Saturday, December 27, 2014

Book Reviews: Revival

by Stephen King
I wonder if as we age we all begin to have more feelings of nostalgia. Perhaps it is also the case that our mortality is more on our minds. That's certainly the case for me. I wouldn't call myself old just yet but I am certainly neither young nor any longer under the illusion that I am going to live forever. I don't know if that is the case with Stephen King. Fictional books are not autobiographies. Fiction doesn't necessarily tell you anything about what the author is actually thinking about or experiencing in his or her personal life. Nevertheless it is interesting that it seems that after King's near death at the hands of an inattentive motorist and his self-acknowledged entry into senior citizen status more of his books have horrific car accidents, narrative grumbles about aging and its indignities and very sharp tones of regret and nostalgia. A character in Revival points out that humans have three age ranges : youth, middle age and how the f*** did I get so old? But of course all of this could be completely coincidental. Only King knows for sure. In the foreword to Revival King name checks some of the writers who have influenced him. These include such luminaries as Arthur Machen, Mary Shelley and H.P. Lovecraft. The introductory quote is the famous Lovecraft couplet "That is not dead which can eternal lie/And with strange aeons even death may die". Revival is a loving homage to all of those writers and more while still being an identifiable King work. Like many King stories it has references to his earlier creations. Revival's tone just screams out Joyland, from the first page to the very last. There are numerous stylistic similarities, from the first person framework, to the old man looking back at his life and remembering the glory and embarrassment of first time sex, to the excitement of a man actually discovering his true talents. One character in Revival even points out that he briefly worked at the Joyland carnival. I will have to go back and peruse Joyland to see if that was the case. Like Joyland, Revival generally keeps the open supernatural stuff off the page until later but unlike Joyland  the reader is aware much earlier that something strange is going on.

I don't think that Revival ever went for the gross out (my definition of gross out might differ from yours) but King has never needed to do that. He can and has accomplished that goal in several books but that's not what I enjoy about his work. His horrors are usually quite grounded in everyday reality. Looking at life there's quite enough horror to go around for everyone without having to include supernatural events to scare people. One of King's gifts is to meld the supernatural with the prosaic in a manner which allows the reader to easily suspend disbelief.

This story reminded me of Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, Frankenstein and several Lovecraft stories featuring the malign god Nyarlathotep. Nyarlathotep maliciously shares and displays many scientific and even magical advances that generally have the effect of driving humans mad. Revival also had a big nod to the mad scientist motif, especially as inspired by real life oddball scientist and engineer Nikola Tesla (who may himself have been an inspiration for Lovecraft's Nyarlathotep). Revival takes place over fifty years but it doesn't drag. The book is around 400 pages in hardcover.

In 1960's small town Maine a new Methodist preacher named Charles Jacobs arrives to become the new pastor. The very first person he meets and befriends is Jamie Morton, the youngest son in the large Morton family. Reverend Jacobs is a good man, a friendly one, who even plays in the dirt with Jamie as Jamie plays war. Jacobs is not a fire and brimstone type of preacher but he still increases the church's popularity. The town's women and girls are attracted to his youth and good looks while the men and boys feel the same way about his beautiful blonde piano playing wife Patsy. And everyone adores the couple's cute son Morrie. Reverend Jacobs is fascinated by electricity. He is something of an amateur scientist/physicist. He finds ways to link the wonders of electricity and the natural universe to God's message when he preaches. Jacobs also displays more practical applications for his electrical inventions when he is able to heal Jamie's brother Conrad from an accident which has left him mute. Of course as this is a King book, grief and tragedy are not far off. When a horrible accident occurs Reverend Jacobs spectacularly loses his faith and leaves the town. Jamie grows up to become a touring and session rock guitarist. He's struggling with his own losses and pains. He's also fallen into a nasty heroin addiction. By chance he comes across the Reverend Jacobs again. Jacobs is still friendly but has taken his interest in electricity far beyond what it was in Jamie's youth. Jacobs thinks he can heal Jamie of his addiction. Jacobs thinks he can do even more. Jamie is not sure that the pastor is still the same good man he knew in his youth. There is, pardon the pun, a special spark between the two men and no I am not talking anything of a sexual nature. An uneasy relationship is restarted, one that will last for years in some form or another.

There are events in the universe that we can not perceive unassisted (visible light is only a small portion of the electro-magnetic spectrum) and other phenomena that we do not yet fully understand (e.g. dark energy) The world we think we know is experienced quite differently by creatures who have senses far superior to ours (dogs and scent) or who possess senses we lack (sharks and electroreception). What would life look like if we pulled back the veil of this world? Are there truly things man is not meant to know? This book raises and depending on what you think of the ending, answers that question. Revival is also a love letter to music and musicians. King played guitar with the just recently retired all author rock band The Rock Bottom Remainders. Revival has a few potshots at faith healers and evangelicals. I didn't enjoy this quite as much as some of King's earlier works but it's still good. Most of the shudders came from the idea of aging, disease and death and not so much things that go bump in the night. Anyone who has ever had to deal with the health issues of stubborn siblings may nod their head in recognition while reading some passages.
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