The Old Man Still Has His Writing Legs: A Review of Revival

Oh, Stephen King.  I have an on and off again relationship with him for the past 25 years (although more on in the past 10 years).  I have read nearly everything written by him.  And with a few exceptions, I have been mostly spellbound by his work (horror and non-horror alike).

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I will admit that over the past 10 years, King’s work has been…mixed. Mixed is the best word I can come up with.  Under The Dome readily comes to mind.  Dreamcatcher does as well.  But then there is 11/22/63, arguably one of the best books (not just best King book but one of the best pieces of literature) written in at least the past 5 years, if not one of best post 2000 books, period.

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And now we have Revival, the latest book in the King canon.  And I will state right now that I have NO mixed feelings about this piece of work.  I finished this book two days after uploading it to my Tablet (instant gratification is just grand) and while I am not ready to place it in my top 5 or even top 10, it deserves a high ranking.  It was beautifully written, with a lot of wonderfully, creepy disturbing imagery.  The build up to the ending…I have no words to give it justice.

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Synopsis

Revival takes place solely in the King universe.  Make no mistake about this.  However, there are some distinct differences with this book, as compared to his other work.

This book centers around two men.  It is narrated by Jamie Morton, who is well into middle age when he pulls us into the story.  We start out by going back to Jamie’s childhood in the early 1960’s.  This is reminiscent of much of King’s work, as he has written about childhood and the post WW II era, pre Vietnam era extensively in previous works.  We learn that Jamie is the youngest of five children in a family struggling to be middle class or better.  Family is another huge theme in much of King’s work here, and we are not disappointed here.  The portrait of Jamie’s family is drawn lovingly and painstakingly.  We learn that Jamie has, for the most part, a close knit family.  The narrator describes the tender kisses given to him by his older sister, and how he can sometimes still feel those same kisses today.  And we read about the bickering between siblings, between children and parents and between the two parents.  But all the while, the love is still there and never leaves, much like photographs that fade over time, but still retain their images from faraway places and times.

The second man that this book centers around is Charles Jacobs.  Or Reverend Charles Jacobs may be more accurate.  Jacobs is the new preacher in town.  He is youthful and handsome.  He has a beautiful young wife and a little boy.  All the girls have crushes on Reverend Jacobs.  All the boys have crushes on his wife, Patty.  His son Morrie is fawned over and the recipient of much adoration.  Reverend Jacobs is able to connect with the youth of the small town and make Thursday night Bible study bearable (although still more of a chore than anything).  Church attendance increases.  Not dramatically, but Reverend Jacobs is able to make a connection with the small town of Harlow, and more find their way to Sunday services, where the reverend’s sermons touch something in them.

In fact, Reverend Jacobs is electric.  In fact, the only negative about Jacobs (if you could call it that) is his obsession with electricity.  He spends a lot of time experimenting with electricity and even makes it part of his sermons.  But he brings in people.  The collection plates begin to fill up.  So how can this ever be a problem?  It’s harmless, right?

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Reverend Jacobs is the town’s preacher for about three years.  All is well.  But, as it often is in many of King’s books, things go wrong.  In the time it took me to upload my copy of Revival on to my Tablet, the veil of nice and normal drops, and tragedy strikes.

Jacobs’ wife and son are killed in a horrible car accident one day.  It is tragic and senseless.  King often reminds us that bad things happen to good people all too often, and this is no different.  Reverend Jacobs is beside himself in shock and grief.  And Jamie, his family and the rest of the town are also left reeling, and have to attempt to help Jacobs pick up the pieces.  But there is no comfort for Jacobs.

Reverend Jacobs spends many weeks in mourning.  Jamie and his family (especially his mother), attempt to provide what solace they can but are only a tiny band aid on a hemorrhage.  Jacobs does attempt to resume his duties with the church.  However, this ends in disaster, as the reverend denounces his faith in front of his entire congregation.  Jamie and his family are in the audience that day.  The sermon becomes known as The Terrible Sermon.  After the Terrible Sermon, Jacobs is effectively chased out of the town, a disgrace to the good citizens of Harlow and the church.  Jamie and his family, along with the rest of the town attempt to resume normal lives, in the aftermath of the Terrible Sermon.  But the ghost of that Sunday morning remains, and is never forgotten.

