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King’s newest novel is as good as it gets

bookDuring the past 60 years, I have maintained a hearty appreciation for what is called “fantasy/horror” literature. I guess it began with the dark little fairy tales of Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen and yes, the Grimm Fairy Tales, and it extends to the current works of writers like Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker and Angela Carter. My favorite fantasy/horror stories were created by Ray Bradbury, Jonathan Carroll and Stephen King, and if I can qualify my preferences still further, I have a special love for stories with a carnival/circus setting.

I guess I have always felt that the old traveling carnivals — the ones with side-shows, “geeks and freaks” and a fortune teller (with a turban and a globe) were the closest thing to the “ magical” that a little kid from Rhodes Cove with an overactive imagination is likely to encounter. There is a vague aura of mystery about carneys, and it seems to be a setting that can be “customized” by a gifted writer like Bradbury who wrote Something Wicked This Way Comes, Charles Finney, who did The Circus of Doctor Lao, and finally, there is King’s recent terror-fest, The Joyland. 

Now comes Revival, and King is once again moving with confidence down the midway. However, there are no girlie shows and carousels; it isn’t shills and Ferris wheels that beckons to the customers, No, this time the major attraction is a “healer,” the man who lays his hands on the palsied, the crippled and the blind, and lo, the afflicted stand, walk and see. This time it is the Rev. Charles Jacobs, a defrocked Methodist minister who promises to “revive” failing flesh.

The narrator of Revival is James Morton, a man who has known Rev. Jacobs for over 60 years and was a child when Jacobs “lost his faith.” In the beginning of his ministry, Jacobs, who had a wife and child, was optimistic and popular. In Harlow, the small town where Jamie Morton lived, Jacobs was known for his love of science and his experiments with electricity. The young minister often proclaimed, “Electricity is one of God’s doorways to the infinite!” 

However, when an automobile accident destroyed his family, Jacobs became so embittered he not only renounced his ministry but delivered a shocking sermon that became known as “ the Terrible Sermon,” in which he renounces God and religion. In effect, Jacobs sees all humanity as lost and doomed. Even worse, we are helpless pawns of invisible and unknown powers.

In the years following “the Terrible Sermon,” Jacobs vanishes and Jamie Morton becomes a musician with a band called Chrome Roses (Steven King draws details for Jamie’s “Rock and Roll” years from King’s own experience with the Rock Bottom Remainders, a band composed of authors which recently broke up.).

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In effect, music becomes a lifelong occupation for Jamie, but music also brought drug addiction. Jamie becomes an addict who seems to live so near the edge he is often near physical and mental collapse. In time, he can no longer find work or borrow money. It is at this point that he encounters the Rev. Jacobs again. Jacobs has become a sideshow attraction in a carnival where he creates astonishing “portraits” of customers using electricity. He offers to cure Jamie of his drug addiction and to Jamie’s amazement, he does! Jacobs still believes that electricity is a doorway to the infinite, but God doesn’t have anything to do with it. Jacobs has developed an array of electrical gadgets that he uses to create entertaining “special effects,” but he also claims that he can heal.

In time, Jamie discovers that Jacobs has accomplished a series of “miraculous cures,” although Jacobs is quick to note that there were no miracles.  They were the result of science and electricity. Although Jamie is cured, there is something disturbing about Jacobs’ treatments. When Jamie’s brother, Con, suffers a throat injury that makes him unable to speak, Jacobs “cures” him with an “electrical nerve stimulator.” However, sometimes Jacobs’ patients have side effects, and although they seem minor, Jamie begins to suspect that Jacobs’ “cures” may have other dire consequences.

As the years pass, Jamie learns that Jacobs is working toward some kind of ultimate experiment ... one that not only reverses serious illness but can “revive” a stopped heart. Jacobs’ patients are now terminal cases, people in the final stages of cancer and heart failure. The prescribed treatment is also increasingly mysterious and his hospital is a remote abandoned resort on a mountain called Skytop, noted for electrical storms. The ultimate experiment turns out to be a patient from Jamie’s past — Astrid, Jamie’s childhood sweetheart who is now a 60-year-old crone in the final stages of cancer.

The climatic conclusion of Revival is tension-ridden and terrifying, but it is also indebted to some of the greatest masters of terror. There is, of course, the “reanimation” scene in Frankenstein in which a terrifying stream of electrical energy courses from the sky into Dr. Frankenstein’s non-living patient. That same energy is tapped by the Reverend Charles Jacobs and he channels it into the inert and wasted body of Astrid, Jamie Morton’s first love.

However, it is at this point that King develops a masterful piece of fantasy/horror as he pays tribute to H.P. Lovecraft, the writer who created the concept of Cthulhu, “an invisible world of horror that moves behind this world.” When King’s obsessed scientist, Charles Jacobs, finally confronts the ultimate horror behind this world, demanding to see it face to face, he sees all of the tormented souls that have died only to find themselves enslaved by the hideous creatures who control this world. Among those broken and enslaved mortals, trapped for all eternity to trudge in chains, are his own wife and son. It is a final vision that destroys Jacobs.

But there remains one final horror. The mysterious electrical cure that Jacobs used on all of his patients cured them ... but infected them with a murderous and self-destructive force which may immediately destroy the “cured patient” (as is the case with Astrid), or it may lie dormant for years (as it does with Jamie’s brother, Con) and finally erupt as a murderous impulse that the patient turns on his own family. Since there are hundreds of former patients, the final reckoning is a daily account on CNN of people who have inexplicably become mass murderers or suicides. The only thing that they have in common is that at some point in their lives they were treated and “cured” by Reverend Charles Jacobs.

If you love fantasy/horror, it doesn’t get any better than this one.

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