Sunday, March 29, 2015

Revival by Stephen King

Recently, faced with "readers block," I've found late Stephen King a good way of unblocking. But what King was I reading? "11.22.63" was a time travel story squarely set in the uncomplicated fifties that he's so good at evoking; "Mr. Mercedes" managed to be a detective story where the only horror element was in the world we live in today, whilst at the same time managing a not-embarassing take on the internet.

"Revival" is back to classic King territory - a slow burn horror story. I was interested by its premise. A young boy finds himself under a shadow of a charismatic preacher who loses his faith when tragedy hits his own life. The young boy finds his own way through life by picking up a rhythm guitar and playing for twenty years in road bands, before his heroin addiction brings him down. King has always had a good ear for rock and roll, even if I can't quite remember him writing an overtly rock and roll novel before; add in religion, smalltown Maine, and a P.T. Barnum-like evangelical miracle worker harnessing the power of lightning, and there's all the elements of a classic King. Sadly, "Revival" doesn't manage to mix them together well.

Jamie Morton is playing soldiers, a happy child in large religiously-inclined family, when the new charismatic minister, the young Charlie Jacobs arrives, to be followed shortly afterwards by his beautiful wife and their young son. Everyone falls in love with Jacobs and he's a well drawn picture of a charismatic religious leader ending up in a small community and having an impact on all their lives. Such a man would surely move on soon enough, but fate sees him abandoning the church with a final terrible sermon where he doesn't believe in God. The young Jamie was the first person he spoke to and he a lingering fondness for the Minister, having been shown early on Jacobs' interests in home made electronics. But Jacobs doesn't experiment just to provide a link between science and God, he believes in "the secret electricity" - which as the novel progresses we only learn has been studied intermittently over the centuries, but the books in which it has been mentioned are banned or held by collectors. Such Crowley-esque mystery is more Dan Brown than usual, and King's heart hardly seems to be in it. We have to take the supernatural on trust here. Considering how other worlds have been so believably intertwined with ours in books like "Firestarter" and "The Stand", it seems strange how perfunctory this is.

As Morton grows older, tragedy hits his own family, but we already know there is a "shadow" over his life. It is the adult Morton who is telling the story and on the first page he calls Jacobs his "fifth business". Yet for much of the novel the shadow that the preacher casts seems a benign one. First, he has his own tragedy, his own darkness, and then when Morton finds him again, this time as a carny, making magic pictures of pretty girls to take home from the fair, the musician is at an all time low, a heroin addict just wanting the next score, having just been sacked from the second rate band he's in. I never quite buy Morton's heroin addiction - he seems a jobbing, amateur musician, and there's little in his background to suggest that he would succumb to being a drug addict. Besides, when Jacobs, now going under a different name uses the "secret electricity" to enact a cure, we suddenly have a clean musician. When he next encounters Jacobs, he's more of preacher than a carny. He has started giving out miracle cures. Yet these cures have side effects, and Morton becomes concerned that Jacobs is dabbling with a darkness that is destroying people's lives. But none of this feels particularly convincing. The "secret electricity" is perfunctorily explained; so that when once again Morton becomes involved, he has to wait with an ageing Jacobs for a storm after a benign summer, before the electricity can be used again. Morton knows there is a darkness to the "cures" that Jacobs gives out, but because he is telling the story - and similar to "Mr. Mercedes" this bit feels a bit like a detective tale - we are at a distance from the reality. Everything bad happens offstage. Morton himself has occasional voices in his head; his brother Col, who was the first of Jacobs' "cures" has no problems at all. It is other people - his mother, his sister - who have had natural tragedies in their life. Jacobs wasn't there for them, but this is not even touched on. There seems little reason for Morton's curiousity, and even when Jacobs approaches him because his first girlfriend has come to him asking for a cure, it seems an absurd piece of machinery.

In many ways, this is a classic bit of shaggy dog storytelling. By the end of the book Jamie is sixty - placing the childhood start of the novel in the early sixties. The whole novel is just a preamble for a set piece straight out of  "The Monkeys Paw", with one final cure being attempted by a near-death Jacobs as he wants to open the portal onto life after death. We never quite understand the motivations and there's an irony that in a book of the supernatural, a logic to itself is what makes a book like this (like his early novels) believable or not. This tries too hard to come up with something plausible, yet I go the sense that it could have been done in a condensed short story if King hadn't wanted to spin several hundred pages of chance encounters before the denouement. Yes, the ending is genuinely dark and scary, and we finally agree with Morton that it would have been better had he never met Jacobs, so dark was the aftermath of his ministrations. It feels a little that King wanted to finally write that "rock and roll" novel whilst also having a good go at the evangelical placebos of a credible middle America, and they all got thrown in to this idea of "Revival" - a musical concept; but also straight out of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," - reviving the  monster - whilst also having something of the showman "religious revival."

Plenty there in other words for a compelling novel, but for once in King, none of the ideas really convince. The longeurs of the timescale, the nature of Morton as a retrospective first person narrator, the somewhat dashed off rock and roll elements - none really convince. When Jacobs is on the page it sizzles a bit more, yet we are always in Morton's words, and so we see the incarnations with a cynicism, that makes us wonder why he's continuing with the story. Without believable motive, the sense of uncovering or even understanding the nature of Jacobs'' experiments, exposing his evil in other words, seems contrived. That it is the last few pages, after the final denouement, that are the most effective, highlights how much the novel structurally misfired for me. The writing is the slackest I've read by him for a long time, for the second novel in a row (following "Mr. Mercedes") a middle aged man falls far too easily into bed with a much younger woman, and even Jacobs, who at times seems a genuinely intrigueing character - as a man who has been tainted by his curiousity, a bit like Frankenstein, or the hatter who goes mad from too much mercury poisoning - is dealt with lazily. Not one of his best.

No comments: