Revival has been pronounced as Stephen King’s return to classic horror after the publication of his first ever detective novel, Mr Mercedes, earlier this year. Despite this, anyone reading this reasonably hefty book in the hopes of being terrified will likely give up in frustration long before reaching the last few chapters, where the horror plot actually comes to the foreground.
What the reader receives instead is the sprawling life story of Jamie Norton, spanning from his childhood in rural Maine, through to his adolescent discovery of girls and electric guitar, and finally into the spirals of a devastating heroin addiction. As a fictionalised autobiography, this novel is excellent, with King’s depiction of the minutiae of daily life adding an engaging sense of realism and poignancy. In fact, it would be difficult to finish this novel without feeling at least some connection to King’s narrator, even if he is not particularly agreeable.
However, the excellent psychological portrait we receive of Jamie serves to highlight how comparatively little we are shown about the motivations of the novel’s more interesting character: Charles Jacobs. Formerly the minister of Jamie’s local church, Charles’ loss of faith and moral degeneration after the gruesome deaths of his wife and son, followed by his Victor Frankenstein-like obsession with the mysteries of the afterlife, would have made a far more compelling narrative. Though Charles’ plot is integral to Jamie’s, Revival sometimes feels more like two slightly incompatible stories forced together than a unified whole. While having the story narrated by the peripheral character of Jamie is an interesting narrative device, it adds another layer of suspense that this slightly ambling novel doesn’t really require and which any climax, no matter how horrifying, would struggle to live up to.
This climax feels rushed compared to the tortuous build-up that precedes it, and is ultimately where King’s skills as a writer shine the least. While his attention to detail is engaging in depictions of the real world, when describing the supernatural it destroys the mystery and slows down the pace. Indeed, the sheer range of the novel, which spans five decades and numerous American states, and its intricate attention to realistic detail almost work against King by highlighting the weakness and bizarreness of the final chapters.
King’s desire to create disturbing visual images, which leads him to reach for a jumble of common horror tropes, detracts from the actual concept behind his story, which is genuinely disturbing. I have no doubt this novel would be a delight to any committed Stephen King fan but, to a reader unused to his style, the glimpses of brilliance beneath this novel’s flaws might be more frustrating than entertaining.
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