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Book Review: Revival

G D Penman By G D Penman Published on June 2, 2016

I am a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft but there are a few problems with his work. The first is the one that has been most widely discussed here and elsewhere, even for the time when he was writing Lovecraft was a particularly virulent racist and those opinions coloured all of his writing. The other problems with his writing are a little more nebulous but basically boil down to changes in the way that prose is written from the 20s until now. Lovecraft liked to write in a particularly archaic and difficult style that has readers of the classics often placing his writings several decades earlier in their estimations. Lovecraft always wore his influences on his sleeve. The plodding myth structures of Lord Dunsany's work and the creeping otherworldly horror of Arthur Machen are omnipresent in his writing and while Lovecraft took a dive into the cosmic deep end of the horror genre those tethers to history are what always kept his writing tethered to earth, even if it was the earth of a century before. In turn, Lovecraft has influenced a great many other writers, not the least of which was the modern master of horror, Stephen King.

Revival is not King's latest novel but it had only recently drifted into the paperback in which I am accustomed to finding his work. It follows the complete lives of two men from childhood to the bitter end. Jamie Morton is a small town boy who grows up to be a relatively successful musician, a relatively unsuccessful heroin addict and living proof of the power of the secret lightning that Charles Daniel Jacobs wields. The two men cross paths early on in Jamie's life as Jacobs arrives in town as a replacement for their community's recently deceased lay-preacher. Over the course of the story and the fifty years that it spans they drift in and out of each others lives several times, but each and every time they cause significant changes to the other. Right from the start they form a tight bond of friendship that outlasts both Jacobs tenure as a man of faith and the brief lifespan of Jacobs' wife and child. The death of the Jacobs family is the turning point of the novel, where visceral horror begins to creep into the story. Not supernatural but based in all too terrible reality. While the unknown and the sinister creep into the story as time goes by, culminating in the dreadful moment of the finale, the great Revival itself, when the truths of life and death are revealed, it is always this human horror that shocks and disgusts the reader. It is the small cruelties and tragedies that weave together a truly human story and provide the groundwork and contrast to the other story at play.

King's other books have hints of Lovecraft about them. The idea that there is a universe so alien as to be hostile beyond the limits of human knowledge is common in a great deal of modern horror. Revival marks the first time that King writes a book with the same structure as a Lovecraft story, the same themes and the same conclusion. It shows what a modern writer with a tight grasp of narrative structure, character and tone can do with those same marvellous ideas that have made Lovecraft's less ideal writing persist through the years. I am by no means suggesting that we cast aside Lovecraft and all of his works, but now when I am looking to introduce a friend, or more accurately victim, to the realm of cosmic horror there is a well written book with a solid grounding in reality that I can point to and say, “Start here.”

I have not always ranked Mr King's writing as the best, I have felt that there was some serious inconsistency across his back catalogue but this book has me convinced not just of his skill but of his mastery of the art of writing. It is an intimate study of a man's life, shifting back and forth through the time-line not just to provoke suspense but to create an oscillating flow of narrative that can strike like lightning or give just enough charge to keep the plot driving forward. The build up as Charles Jacobs goes from preacher to sideshow attraction to tent revival faith healer and on towards his ultimate goal at the top of the cosmic ladder is electrifying.

This is one of the few books that I have read in my life that I have found to be completely without fault. No matter what your preferences are in fiction you will find something that you can fall in love with here.

G.D. Penman writes about queer monsters for a living. He is the author of Call Your Steel, The Year of the Knife, Heart of Winter, Apocrypha and many other books. He is also a full-time freelance ... Show More