I’m sadly behind on my Stephen King, but I finally got around to reading Revival last night. I don’t want to reveal the plot, but I do want to reflect on some aspects of the book that might be spoilery, depending on your definition of a spoiler. So, if you haven’t read the book and you plan to, read on at your own risk (or go read the book first, then come back and feel free to discuss it. I’d love to talk Stephen King with somebody.)
In case that wasn’t clear enough:********************************PROCEED WITH CAUTION. RAMBLING THOUGHTS AHEAD, MAY CONTAIN SPOILERY MATERIAL!!!!!!!********************************************************************
Now that that’s out of the way, Constant Reader, let’s talk Revival.
As I mentioned, I believe, in my earlier Joyland review, I am a die-hard Stephen King fan. I would quite likely happily read the man’s grocery list. I believe I can claim a decent grasp of King’s body of work, having read (and re-read, multiple times in many cases) more than 60 of the author’s books (out of around 72, according to a list I spotted online the other day.) Based on my understanding of his past work, I think that Revival demonstrates something of a departure from King’s norm. Not that it’s completely unprecedented, but I definitely think it was an unusual book for him.
Normally, when people think of a departure from the norm for Stephen King, they think of one of his non-horror works. The aforementioned Joyland, for example, which was really a mystery with a hint of a not-terribly-frightening ghost story. Or Shawshank Redemption, which is not remotely horrifying (and is often not even recognized as a Stephen King work by those who haven’t read the novella.) That’s not what I’m talking about here. Revival is most certainly a horror novel – in fact, I found it more frightening and disturbing than the majority of his other horror novels (though he does have a few short stories that have given me the same sort of chill. More on that in a minute.)
I would argue that Stephen King classics like It or The Stand or The Shining (as well as The Shining’s belated but wonderful companion, Doctor Sleep) are closer in nature to Shawshank Redemption than they are to Revival. Generally, when King gives us a killer clown, a Walking Dude, or a haunted hotel, he gives us something good to counterbalance it. A bond between a group of childhood friends, for example, along with a vague force that seems to want them to succeed. A Mother Abigail and her understanding of God. A network of basically good-hearted folks that either have a little psychic twinkle, or who will go out of their way to help someone who does in order to repay a debt. Something. That’s not to say that good always triumphs over evil in the Kingverse (even when it does, it’s often implied or outright stated to be a temporary win) but we are usually left with the impression that there is good out there – both good people, and perhaps, good forces. Which is something that those classic horror novels have in common with Shawshank – a general sense that there is something good underneath all the muck. Even the overwhelmingly depressing The Mist (I’m talking the novella here, not the movie, for clarity) leaves us with at least a small glimmer of hope for the remaining characters. Plus, most of the forces that Stephen King characters deal with, while often supernatural, don’t claim any special knowledge of or claim to the afterlife. Which means that even if a book ends with everybody dead, we as readers can still impose our own ultimate fates on the characters, based on whatever our belief systems happen to be. As an atheist, I tend to imagine dead characters as no longer existing at all, and therefore no longer scared or in pain. Someone else may picture the good guys in heaven (where they would also be no longer scared or in pain) though – that’s usually perfectly reasonable.
Revival is having none of that. Any of it.
There are no good forces in Revival, really. The narrator seems to be a basically nice guy, of course, but he’s not really a hero in the sense that he’s the one who brings down the bad guy. That’s because the ultimate bad guy in Revival is death itself, and what waits there – and it seems not to matter if you were a good person or a bad person in your earthly life, you’ll wind up in the clutches of the bad guys anyway. No sweet relief of nothingness, certainly no heaven. Just chaos and terror. The only thing that Revival’s narrator managed to accomplish was delaying the inevitable for himself, and I’m not even talking about trapping the bad guy where he’ll emerge, but not for a century or so. I’m talking about delaying it basically until the narrator reaches the end of his natural lifespan, which he’s not really all that far away from. And that’s not his fault – there’s no way to escape his (and all of humanity’s) fate, and no contrasting good force to balance out the horrible one.
Now, I’m not complaining. Revival played on fears that I’d forgotten I had, which is a great thing for a horror writer to do for a reader — especially great coming from a horror writer that I may have been feeling comfortable and familiar with. King is good at that — letting you know not to get too comfortable… that old junkyard dog still has a mean bite. Since none of us really know what happens after we die, the thought that we might be wrong is always scary. And it’s not as if, in Revival, my vision of the afterlife (nothingness) was wrong, but something comfortingly familiar (heaven/hell) turned out to be correct. No one, of any religious faith, has any belief in an afterlife like the one described in Revival. Thank goodness they don’t – the whole world would be a madhouse. But the simple suggestion that this just *might* be what’s out there is one that will keep you awake at night, especially with King’s vivid descriptiveness bringing the horror to life.
So not a complaint – just an observation that the general hopelessness of Revival is a departure from King’s norm, at least when it comes to long fiction. King’s short stories, on the other hand, contain a few gems that suggest that life, death, and hope are all basically futile, and that horror is really all that awaits. Revival actually brought a few of them to the forefront of my mind, in fact. From the Nightmares and Dreamscapes collection: “Suffer the Little Children”, “The Moving Finger”,” You Know They Got a Hell of a Band”, and (most especially) “Crouch End” all come to mind. “The Jaunt”, collected in Skeleton Crew and ”I am the Doorway” and “Children of the Corn” collected in Night Shift, also have a similar hopeless vibe and sense of senselessness about them. There are others as well, I think, in newer collections, though they escape my mind at the moment. So Revival is not without its precedents. King has done this chillingly well before in short form. I do maintain, though, that it’s a departure for him when it comes to long fiction. And although it’s done well, and although I wouldn’t be able to help myself from reading another similar book, I have to say that Revival will probably weigh on my mind for a while in a way that Pennywise or Randall Flagg never could. The absence of good, the ultimate showdown being a predetermined win by chaotic terror over frail, flawed human, the senselessness of life in general – none of that sits easily with me. That makes Revival a bona fide terrifying novel, in my mind. It’s not for the faint of heart, and even if you think you’re desensitized, you may not be desensitized enough for this one.