is brilliant.

Why? More, as always, below

"Mother needs her sacrifices"
- Jamie Morrow

                     Revival begins in a small town in New England as Jamie Morton plays with his new toy soldiers. As he plays, a shadow falls over him, the shadow of the town's new minister, Charles Jacobs. Jacobs seems to understand him, and even suggests a pincer movement for Jamie's troops, attacking the hill with cunning rather than an all-out attack. He helps Jamie mold his terrain to create "skull mountain", and then allows him back into his workshop to see the pastor's own diorama of a little Jesus walking across a pond on what Jacobs calls "Peaceable Lake". This is only the first event in a long chain of them, a chain that will stretch and bind Jamie and Jacobs together with a single bond, something the pastor calls his "secret electricity". Jacobs later uses his obsession for all things electrical to save Jamie's brother Con from a skiing accident where he loses his voice, restoring Con back to himself again.

But then

                        But then comes the thing that makes Pastor Jacobs lose his faith in religion and regain it in his sacred "secret electricity". After a sermon on such that earns him the ire of all the townsfolk, they decide to run him out of town quietly, the way small-town folks do. Exiled from the town, Jacobs makes his way off into the world, but his indelible fingerprints remain all over Jamie and Jamie's life after that. As their lives go on, Jamie and Jacobs cross paths several other times, drawn to each other in stranger and stranger circumstances, drawn to something neither of them understand but that marked them from their first meeting. It becomes clear that something-- destiny, fate, something far beyond any kind of human comprehension-- is keeping them alive for a specific purpose. And by the time they reach that purpose, there's no guarantee that either of them will survive the journey. 

                           So in every Stephen King book, there's something I like to call the Big Black. A massive, shadowy presence, an indomitable evil that chews its way through the book and its inhabitants piece by piece. It had Pennywise. The Shining had The Overlook. Every Stephen King book seems to have a monster that serves as the force of absolute evil. This is so its heroes can, sometimes at great cost, overcome it and triumph over it. The Big Black is usually defeated by the end of the book, and while everything might go wrong in the process, things are usually a little less terrible after that. It's pretty much a constant in every book, except for maybe From a Buick 8, where there wasn't really a large malevolent presence so much as just something so alien that it was unfriendly and harmful to humans. The rule also doesn't really hold true to his short stories. But every novel, there's some evil for the main characters to struggle against. 

                           The reason I bring this up is because Revival doesn't have that. It's hinted a couple of times that Charles Jacobs might be evil, but as far as actual evil goes, Jacobs is fairly benign. He presents more as a tragic antihero...a man whose slow descent into madness is paired uneasily with his desire to help mankind as a whole, leading to him doing more and more experiments. He's a mad scientist in the mold of Victor Frankenstein and the classic '50s horror movies, someone who genuinely desires to do good, but has the misfortune to be doing it wrong. He isn't the big monster, he's just a human being, and it's that humanity and empathy that allows him to be such a compelling villain. There were moments in his rants where I began to sympathize with his views and thinking, to go "he might have a point there" now and then. He was clearly cracked, but there are points where that crackedness actually works in his favor. He's no saint, but he's no monster either, and that actually makes him a more sympathetic villain. Jacobs still has his melodramatic touches-- the sequence in the revival tent, the way he cruelly manipulates Jamie into helping him-- but he genuinely believes he's doing good, and it's hard not to like him for that. 

                                 Jamie Morrow also isn't much of a hero. He's not very active in the plot until the very end, and his main form of agency seems to be telling people "no" as the book goes on. He lies, he cheats, and he acts mainly out of cowardice. While he stands up to Jacobs, telling him very clearly that he doesn't want to be his assistant and that his special electricity is a lot more dangerous than he thinks, he doesn't seem to warn anyone else or do anything that would help stop Jacobs. In some circumstances, it's that he just can't, but there are moments when he lies for no reason. His dreams somewhere around the midpoint of the novel and the continued twitches and myoclonic jerks he suffers are things he hides from Jacobs for seemingly no reason at all. He only brings them up later, when it's clear Jacobs isn't ever going to stop his experiments and has no reason to. But through it all, he actually seems like he's supposed to be that way. His decisions are decisions made by people who think they're good at the time, only to find out later that the consequences are hideous, and is now forced to live with them. 

                               But there are still problems with the book, despite its strong leads. King's references become more and more obvious, leading up to a woman whose name is a reference to Mary Shelley and whose young boy is named Victor. King also references his favorite short stories, including "August Heat". There's some points that feel a little unusually othering of homosexual people. It feels overlong, overstuffed in places. Revival feels in certain moments like the book leading up to the climax was written as a scaffold to support a short story that only occurs in the last few moments. It's something the book shares with From a Buick 8, where a short story is elongated, but there's something I noticed with Revival that actually makes me re-evaluate my judgment on this. 

                                Revival is a book about the passage of time, and mortality. The end of the book confirms this, as it tackles an existential question of the afterlife in a really twisted way that brings the relationship of the two men to a close. Jacobs's final experiment is an effort to rip aside the veil between life and death, Jamie tells his story over the course of several decades while becoming more confused as modern context seeps into the world, and the book ends with many characters dying horribly as further existential implications resulting from the experiments to see into the afterlife seep into their day-to-day lives. The plot is actually beside the point here, the importance is the journey, not the destination or what the reader sees along the way. It's about two characters, drawn together by fate or something worse. It's about the people you know who slip in and out of your life. It's about how family can be at once so near and at the same time so distant.

                                  It's no surprise I liked this book. But I recommend this book to everyone. Find this. Buy this if you want. If you haven't liked Stephen King because of his uproariously unsubtle horror, this may be a tonic to that. If you have, you will find here that if you think you've seen all he can do, there are still some surprises and his boast in Nightmares and Dreamscapes about biting the reader harder when they're unawares is still true. The worst thing that will happen is that you lose time to this, and there are worse ways to lose that. Believe me, they're in this book. 

- Ribblestrop by Andy Mulligan


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