STEPHEN King does not slow down. With an astoundingly successful career that started with Carrie in 1974, he now has over 50 books to his name (all of them bestsellers), and he’s still as prolific as he ever was. In the last few years, he’s published his much awaited follow up novel to The Shining — Doctor Sleep — as well the novels Mr Mercedes, Joyland and now his latest, Revival. He may write just as much as he always did, but readers will obviously wonder if he’s as good as he ever was. Yet the thing about King is, he didn’t just peak once. How can you, when you start off at a point as high as Carrie? King is just as good as he used to be — he’s just changed tracks.
The terrible horrors King writes about are mostly very human ones — loved ones lost in tragic accidents, the loss of faith, the relentless pursuit of something unachievable, self-destructive addictions, personal demons that can’t be fought no matter what. In his earlier novels, these demons would often take physical shape, be it that of a clown, a rabid dog, vampires or even weaponised influenza. But what is interesting is how King has been slowly moving away from the physical horror of his earlier novels that haunted so many readers: Under the Dome was about a physical dome, yes, but it was actually about the fraught relationships and the sheer weakness of humans trapped together and forced into tight spots; Doctor Sleep was about a band of ancients who used the souls of children with special talents to keep their own youth but it was actually about growing older. Revival is about a strange “secret electricity” but it’s actually about faith, destructive dependencies, the unknown and the unseen, and having to question the one thing you believed to be true.
Revival is about Charles Jacobs, a priest turned carnival huckster, turned faith healer and evangelist. Except it’s not about him at all — it’s Jacobs’s story as seen through the eyes of Jamie Morton, a small-town Maine native who first encounters Jacobs when he takes over the local parish. Morton describes Jacobs as his “fifth business, [his] change agent, [his] nemesis”, explaining that the “fifth business” is someone like “the joker who pops out of the deck at odd intervals over the years, often during a moment of crisis”.
This lays out the pattern Revival’s narrative will follow — a string of snapshots of Morton’s life, starting with his childhood in small-town Americana, painted just as perfectly, as sensitively as King knows how to. Of course, King also knows how to shroud many instances of this childhood with fear, constantly creating dark little corners where potential monsters await. Morton’s first encounter with Jacobs is when Morton is a young child and Jacobs is a young priest who has just arrived to take over the parish. Even though Jacobs means Morton no harm, it is instinctive for a reader of King’s previous works to assume that the priest is up to no good, when “everything seemed to fall still” as Jacobs approaches, looking like “he wanted to be two different people at the same time”. When Jacobs invites the young boy to come play in his garage, you think you know where this is going, but it doesn’t — this isn’t that book. Instead, Jacobs shows Morton a motorised set, a sort of electric diorama of Jesus ‘walking’ over water. This is Jacobs’s true love — alongside God, he loves the miracle of electricity most, teaching his young parishioners as much about circuits and the like as he does about Jesus.
As a young man, Jacobs believes that “science is fine, but it’s also finite. There comes a point where knowledge runs out”, but after a tragic accident leaves him shattered, he begins to question his faith and vanishes from the town and from Morton’s life. Many years later, when Morton is older, has discovered his mediocre to average musical talents and is trying to work as a session rhythm guitarist with a dirty heroin habit, he encounters Jacobs again, who seems to have left religion behind to pursue something he calls “secret electricity”. He uses this “force that powers the universe” to jolt Morton out of his drug addiction by causing a “minor restructuring” of his brainwaves. Morton admits, “Charlie Jacobs was a Good Samaritan. He was also a half-mad scientist”, because though Morton may be cured of his addiction, he begins to have frightening, strange dreams that result in him waking up nude and in street corners, poking his arm with whatever instrument he finds — a pen, a fork, muttering “Something. Happened. Something happened. Oh Mother, something happened. Something, something”. Jacobs’s cures prove to carry with them some strange, troubling side effects.
Early on in Revival, a young Morton tells his father that one of Jacobs’s Sunday school lessons is “how doing something wrong because you thought it might make something else better doesn’t work”. This idea foreshadows much of what Jacobs sets out to do with the “secret electricity”. The next time Morton encounters Jacobs he finds that the priest has once again embraced his collar and is using the same strange electricity to heal people. Jacobs admits that “the search for it, the quest to harness it — has become my whole life”, as he constantly strives to understand this powerful force. This desperate need for knowledge leads Jacobs down a strange path, though we only glimpse parts of it via Morton. We do, however, have a very good sense of where Morton’s life has led him, though that may not be as exciting a path.
You’d be forgiven for wondering if the story of Morton’s life was a bit of a shaggy dog tale, since the actual point of the story is what Jacobs is heading towards. Some readers may well wonder what some of the padding was meant to signify, was it not for King’s incredible ability to capture the everydayness of life so very well. It’s the King brand of Americana — small towns, big families, growing up to love music and cars, first sexual encounters and facing your demons. It’s just as important to see King’s skill here, as it is with his deft handling of true horror. But yes, there’s a leaner, meaner book inside Revival and it’s more openly frightening than Morton’s story is. Strip away Morton’s life and look at the horrific, desperate and driven one of Jacobs and the people he somehow altered, and you’ve got an aggressive little story about addictions, power, desire for knowledge, losing your religion and believing that you can truly handle knowing what comes after.
By Stephen King