Next, we learn more about Jamie and his later years.  We learn that he also denounces his faith, although he does attend church as a child to appease his mother.  We also learn that Jamie finds his talent for music and joins a band in high school, which is the first of many bands.  We learn about Jamie’s first love, and how he cuts his long hair so he can pass his driver’s test.  We experience trials and triumph along with Jamie.  It is all quite ordinary, but King makes it special.

We also learn that Jamie and his family are not immune to tragedy.  His mother passes away from ovarian cancer while Jamie is still a young man.  His father and brother also pass away from natural causes.  Most tragically of all, Jamie’s older sister is shot by her abusive, estranged husband, while she stays late one day at the school where she is employed.  And Jamie descends into tragedy of his own.  We learn that he becomes addicted to heroin in his mid 30’s, after a motorcycle accident.

Jamie becomes a lost soul.  He is addicted to heroin and nothing is more important than his next fix.  He drifts from town to town, failing to set down any roots.  He plays in bands, but his addiction ends up costing him employment.  But a chance meeting in OK with a person from his past changes all of that.

One night, Jamie attends a state fair.  There happens to be a revival show.  The man behind the show is none other than Charles Jacobs.  Jacobs has turned his obsession with electricity into a career, and makes his living as a performer on the county fair circuit.  Luckily for Jamie (who is suffering from his addiction and a terrible case of the flu at this point), Jacobs takes him under his wing.  He allows Jamie to recuperate under his care, and we learn more of the former reverend’s activities over the years.

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Jacobs reveals that he has continued to experiment with electricity.  And we learn that he has been experimenting with the “secret” electricity’s healing powers.  He offers a “cure” to Jamie, in the form of mild electrical shocks, to cure his addiction to heroin.  Jamie reluctantly agrees.  The reverend then uses his “secret electricity” on Jamie, in an attempt to cure him.  That attempt appears to be successful.  Jamie has no desire to touch heroin.  He begins to feel like his old self.  Sure, there are some side effects.  He wakes up in the middle of the night with the compulsion to stab him in the vein with whatever objects happen to be around. Luckily, there are no sharp objects, so it’s a just a small price to pay to be cured of a crippling addiction.

The former reverend further assists Jamie by finding him gainful employment.  This employment is through a man who owes Jacobs a favor.  Jamie relocates to Colorado and spends many years working in a music studio.  Things are mostly good, although he suffers from the occasional nightmare and the previously mentioned “side effect.”  But still, it’s a small price to pay for the ability to live a mostly normal life.  Memory of the former reverend is always in the back of his mind, however.  He never forgets what he experienced under the care of Charles Jacobs.

As mentioned before, Jamie’s boss is someone who owes Jacobs a favor.  We learn that his boss is another one of Jacobs’ “cures.”  He suffered from sudden hearing loss, amongst other health issues.  He encounters Jacobs in a pawn shop in Detroit, and Jacobs again uses his “secret electricity” to cure the man of ailments, enabling him to also lead a relatively normal life.  Again, the “cure” was worth it.  The man may suffer from some odd visions, but that is a small price to pay for regaining one’s hearing.

Jamie and his boss learn that Jacobs has become a televangelist who boasts that he can heal people through the power of prayer.  Most of these “cures” are obviously faked.  But there are some people actually who are actually “cured.”  It turns out that Jacobs is still using his “secret electricity” to cure people of various ailments, ranging from muscular dystrophy to blindness.  This becomes a lucrative business, as his followers are devoted and will willingly part with their money.  And some are even willing to do favors for him, as we learn later.

Jamie and his boss attend one of Jacobs’ shows.  Jamie’s boss experiences some disturbing visions, and wants nothing more to do with Jacobs.  Jamie begins to research Jacobs’ cures, and learns that some suffer from disturbing side effects, such as being compelled to eat dirt.  However, other “cures” experience more side disturbing side effects, such as suicide.  Jamie receives a call from Jacobs, reminding that he owes Jacobs a favor, and that he will need to be ready when the time comes.

Finally, Jamie receives a letter in the mail.  Jacobs manipulates him into assisting with an experiment to cure a woman of cancer.  This woman just happens to Jamie’s first love.  She is suffering from terminal lung cancer, but Jacobs is able to “cure” her, with Jamie’s assistance.  He then reminds Jamie that he is due one final favor, and again, Jamie needs to be ready when the time comes.

It turns out that the Jacobs final experiment involves the final frontier: death.  More specifically, what happens when we die?  What is waiting on the other side?  Jacobs has a need to find out, possibly because he never really accepted the loss of his wife and son.  Or he wants to prove something to the church that cast him out, that is something that no religion could imagine.

