Stephen King’s splendid new novel, “Revival,” offers the atavistic pleasure of drawing closer to a campfire in the dark to hear a tale recounted by someone who knows exactly how to make every listener’s flesh crawl when he whispers, “Don’t look behind you.” King has always been generous in acknowledging the inspiration for his fiction. With “Revival,” he names Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” (1894), one of the greatest supernatural tales ever written.
King updates Machen’s fin-de-siècle setting and erotic subtext, in which a 17-year-old girl is subjected to a primitive lobotomy that allows her to glimpse the terrifying abyss that underlies our world. “Revival” opens in a place nearly as remote from our modern world as Machen’s gaslit London: rural Harlow, Maine, in the early 1960s. Jamie Morton, the novel’s narrator, recalls an incident from when he was 6 years old, the youngest of five children in a boisterous, big-hearted clan. He’s outside playing with his toy soldiers when a stranger appears:
“On top he was wearing a black-for-church jacket and a black shirt with a notched collar; on the bottom blue jeans and scuffed loafers. It was like he wanted to be two different people at the same time.”
The stranger is Charles Jacobs, Harlow’s new Methodist minister, happily married, with a beautiful young wife and toddler. Jacobs quickly befriends Jamie (and King immediately deflects any intimations of child abuse — this is not that story). He brings the boy to his garage to show him a wonder: a realistic tabletop model of the countryside, complete with what appears to be a real lake and miniature power pylons. With a wave of his hand, Jacobs illuminates the vista. Streetlights glow, and a figure of Jesus walks across the surface of the lake.
Jamie is amazed, even when Jacobs shares the secret of the apparent miracle: electricity, which the minister later says is “one of God’s doorways to the infinite.” Fascinated, the boy becomes a surrogate son to Jacobs, a role Jamie will continue to play long after tragedy strikes and Jacobs disappears.
All of the novel’s themes are contained in that early scene: the tug of war between science and belief; the ability of a good huckster, whether preacher or carny, to hold a crowd rapt with the promise of healing. Most of all, the novel explores the nature and abuse of power, whether it’s love, religious faith or Jacobs’s lifelong obsession, electricity.
King spins this story slowly and with great compassion for his characters, damaged as many of them are by grief and loss, addiction and disappointment; the teeth marks left by time gnawing away at youthful love and ambition. The dead-on details of Jamie’s 1960s childhood — van-choc-straw ice cream, the smell of Vitalis, a half-smoked joint hidden in a Sucrets box — give way to the joys of learning to play an electric Yamaha as Jamie embarks upon his eventual career as a session guitarist.
Happiness is notoriously difficult to make interesting in fiction. Idylls are created only to be destroyed. But King’s narrative never surrenders to mere nostalgia or contempt for the broken world that Jamie, like the rest of us, must live in as he ages.
Decades after Jacobs leaves Maine, he and Jamie meet again at a carnival. Here the former preacher, now calling himself Dan the Lightning Portraits Man, astonishes onlookers by using “secret electricity” to perform impossible feats on audience volunteers. Afterward in his workshop, Jacobs uses his secret electricity to pull off another miracle: a bit of electroconvulsive therapy that cures Jamie of his heroin addiction.
But the two part when Jamie questions Jacobs’s act and his old friend’s real intentions. “All your customers are actually guinea pigs,” Jamie notes. “They just don’t know it. I was a guinea pig.”
Years later, Jamie sees a Web site for evangelist C. Danny Jacobs, whose old-fashioned tent revival show advertises that “God heals like lightning.” Jamie finds himself drawn back into Jacobs’s malign orbit, even as he begins to track down those people who have been “healed” by the evangelist’s secret electricity but display disturbing side effects.
And here the narrative starts to dovetail with Machen’s masterpiece. King’s restrained prose explodes in an ending that combines contemporary realism with cosmic horror reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction and the classic film “Quatermass and the Pit.” The tormented relationship between Jamie Morton and Charles Jacobs takes on the funereal shading of an Arthur Miller tragedy — albeit one electrified by the power to bring the dead to life.
Hand’s short novel “Wylding Hall” will be out next year.
By Stephen King
Scribner. 403 pp. $30