In an interview in June, King revealed his first thoughts about Revival. “It’s too scary. I don’t even want to think about that book anymore…It’s a nasty, dark piece of work.” A couple of months later, on his Twitter feed, he described it as “a straight-ahead horror novel. If you’re going to buy it, better tone up your nerves.”
Those comments, along with his publisher’s statement on the back of review copies that she asked him whether the book “really had to be this dark,” will probably remind people of King’s thoughts about Pet Sematary. After he finished writing that book, he deemed it too gruesome and disturbing to be published. His wife concurred, so a mythos developed around it. How bad could it be? As it turned out, pretty gruesome. Pretty disturbing.
Are comparisons between Revival and Pet Sematary appropriate? Well, yes and no. The first time I read Pet Sematary, I had to put it down from time to time because I could see where King was headed and I wasn’t ready to go there yet. It’s relentlessly bleak from the beginning.
Revival doesn’t start out seeming like it will be a dark book, but it does have a different feel to it. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but there’s something about the voice that stands apart from King’s other books.
The story begins in the 1960s, when Jamie Morton is six years old. He’s the youngest of five children and part of a loving family. They live in Harlow, Maine, his parents are normal and decent, as are his siblings. They attend Sunday services at the Methodist church.
A new minister comes to Harlow, a man named Charlie Jacobs who has a beautiful wife and a young son who everyone in the community dotes on. Looking back, Jamie refers to Jacobs as his “fifth business,” a movie term for an agent of change who pops out of the deck at odd times during a person’s life. You might be tempted to think Jacobs is evil, Randall Flagg in another guise, but that’s not the case. Jacobs and Jamie have a pleasant first meeting in the yard where the young boy is playing with toy soldiers, a recent birthday gift. Neither is Jacobs like the vile, pernicious title character in “The Bad Little Kid,” who keeps showing up time and again.
And yet there is a pervasive sense of dread and foreshadowing of terrible things to come. Jacobs casts a shadow over Jamie during their first meeting. There are hints that the Morton family’s future won’t be rosy. However, when the first crisis comes, it happens to Reverend Jacobs. A calamity befalls his family and, in the aftermath, his faith in God is tested and found wanting. He is forced to leave Harlow, and he falls out of Morton’s life for decades.
As a teenager, Jamie Morton develops a certain level of skill with a rhythm guitar. He and some of his school friends form a band and they play around the region throughout high school. His shyness fades and his popularity soars. He gets a long-term girlfriend. After school, he plays with a number of moderately successful groups. He’ll never be the front man, nor will his guitar chops bring him fame and fortune, but he’s solid, reliable, and can be called upon to fill in when needed. Reliable, that is, until life on the road leaves him vulnerable to various temptations, most notably heroin. He becomes so unreliable in his mid-thirties that his current bandmates take off without him, leaving him stranded in a motel.
He’s pretty much at rock bottom, which is when he again meets up with Charlie Jacobs, who now calls himself Dan Jacobs and is working in a carnival. Jacobs always had a fascination with electricity that borders on obsession. Back in Harlow, he used a homemade gadget to shock Jamie’s older brother out of a psychosomatic bout of muteness. He’s upped the ante now, and is using electricity as part of his act, creating stunning and unbelievable “Portraits in Lightning” of young women.
Jacobs recognizes Jamie…and his addiction, too. He treats Jamie, using a more advanced version of the technology he used on his brother, and Jamie’s addiction is gone. Just like that. He no longer craves heroin. Oh, there are side effects, to be sure, but they seem minor and, with time, they go away.
By now, we’re a third of the way through the book, and nothing truly sinister has happened. By the same point in Pet Sematary, Church had already come back from the dead. I say this to temper expectations that may derive from early comments about the book. Don’t get me wrong: this is a very dark book, but much of the darkness is reserved for the last thirty pages or so, when everything goes horribly wrong in ways readers are not likely to anticipate.
The story is told through the memories of Jamie Morton, who we see from the time he is six until he’s nearly sixty. Is there another King book that encompasses such a long span of a character’s life in such detail? None come to mind. Jamie’s life isn’t exactly overshadowed by the former Rev Jacobs, who goes on to become a televangelist called Pastor Danny, but he never seems to be able to shake himself free of the man, either. Jamie’s not a hero—he’s just an ordinary guy, plugging along, making mistakes…and not making very much of himself, either. He gets a job at a recording studio in Colorado, where he has a comfortable life. But…
Whereas Mr. Mercedes took place in the “real world,” and all of its King references were to fictional events or to film adaptations, Revival is firmly set in the Stephen King universe. The story begins in Harlow, Maine, which borders Chester’s Mill (Under the Dome) and isn’t far from Castle Rock. Later, events move to Nederland, Colorado, which was the hometown of the Colorado Kid. There is a reference to the Joyland fairground, and mention is made of De Vermis Mysteriis, a grimoire invented by Robert Bloch that appears in “Jerusalem’s Lot.” There is a mysterious #19 or two, and reference to an enigmatic character from Insomnia, Dorrance Marsteller, aka Old Dorr.
Jacobs has come to believe that there exists a secret electricity. If he can tap into that, he will be able to accomplish great things. He has already invented revolutionary batteries and power generation devices that are far ahead of current technology, but he doesn’t use these to get rich, merely as stepping stones in his research. He has also healed afflictions in hundreds of people. However, not all of his experiments are as successful as his heroin cure for Jamie. Some of his patients suffer horrible side effects, and it becomes one of Jamie’s missions to keep track of all these missteps. For his part, Jacobs is willing to accept a few failures because, on the whole, he has helped more people than he harmed. People clamor for his assistance, as they did with Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone.
What does the book’s title mean? The word brings to mind tent revivals and evangelical preachers, and there’s an element of that here. Musicals and plays have revivals—it is derived from “reviving,” after all, as in bringing back to life. What exactly is Jacobs capable of if he finds his secret electricity?
It all comes down to the book’s climax, at which point Jacobs is a feeble old man and Jamie is no spring chicken. Jamie once again crosses paths with Jacobs, only this time the man’s darkest plan is about to come to fruition. How dark? Poe at his darkest. Lovecraft at his most fantastical and cynical. Think of the most pessimistic world view you can imagine and you probably won’t even be in the ballpark. Maybe there are worse things than dying, King suggests. Perhaps we should cling to this life with everything we’ve got.
This book is going to disturb people profoundly. I guarantee it.