Review: Stephen King’s “Revival”

Revival. Stephen King. Scribner. 416 pages. $30.
Revival. Stephen King. Scribner. 416 pages. $30.

Minister Charles Jacobs first enters Jamie Morton’s life in 1962 in the form of darkness. Jamie, then 6, is outside playing with his toy soldiers on his front lawn when the young minister, who is new to the small town of Harlow, stops by to introduce himself to the boy and his large, boisterous family.

“A shadow fell over the battlefield,” Jamie remembers. “I looked up and say a guy standing there. He was blocking the afternoon sun, a silhouette surrounded by golden light — a human eclipse.” Charles bends down and plays with the kid for a while, then goes into his home to meet his kin. He is polite, well-spoken and friendly, married to a gorgeous wife who will soon bear him a son, a man devoted to God and his teachings. With his arrival, the crowds at Sunday services swell — fresh sermons, fresh point of view — and so does the membership of the local Methodist Youth Fellowship.

Charles’ hobby is tinkering with electricity. Sometimes he conducts grade school-level demonstrations in the church basement to dazzle the kids. Other times he attempts more ambitious experiments. A few years pass, and he becomes a cornerstone of the town. But Stephen King gives you subtle hints all may not be totally right with the minister. You just can’t pinpoint what exactly the wrong is.

Then a horrific tragedy strikes the town, an unfortunate but deadly accident, and Charles transforms into a different man, angry and wounded and spiteful. The next time he takes the pulpit, preaching to a packed house, his sermon is different from those that have come before. It’s so blasphemous, it causes people to walk out mid-service.

“The Romans fed Christians to the lions; the Christians dismembered those they deemed to be heretics or sorcerers or witches; Hitler sacrificed the Jews in their millions to the false god of racial purity. Millions have been burned, shot, hung, racked, poisoned, electrocuted, and torn to pieces by dogs, all in God’s name. … Religion is the theological equivalent of a quick-buck insurance scam, where you pay in your premium year after year, and then, when you need the benefits you paid for so — pardon the pun — religiously, you discover the company that took your money does not, in fact, exist.”

Soon after than, he is forced to leave town, and Revival begins to recount the decades-long relationship between the now-adult Jamie and the older Charles, who has turned his obsession with electricity to a sideshow attraction with tricks and gimmicks. He continues to experiment in private with things better left alone. The two men reunite when Jamie, a musician and heroin addict, is nursed back to health and rid of his drug habit by Charles, who still harbors great affection for him. Still, that feeling of something being off about the former minister remains. You can’t bring yourself to trust him fully, and King soon proves your instincts were right.

King has used preachers and reverends as main characters in other novels, and he’s also dabbled in religion and the existence of God (most notably, and badly, in the climax to his otherwise masterful The Stand). Although the author has waffled in the past about his views on faith, he told NPR last year that there was no downside to believing and that he also supported the concept of intelligent design. But in Revival, which is essentially about what happens when a good man loses his faith and turns into Dr. Frankenstein, God plays no role in the mounting horrors to come. This is King’s darkest novel in quite a while and arguably his first all-out horror novel since Cell.

Although the book is lean, without the bloat of many of King’s recent novels, the story stretches all the way to the present. By then, the author has conjured up several of his trademark monsters and moments of terror and profound tragedy. But King retains his aw-shucks accessibility and writes about addiction and shattered bones with the insight of personal experience. He isn’t quite as interested as scaring you as he is in exploring what happens to a man when his life’s devotion and the future he had planned are taken away. Charles is neither crazy nor evil — well, maybe a little crazy, but he means well — but the manner in which he carries out his good intentions bears the mark of a dangerous man who has been irrevocably damaged.

Revival is a wrestling match between faith and science, and watching King throw himself into that eternal theological debate within the context of a horror novel is fascinating. This is the sort of book he couldn’t have written when he was younger; it’s the work of someone who has lived a long life and experienced its highs and lows. Even if he wusses out at the end a bit — he will probably never write another book as dark as Pet Sematary — there’s still enough awful stuff here to keep his fans satisfied. But unlike Under the Dome or Mr. Mercedes, Revival also feels more personal than most: More than anything else, mourning is the central theme, tucked inside a fantastical story. King is working out his own doubts and demons here, and it’s the devil — not God — who lurks in the lightning.

Rene Rodriguez is the Miami Herald’s movie critic.