One of the great readerly crimes of the 21st century is the unusual attention paid to Stephen King last year, when he published Doctor Sleep, his long-awaited sequel to The Shining. That book’s pleasures, while present, were oddly concocted and unevenly applied – which made it a rare misstep for late-career King, whose recent work has reliably been among the best of his oeuvre.
King has published 54 novels, many of them fine, which means it’s no snub to call Revival solid top-30 material. It opens in the 1960s, in, of course, Maine, where little Jamie Morton is interrupted at his play by Charles Jacobs, the town’s new chaplain. Jacobs is booted from his work after a horrifying accident, and it’s a long time before he and Jamie see each other again. In the meantime, Jamie grows up, joins a band, gets hooked on dope – and 50 years of history ticks by in the background, some of which is laboured over, some of which is skated over blithely, but all of which is addressed in a loping, friendly cadence that has nonetheless seen some serious things, and had best be heeded.
King can take a long time to get where he’s going, but his typical hallmarks will comfort constant readers: car accidents, cars in general, supernaturally identified illnesses, the essential goodness of (most) people, the power of the hunch. Young people are useful because they understand computers, while oldsters can judge character and know the past has claws.
King is a crack diagnostician of the hazy parts of the American dream, the one where people call each other “Sweetbritches” and offer scrambled eggs as curatives. That dream has vast room for opportunity and error; you can invent and reinvent yourself, for better or for worse. In the case of Jamie, it’s certainly both. The jury’s out on Jacobs, who’s first a minister, then a carnival huckster called “Dan the Lightning Portraits Man”, and finally (what else?) a YouTube sensation. All the while, he’s got a mean obsession with what he calls “secret electricity”, which is waiting when he at last drags Jamie to their conjoined fate.
That the book is dedicated, in part, to Shelley may be enough of a spoiler. Suffice to say the final 50 pages are a cavalcade of fears. Here, as ever, King disproves a golden rule of horror: never show the monster, we’re more scared of the unknown. Of course, he is well-practised in showing all kinds of monsters, and when he does, it’s terrifying. Praise the Lord. CR
Hodder & Stoughton, 496pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 6, 2014 as "Stephen King, Revival". Subscribe here.