Revival, by Stephen King

by Mark Wallace

As a teenager of the 90s, I grew up reading a lot of Stephen King. As far as my adolescent reading self went, he was the Man. My impressions of his writing are mixed up with memories of staying up into the small hours eagerly consuming  The Stand, It, et al. It seems that adolescence is the optimum time to read King. This might explain why so many critics have had pops at King (like Dwight Allen at Salon): they first encountered him as adults, and were not responsive to his merits. (It may explain also my response to stuff like J.K. Rowling: I don’t get the appeal. Maybe I was just a few years too old when I first came to it.) My really intensive reading of his books was in my early teen years in the mid-90s. Later, I cooled on him, partly because my tastes changed and partly because once I had worked through his back catalogue I found that what he was then producing was not as good as the early stuff. The mid-90s saw a few clunkers (Insomnia, Rose Madder) and while Bag of Bones and Hearts in Atlantis showed King developing in interesting ways, they were followed by an unparalleled outpouring of dross (Dreamcatcher, Black House, From a Buick 8, Cell, etc.) 2006’s Cell was where the very last vestiges of my King fixation died, and I stopped reading his new works.

Still now, as he approaches 70, King is putting out about 2 books a year. Novels mostly, of wildly varying lengths, punctuated with collections of short stories. Occasionally I check in, but with no great returns. Revival (2014) is my first King in quite a while. It’s a slim-ish volume, 372 pages of fairly large print. One thing that interested me was how allusive the book seemed. The dedication page lists 11 of “the people who built my house”; that is, the writers who have inspired him. It’s the usual suspects for King: Shelley, Stoker, Jackson, Lovecraft, Machen. The blurb from Sydney Morning Herald posits Frankenstein as the key influence on the novel; the Guardian review suggests Lovecraft. I would say it’s Machen. In King’s opening paragraphs, as the narrator introduces the key character, he writes:

I can’t bear to believe his presence in my life had anything to do with fate. It would mean that all these terrible things – these horrors – were meant to happen. If that is so, then there is no such thing as light, and our belief in it is a foolish illusion. If that is so, we live in darkness like animals in a burrow, or ants deep in their hill.

This recalls a passage from Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894), a story which King refers to specifically in the aforementioned dedication. In Pan, Machen’s protagonist exclaims:

It is too incredible, too monstrous; such things can never be in this quiet world, where men and women live and die, and struggle, and conquer, or maybe fail, and fall down under sorrow, and grieve and suffer strange fortunes for many a year; but not this, Phillips, not such things as this. There must be some explanation, some way out of the terror. Why, man, if such a case were possible, our earth would be a nightmare.

Both passages start with an expression of incredulity (“I can’t bear to believe”, “It is too incredible”), though Machen’s character is more unconditional, King’s more ambiguous. This incredulity is founded, not on rationality, but on what is bearable. Machen’s register is classically of the horror genre: “monstrous […] terror […] nightmare”. These are all the things that are at stake in accepting the evidence. King, too, lays on the big abstractions of the genre (“the horrors“).

Even King’s syntax and word choice changes in this passage. “If that is so” is archaic, and rather inconsistent with the tone of King’s aging rock musician narrator. “[W]e live in Darkness” evokes the biblical “we see through a glass, darkly” and, by extension, Sheridan LeFanu’s famous collection In a Glass Darkly. Machen, like most pre-20th c. Anglophone writers was steeped in biblical language (his father was a clergyman), and it gives his prose a resonance and stark power, at times. With King, though, it’s imported, and sits unassimilated in the middle of his much more homely and colloquial prose. Machen couldn’t have written like King, and King can’t write like Machen, not for more than a paragraph or so, anyway.

But those two paragraphs both set the works in the genre of cosmic horror. The genre is predominantly associated with Lovecraft, but the real establishing text is The Great God Pan, which Lovecraft, like King, made no secret of his admiration for. So similar are the philosophies underlying Machen and Lovecraft’s stories that influence by the former is sometimes imputed to the latter, simply because he’s more widely known and read. The essence of cosmic horror is not that there is a monster who must be faced and, perhaps, defeated; it is that life is monstrous, the universe is monstrous. And the universe cannot be defeated. The visible monsters are only representatives of a greater evil at the heart of life itself. That is why life is a “nightmare” and faith a “foolish illusion”.

King plays with these ideas in Revival, but for most of the novel they’re background. Like most of King’s work, there’s a great deal of focus on characterization, of community life, and so on. King is an incorrigibly humanist writer. Machen wasn’t really a humanist; Lovecraft even less so. Maybe that’s where the difficulty lies: King is too warm, too invested in his fellow humans to be really invested in cosmic horror. It’s when you don’t think much of humanity in general that horror can come to seem cosmic. For all King’s humanity, though, when it comes to the pay-off, the big finale, we know from the hints and the build-up that it’s all going to have to centre on the idea of the great horrors. The anti-climax in Revival is, sadly, risible. How can you really construct a finale that will provide pay off when dealing with ideas of such magnitude? Machen didn’t do great in bringing Pan to a climax, either. For Lovecraft, there tended to be an overreliance on “indescribable” and its synonyms when the monsters made their appearance. King barely tries, his ending is run-of-the mill, though I don’t want to get too spoilery about it.

In short King is King, and this is a superior read in the King vein. There’s some pretty atmospheric americana scene-setting, some of King’s typically laboured humour (this has always been his weak point, for me: the guy just is not funny, but he never stops trying), and a lot of nods towards the greats of cosmic horror. Cosmic horror is just the dressing, though, it’s not really what King is about. He’s got his own thing going. It’s a shame he couldn’t integrate this particular subgenre better into his own writing, but, on this front, Revival doesn’t quite come off, though it retains interest I think both as a good read all round and King’s most considered fictional statement on religion, rendering it a notably more thematic work than most of his others, while still retaining a good narrative thrust.