In the last 50 pages, we learn of Jacobs’ final experiment and the after effects.  King puts his foot on the accelerator and we rush towards the conclusion of the story.  The final is experiment is horrifying and also tragic.  Again, Jamie suffers more loss.  He has gained an understanding, and this understanding is not something that betters him, his former minister or anyone else.  In fact, no one is made better and this includes all of Jacobs’ “cures.” The novel concludes and the ending is not a happy one.  The ending leaves more questions than answers, along with the general feeling that sometimes, seeking understanding of our universe is not for the best.  That, in fact, ignorance is really is bliss.

My Thoughts

This was not a scary book.  There were no rabid dogs trapping people in vehiclesNo clowns that live in sewers.  Not a haunted hotel in sight.  No vampires turning a sleepy small town into a ghost town.

However, this book was disturbing.  It was unsettling.  The last sentence of the book chilled me to the core, and I really had a lot of trouble sleeping that night.  I know that I will be thinking of this book for a long time.

Stephen King often writes about ordinary people experiencing extraordinary events.  What many forget about is how well he can portray the ordinary.  The descriptions of Jamie, his family and his small town are painstakingly and lovingly crafted.  I may have had chills at the end of the book, but I also had chills when I read of Jamie’s first kiss and the loss of his virginity.  The descriptions were so vivid.  Sometimes I felt more like I was looking at these events from a real person’s eyes, as opposed to reading about them.  And that is the mark of some excellent writing.

King can also make the ordinary into something unsettling.  When Jamie returns from assisting Jacobs with his final experiment, he drops in on his family.  He visits with his infant great niece.  Previously, his great niece had cried because she was sad her uncle was leaving.  But this time, she can sense that her uncle has been touched by forces that humans are not meant to interact with, and will have nothing to do with him.  She screams until he finally leaves, sensing that something is not right.  This is just one of the losses Jamie will suffer, and King does a great job foreshadowing with that scene.

I also loved how King paid homage to writers such as H.P. Lovecraft and Mary Shelley in this book.  The parallels between Charles Jacobs and Victor Frankenstein are obvious.  King’s descriptions of creatures beyond bring to mind such works as Lovecraft’s “Colour Out of Space” and his Cthulu mythos.  However, King manages to remind us, time and time again, that this takes place squarely in the Stephen King universe, thus making this work solely his.

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There is no ambiguity with this book.  And any doubts about King’s ability as a writer (and not just a horror writer) are put to rest with this work.  We hop in the car with King, and are so busy enjoying the ride, that when King puts his foot on the accelerator and drives off the cliff, we hardly notice because the drive and the scenery have been that enjoyable.

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Connections

Just for fun, I will list the connections I have found to King’s other work in Revival.  This is by no means a complete list, and I am sure there are other connections I may have missed.

Castle Rock is mentioned multiple times.  Anyone familiar with King’s work will recognize Castle Rock as being the central location in many King novels, including The Dark Half, Needful Things and The Dead Zone.

-The term “rubes” is used several times.  This is a common carney term used to refer to ordinary folks but it is used multiple times in Dr. Sleep when the vampires are discussing humankind.

-It is worth mentioning that since there is a connection to Dr. Sleep, there is also a connection to NOS4A2 by Joe Hill.  NOS4A2 is connected to Dr. Sleep via Charlie Manx (the villain in N0S4A2) so this makes a connection to Revival, although it is indirect.

-There is a car mentioned that has the number 19 painted on the side.  The number 19 is central to the Dark Tower series and has a way of cropping up in King’s work.

-Jamie is from Harlow, Maine.  Harlow is mentioned in the short story The Body.

-The phrase “life is a wheel” is used several times.  In the Dark Tower series, the phrase “ka is a wheel” is quite common (ka being something akin to fate).

-Jamie’s boss refers to “the world beyond our world”.  This brings the To Dash space in the Dark Tower series to mind.

-A door covered in ivy is referenced in Revival.  This brings to mind the doors to other worlds in the Dark Tower series.

-Jamie’s boss sees giant ant-like creatures only visible to him.  This brings to mind the To Dash monsters in the Dark Tower series.  It also brings to mind the insect-like creatures seen by Ralph and Lois in Insomnia.

-There is an ant-like creature referred to as “the mother.”  This is reminiscent of Pennywise from It, as it is stated several times that Pennywise is an extra dimensional creature that is also female and has the ability to reproduce.

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