Revival is a very modern Stephen King novel that channels H.P. Lovecraft at his cyclopean best. His key characters are bold, if not as colorful as some of his best work, and his themes are of familiar and well-trodden King territory. Often hammered by critics (professional and amateur alike) for his weak endings, King builds up to a conclusion that is strong and memorable. It’s monstrous, dark and creepy as hell. It’s pure Lovecraft and beautiful in its austerity.
Revival is a story about religion and anti-religion; a story about belief and the loss of belief … and an inability to believe. Jamie Morton and Pastor Charles Jacobs orbit around each other their entire lives. Jacobs opens Morton’s eyes to God, but when his wife and child are taken from him in an awful automobile accident, their worlds diverge sharply only to reconnect, bounce off of each other, and return again.
Following their deaths, Jacobs transforms and turns his back on true religion; and goes to the extreme to become a revivalist reverend with more than a few tricks up his sleeve.
Religion is the theological equivalent of a quick-buck insurance scam, where you pay in your premium year after year, and then, when you need the benefits you paid for so — pardon the pun — so religiously, you discover the company that took your money does not, in fact, exist.
King has said that his fans love and return to his work not for their love of horror or any specific genre, but because they love his very recognizable voice. In Revival, King’s voice is strong within the characters, themes and memorable lines. While the primary character, Jamie Morton, is not a writer by trade (the tried and true profession of many of King’s protagonists), we are reading his story, reviewing the tale he’s written with the benefit of hindsight. King still knows what he knows and he knows the psyche of authors:
… writing is a wonderful and terrible thing. It opens deep wells of memory that were previously capped.
As usual, King scatters Easter eggs throughout his novel. He works in a reference to his own Joyland; he drops an analogy between Pastor Jacobs and Ahab’s obsessions with the great white whale. And you’ll find a not-so-subtle reference to the author of Frankenstein while foreshadowing his rather electric finale — a woman named Janice Shelley, who naturally has a daughter named Mary.
This isn’t King’s best, but it’s a wonderful read with a fulfilling conclusion.
Revival is the first Stephen King book in decades to actively disappoint me. I loved the opening, which played to all this smart writer’s strengths, and I thought the climactic scene was dramatic and powerful even if the book did chug along for too long after it. In between, I found it all too easy to set this one down and pick up other books, something that almost never happens, for me, with a King novel. The word that springs to mind for Revival is “episodic,” but those episodes don’t build suspense of momentum in quite the way they should have.
I read the mass market paperback reissue that came out in 2017, although this book was originally published in 2014. Our first-person narrator is a rhythm guitarist named Jamie Morton, the youngest of five children who grew up in Maine. As a young boy, Jamie meets and admires Reverend Charles Daniel Jacobs. Reverend Jacobs is a newly minted young pastor in the early 1960s, and his passion for preaching is only equaled by his love for his family and his curiosity about electricity. When a tragedy happens, the reverend turns on God in a moment that Jamie and the entire town call “the terrible sermon.” He disappears from Jamie’s home town, but as Jamie grows up, their paths cross repeatedly, with Jacobs getting stranger and stranger and his electrical displays more and more elaborate. Fifty years later, Jamie finds himself trapped in a scene that’s a cross between something from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and an H.P. Lovecraft story. (King is paying homage here, as the list of writers at the front of book with Shelley and Lovecraft first, clearly shows.) Along the way Jamie struggles with heroin addiction, and King is brutal and exact in showing not the pleasure of the high, but its aftermath, as Jamie enters a downward spiral. A chance encounter with Jacobs levels him out but leaves him conflicted. Then, after a long stretch of a pleasant but bland existence, Jamie meets Jacobs again and things get freaky.
Nothing felt new in Revival. There are carnivals and state fairs, a staple in King’s work; there is Jamie’s idealized first love, the beautiful Astrid; there is a convenient wishful-thinking sexual interlude with fifty-plus Jamie and a smart, assertive, beautiful twenty-four-year-old. There is medical business in hospital-like settings. There is snappy dialogue. There is the dialect of Maine, there is the working-class family, and there are classic cars. There is a lot of talk about music. Decades go by as Jamie and Jacobs don’t interact, and while I reading it felt like it took decades.
I also do not understand why King chose to create the perfect, beautiful older sister Claire and have her story go the way it does. It does not motivate Jamie in any way. Domestic violence with women as the victims as another King trope but here I don’t see the purpose it serves.
Ultimately, some choice writing (both the thunderstorm scenes, for instance) and the Morton family dynamics carried me along and made we want to finish, but I was not particularly curious about the plan Jacobs has. The former reverend’s loss of faith and his subsequent choices are all seen from the outside, and for me this was a weakness. He is a more compelling character than Jamie and I would have liked to see more than the rather tired, “Why did God let this happen?”
Over my adult lifetime King has given me hours of reading pleasure, and he’s entitled to a miss now and then. Revival did not add to the store of those hours, but it reminded me how much I enjoyed Joyland, and I’m thinking I’ll go read that again.