Sunday, November 16, 2014

Dead on Revival

Throughout his career, Stephen King has always been comfortable mixing genres as needed to tell his stories. He moves relatively easily between science fiction, fantasy and, of course, the place where he made his bones -- horror.  The Stand was mostly science fiction with horror overtones, and Firestarter was almost wholly sci-fi. The Dark Tower was largely fantasy, although it had sci-fi elements and played with horror in almost every volume. Only occasionally, such as in Christine, 'Salem's Lot or It, does he write more or less straight genre horror fiction.

Revival continues the mix. Jamie Norton first meets Charles Jacobs more than 50 years ago, when he is six and the new minister pays a call on his family. The folk of the small Maine town grow to appreciate the young minister and his family, but a tragedy will drive Jacobs from his pulpit and send him on a path that brings him in contact with Jamie several more times -- each darker than the last. Jacobs' obsession will lead him nowhere good, but the question is how far Jamie will follow, and if at the last he can forget a promise and a debt in order to stop what might happen.

King, more than most popular horror fiction writers, understands better what actual horror can be. Few horror novels and next to no horror movies today do anything other than startle, disgust and frighten. But King, like some of the people he dedicated Revival to such as H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth and Shirley Jackson, gets that real horror has an existential dimension with which no bloodthirsty teen-slaying hockey mask wearer can connect. Revival has plenty of creepy moments and quite a few queasers, but at its core it concerns the kind of horror that brings madness. Lovecraft and the others on Revival's dedication page were all gifted at writing such tales. In fact it may be that the written word is better able to capture that sense true existential horror, leaving a reader undistracted by excellent (or awful) special effects and the constant need to sate the blood-soaked audience's appetite for "creative" gruesome demises of pretty people.

The problem, of course, is that a world in which people pay Eli Roth and Rob Zombie to make movies and then more people pay to see the movie has a short supply of the ability to reflect on written descriptions of horrific situations and beings. A modern audience reads about the title character in "The Call of Cthulhu" and shrugs -- a giant octopus-faced dragon man? What's scary about that? But people of Lovecraft's day paid attention to the other aspects of the Elder God, such as his utterly evil nature and his existence before this universe came to be, and understood Lovecraft to be writing about the existential horror humanity must face when it encounters things it can't defeat or control.

King's also had people miss this point. When he called Pet Sematary a book he thought was too scary to finish, he wasn't referring to its supernatural events but to its all-too-possible real-world horrors against which there is not nearly as much protection as we might wish. It will be interesting to see if this happens with Revival as well.

All that said, there's not a lot to recommend the book. It's King's second midrash on Arthur Machen's 1890 short novel "The Great God Pan," following his 2008 novella N. It's got the by-now familiar bucolic Mellencampian small-town opening, followed by a shattering series of events that exposes the dark shadows alongside the bright memories. Then we have a brief return to normalcy, even if the new normal itself is a bit darker with the perspective of age, before we move towards an all-too-readily-perceived conclusion. Many of Revival's set pieces echo other King work, which can lead to a game of spot-the-source that's in the end more fun and makes more sense than the novel itself.  There's the obvious nod to N, echoes of his sci-fi-themed Firestarter and Tommyknockers, some gloss from the 2009 short story "Morality," the slice-of-Baby-Boomer-life of The Body, It and Christine, and so on.

These combinations, paste-ins and retreads ultimately hamstring the potential impact of Revival's horror to which they were supposed to lead. When finished, it feels less like a peek at some real horror of human existence and more like someone tapped H.P. Lovecraft to finish an R.L. Stine book -- both are fine as what they are, but they don't fit together well at all.

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