At the start of Stephen King’s newest novel, Jamie Morton muses on the people in our lives—those who are close to us and those who aren’t. Friends, family, acquaintances, and people we just pass on the street. But then there’s “the joker who pops out of the deck at odd intervals over the years, often during a moment of crisis. In the movies this sort of character is known as the fifth business, or the change agent.”
Jamie’s fifth business is the Reverend Charles Jacobs who came to pastor Jamie’s church when Jamie was just 6 years old. And over the years he’s returned and returned again, sometimes under different names. And Jamie, now an old man, can’t decide whether Rev. Jacobs’s presence in his life is due to fate or to coincidence. He doesn’t want to believe that it was meant to happen because the truth behind that is too unbearable to imagine.
Teresa: When this book came out, Stephen King was clear that it was a straight-up horror novel, meant to be terrifying. But I didn’t find it so—at least not at first. It’s a story of a boy learning about the world, then becoming a teenager and then a man. There’s terrible tragedy and a man’s struggle to cope with it, and that tragedy is described as a horror. The unease builds slowly as Jamie becomes more aware of what Jacobs is doing and more alarmed about it. The horror is in the last few chapters, and the novel’s conclusion is terrifying indeed, if I let that conclusion get its hooks into me. It is, in some ways, King’s scariest book because it’s about a horror that cannot be avoided.
But we can get to the ending later. What did you think about the book as a whole?
Jenny: I completely agree that I didn’t find the book horrifying, except insofar as meaningless tragedy in people’s lives is always terrible. I think King’s scariest book is Pet Sematary, and it deals with a very similar theme: what happens when someone can’t bear losing someone he loves, and turns to unconventional means to gain knowledge about what lies behind that barrier? (Jeanne will tell you: necromancy never, ever pays, and by gum it doesn’t in Pet Sematary.) But that book has supernatural forces throughout, and a sense of doom that doesn’t haunt Revival.
However, for a book that was mostly melancholy rather than horrifying, I thought it was pretty good. King addresses addiction (a theme he’s handled very well before), aging, and faith. The first two are better done than the last, in my opinion. King is not the first person to ask the question If there is a God, why do bad things happen in the world? and he won’t be the last. The way it’s handled here is a little facile. Or at least that’s what I thought up until the last couple of chapters. What did you think?
Teresa: I agree that his handling of this big question isn’t particularly sophisticated, but I think part of that is because we’re seeing the question through Jamie’s eyes. He was just nine years old when Jacobs lost his wife and child and Jacobs preached his Terrible Sermon. Jamie lost his faith then and there and although he had reason after that to consider the reasons for suffering and pain, I don’t think he really digs in to the question—and certainly not in the context of faith. He deadens his pain with drugs and seems to distance himself from all serious relationships. Even after he gets clean, he avoids connection with others. He has work colleagues and a twentysomething lover (really?), but he doesn’t give himself many opportunities to feel pain. His life is one of resignation, not so much of questioning. At least not until Jacobs shows up.
I read King for the characters as much as for the plot, and I liked Jamie. But Jacobs is the change agent, the fifth business, and his motivations are what make the plot go. As a minister, he should have the resources to explore the question of suffering in something more than a facile way, yet he doesn’t. I think that speaks to the nature of his faith. From the start, he sees it as an avenue to power, I think. And when his faith doesn’t lead to a good outcome, he sees no point in sticking with it, so he turns to a power he can manipulate, to the god of electricity.
Jenny: That’s an excellent point. King is making an interesting choice to explore some of his strongest themes through a character we see only from a distance most of the time — and one we have reason to find repellent. It’s a choice that took me a while to warm up to, as well.
Still, the idea that there’s a secret electricity that rules the universe, something far more powerful than volcanoes or lightning or nuclear power, something that’s blind and purposeful — that’s an idea that’s both scary and tempting. King acknowledges some of the horror sources that have already toyed with this idea, from Mary Shelley to Lovecraft to Arthur Machen, and I love that kind of horror family tree. I even went and read Machen’s novella “The Great God Pan,” since that was one I wasn’t familiar with!
Teresa: Electricity was a good choice because it’s a force we forget to be afraid of, yet it’s ubiquitous—available at the flick of a switch. And it puts King right in the tradition of other horror writers. I think that could have been what he meant when he said this was a straight-up horror novel, not necessarily scary but part of a long tradition.
Although once I got to the end, I did find it scary. The final experiment was intense, and the build-up to it was well done. Sometimes King’s books fizzle out or turn ridiculous, but this didn’t. OK, the claw-faces on the black legs were a little ridiculous, and I don’t know what Mother was actually supposed to be, but King didn’t stretch that sequence out long enough to annoy me. The haunting image is that of the Null beyond the door and what it means for everyone. When you first urged me to start reading King, one of the things you said was that evil rarely wins in his books, but this is a story of how evil just might take us all. As I said at the start of this review, it’s a scary book if you let it get its hooks in.
Jenny: It’s true that evil rarely wins in King’s works. I can count the number of novels on one hand where it happens (though short stories are another thing altogether and — not to be too spoilery — that’s one of the reasons Pet Sematary is so frightening.) I’m not sure whether to count this one or not, since Jamie appears to be some sort of passive conduit to evil, but at the end of the book the circuit remains closed. Either way, you’re right that most of the book is about what you might call ordinary struggles with the bad things that happen in a person’s life. Jamie was damaged by his early encounter with Jacobs — enough to make him want to withdraw from contact with people — and still more damaged by later run-ins. The final climax is only an affirmation that what lies behind reality is the true Nothing. Now that’s scary.