Electricity. Life and death magnetic. It shocked science fiction into existence with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” and almost two hundred years later Stephen King still can’t wrap his mind around a lightning bolt. The existence of a “secret electricity” (with magical effects I would rather not spoil) is the conceptual spark that runs through “Revival,” his latest novel. The science is iffy, but it pays off with its other-worldliness vagueness. One assumes King knows how magnets work (just because they start with MAG doesn’t mean they’re MAGic) but he puts whatever he learned in high school to the side for the duration. There’s horror homages to be paid. The frontispiece name-checks a few of King’s more noticeable influences: Mary Shelley, H. P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson… and, dutifully, Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan”.
For most of its pages, “Revival,” (like Doctor Sleep) runs as close to literary fiction as King’s public allows him to do. It’s a grounded, quasi-autobiographical tale of Boomerism. It involves Jamie Morton, a 1960s-kind-of-boy, who learns what 1960s-kind-of-boys learned about sex (one has to pay for free love); drugs (they turned the ’70s and ’80s into a haze for those lucky enough to survive); and rock and roll (it all starts with the key of E).
It’s the same story King has been telling for over 40 years now; he’s as comfortable with it as he was jamming to the oldies with the now-defunct Rock Bottom Remainders. I had the dubious privilege of hearing the ‘Mainders play several times, (don’t worry, I’m the only person who calls them the ‘Mainders.) In a way, what they do mirrors King’s writing: they may not be the most elegant of virtuosos, but they know how to hit their three chords, they’re FUN, and they’re so enthusiastic that they take you right back to a time in which “Suzie Q” and “Surfin’ Bird” really WERE raw and worth thinking about.
Of course, King knows that a bittersweet story about living through the ’60s (and the 70s and 80s and 90s and 2000s all the way to the sudden, shocking onset of old age in the 2010s) is only part of why we buy tickets to the Stephen King show. He’s a literary carny, and cares enough to give you a good freaky scare for your hard-earned buck. What he does here is that he appends a truly unsettling short story of the supernatural to a novel that is otherwise very much of this world. That scary story takes up maybe 20% of the bulk, just like actually seeing the Siamese-Twins-That-Are-Also-Bearded-Ladies only takes up 20% of your freak-show time. I didn’t mind at all, because I like the suspense-building patter and I find King to be a wonderful, slick carnival barker. (My partiality has been expressed often enough.)
Others, however, might very well feel upon picking up “Revival” that it’s almost like they’re reading a John Updike novel whose final chapters, due to some disgruntled printer’s cruel prank, have been replaced with “The Great God Pan” or “At the Mountains of Madness.”
Well, I like those stories, and I LOVED “Revival.” I was initially a little apprehensive, because with a title like that there was always the terrifying possibility that Stephen King might be getting soft about that good ol’ time religion in his senility. For God’s sake, the novel opens with the presence of a kind, modern, moderate, not-at-all-diabolic evangelical preacher. In a Stephen King novel?! That alone was reason to worry. But my fears were unfounded. Here the author is harder and more committed to sheer, non-cop-out horror than he’s been in many years… and he has sharp points to make too:
The mad atheist scientist and the insane howling preacher are the same dubious fanatic at the core. The only difference is their chosen denomination.
Also, that it’s best not to mess with high voltage mysteries.
RATING: Near MASTERPIECE!!!