Saturday, December 5, 2015

Revival

When I finished Revival, I wondered what, exactly, the King family has against the name "Charles."  It's the name of the villain in this book, as well as in Joe Hill's NOS4A2.  Unfortunately, King's evil Charles isn't nearly as menacing as Hill's, and while Revival was a fine book, it wasn't a great book.


I haven't read much of King's oeuvre.  So far I've read The Dead Zone (loved), Carrie (okay, but probably because I saw the movie first and the visuals are so striking that it almost overshadows its textual predecessor), The Stand (LOVED!), The Shining (reading-it-in-the-shower LOVED), and I started Cujo but couldn't finish it, because I can't deal with anything about dogs suffering.  Hypocritical, you might think, given the human suffering in his other books, but that's an entirely different blog post.

Too often, King's name is invoked like he's a warlock or something, dripping gore and muttering unearthly threats against mankind.  As a teen, I was far too intimidated to ever pick up any of his books.  But one day, I happened upon one of his essays at the end of a magazine.  It was so well-written, so witty, and so incisive that I decided to give him a try.  And I'm so glad that I did.

For while King's books are, indeed, horror novels, they are horrific in that they touch on the deepest, basest fears of humanity.  It's not like ... The Human Centipede or Saw or anything like that (none of which I've seen, by the way, because I don't need that kind of gore in my life), because the scariest things are often quiet.  Like dark closets and fathomless tunnels.

Revival takes inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft's "eldritch horrors": many-tentacled creatures out of time, living in another dimension, desperately clawing their way through portals to our world.  Unfortunately, this doesn't become particularly evident until the last 10% of the book or so.  The bulk of the narrative, sustained by King's ability to pique your curiosity and make you want more, lacks a good deal of substance, at least when it comes to the end of the book.

The beginning of Revival is the strongest section, probably because it's that coming-of-age story that King does so, so well.  A nice menacing coming of age with faith lost and creepy "miracles" and tragedy.

"When he [the change agent] turns up in a film, you know he's there because the screenwriter put him there.  But who is screenwriting our lives?  Fate or coincidence?  I want to believe it's the latter."

At age six, Jamie Morton has a relatively happy life with his family in rural Maine.  His dad fixes up old cars in his spare time.  He has a gaggle of brothers and sisters, and life is simple.  Boring, but simple.  The arrival of a new pastor, Reverend Charles James, is great excitement.

Charles James ("Call me Charlie") takes a particular interest in young Jamie.  He takes him to the James' garage and shows him a sprawling miniature version of a town called Peaceable Lake, with lights that go on and off as if by magic and a walks-on-water Jesus.  It's all run by electricity, but the more Charlie delves into science, the more doubts he has about the faith for which he ministers.  Youth Ministry preaching often devolves into sermons on "holy voltage."

When Jamie's older brother, Connie, is rendered mute by a blow to the throat, Charlie says he can cure him with a low current of this magical electricity, using his Electrical Nerve Stimulator.  It might be bunkum, but to these kids, the Reverend Jacobs holds a special power over their minds.  When he says to expect a miracle, you just do.  And after being zapped with electricity, Connie regains his voice.

Now, maybe that was a miracle.  Or maybe Charlie Jacobs' ENS worked.  Or maybe Connie was tricked into speaking again.  Here, we are poised at the top of a roller coaster drop.  It's all the way down from here on out.  After the gruesome deaths of his wife and son (this was one of the scariest parts of the book), Charlie Jacobs preaches a sermon renouncing God and is summarily run out of his job.

A few decades later, Jamie's at the bottom of his roller coaster hill (or so he thinks).  Having discovered a latent talent for the guitar, he bounced from local band to cover band to touring band.  Along the way, he met drugs.  Specifically: heroin.  When we meet him again as an adult, he's in the middle of Oklahoma with no money, no clothes, and track marks up to there.  To score a hit, he heads to the local fair, knowing that in the shadows, there will be suppliers.  What he doesn't expect is to see the ex-Reverend Charles James performing a sort of illusion act (OR IS IT?) with photography and, of course, lightning.  When he sees Jamie's condition, he takes him in and keeps him from going into complete, disastrous withdrawal.  And then, just like he did so many years ago, he offers to help. Yes, with his electricity.

See, Pastor Charles (new name, new place) has fine-tuned his electrical stimulus apparatus.  He claims that he can cure Jamie of his addiction.  And guess what?  It works.  Only ... something happened.  Something happened.  SOMETHING HAPPENED SOMETHING HAPPENED SOMETHING HAPPENED.  What exactly did that thing do to Jamie?  Well, for one thing, it cured him of any desire to do drugs, so that's what he focuses on.  He's able to get a good, stable job with a friend of Charlie's who runs a recording studio in Nederland, Colorado.  (Note: I've been to Nederland several times, and King doesn't include nearly enough stoners in this section of the book)

However, fate, or whatever it is, keeps drawing Jamie back into Charles' circle.  Now he's openly healing people at tent revivals, and runs a sort of mega-church, but in a tent.  Jamie knows there's something hinky going on, and he's determined to get to the bottom of it.  As it turns out, not all of Charles Jacobs' patients have happy endings.  Many of them are downright gruesome, and those are the nice ones.

As much as Jamie tries to distance himself from the man he once hero-worshiped and now loathes, he realizes that his future is intertwined with James' future.  He returns to the East Coast to stop Charles James from "treating" anyone else with his lightning, but the truth behind it is far more terrifying than he could have ever imagined.  That's because the power comes from a space out of time, from non-Euclidean landscapes and all-seeing, betentacled creatures whose pleasure is pain.

While I enjoyed the beginning and the end, I felt like the middle was there for the sake of filling up pages, and Jamie's romantic entanglement with a young student was more than a little creepy.  The concept of the "change agent" felt forced, and Jamie's constant references to guitar chords started to drive me up the wall.  Plus, a lot of the more interesting side characters, like his brothers and sisters, get a perfunctory "here's what happened to them" paragraph, but there's no emotional impact.  It just ... happens.

An uneven, atmospheric addition to King's books.  Completely skippable unless you feel the need to be so depressed when you finish a book that you bleed black.





4 comments:

  1. I haven't read much of King's fiction, including the classics! Short stories, yes. A couple of novels. Thinner and Misery. But yes, he writes wonderful essays! I discovered this in the introductions to his fiction. And his history of horror fiction and his sort-of autobiography(On Writing). Great stuff! As a writer I chuckled in agreement at his description of a ream of clean paper to a writer being like a fifth of Scotch to a drunk. And shuddered at Misery! Not that I have, or ever will, that kind of fan! ;-) But it must be *his* nightmare.

    But creatures from a Lovecraftian nightmare dimension is something I haven't been able to take seriously since Terry Pratchett sent it up in his Dungeon Dimensions. So maybe it's just as well that this novel doesn't go into it till late. :-)

    If you do want fiction that uses these Dungeon Dimensions/whatever, try Charlie Stross's Laundry series. Funny and scary at the same time.

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  2. Oh my goodness, I love the Laundry Files! I am woefully behind, though. I think I finished The Apocalypse Codex and that's it.

    I'm on the waitlist for Misery at the library, mostly because I just read a YA book that was inspired by it, and I also want to read the book before I watch Kathy Bates onscreen.

    I've not read the Dungeon Dimensions. I think I shall need a whole year to tackle Pratchett. O_O

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  3. There's no book called the Dungeon Dimensions, they appear in a number of Pratchett's novels. The creatures look scary, but are actually quite fragile and when one of the characters kicks one in the knee it turns out not to be the knee...;-)

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