In September, Stephen King turned 67. Perhaps he wrote a novel to celebrate. We’ll know in a month or two, no doubt.
After all, the Bard of Bangor, prolific throughout his 40-year writing career, has ramped up his production of late, churning out books and stories at a rate reminiscent of Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory. Since 2006, King’s output consists of 10 novels plus two story collections. Throw in movie and TV adaptations, occasional columns for Entertainment Weekly and a tag-team story with novelist son Joe Hill and you might wonder if and when King sleeps. Maybe the horror master really is a vampire, a situation that would also explain the jolt of reading “Salem’s Lot.”
Now comes Revival, a dark and stormy tale about a New England minister who loses faith after a family tragedy. Reverend Charles Jacobs, a young man with a beautiful wife and a 5-year-old son, comes unraveled when a head-on car wreck kills his wife and son.
Jacobs, who has ministered to a Methodist flock for three years in the small Maine town where his family dies, leaves the pulpit for several weeks after the accident. Then he delivers what the narrator calls the Terrible Sermon, Jacobs’ return to the ministry just before Thanksgiving in 1965.
Among other remarks, Jacobs tells the congregation, “Religion is the theological equivalent of a quick-buck insurance scam, where you pay in your premium year after year, and then, when you need the benefits you paid for so – pardon the pun – so religiously, you discover the company that took your money does not, in fact, exist.”
With a string of similar heresies, the congregation storms out of his sermon and, immediately afterward, Jacobs loses his job. He leaves a lasting impression with everyone in the church, especially the Morton family.
No one more so than Jamie Morton, who is 9 years old when the church fires Jacobs. Jamie befriended the young minister when Jacobs first arrived in 1962. Before tragedy befalls him, Jacobs displays a dreamy fascination with the healing powers of electricity and electrical currents. And he dazzles Jamie and other youths in the church with stories and workshop-tinkering aimed at creating small-scale miracles.
King tells his story through the first-person voice of Jamie Morton, who recounts his 50-year relationship with Reverend Jacobs in a haunted but genial tone.
Recalling the start of his addiction, Jamie notes, “Advice to all you riders out there: swerving on gravel at forty is a terrible idea. I dumped the bike and broke the leg in five places. Shortly thereafter, I discovered the Joy of Morphine.”
Jamie and Jacobs meet next in 1992 in Oklahoma. Jacobs has become a carnival huckster who funds his secretive electrical experiments through the deception of miracle cures. (A handful of the former minister’s ministrations are legitimate and come with side effects creepy enough to be in a Stephen King novel.) Jamie, a heroin addict and itinerant rhythm guitarist, hits rock bottom and stumbles across Jacobs at the Tulsa fairgrounds.
Eventually, Jacobs saves Jamie, curbs his drug addiction, and finds him a job at a music studio. Jamie, though, soon enough realizes the debt to be exacted by Jacobs, a man possessed and obsessed with exploring the afterlife.
Watching the erstwhile reverend working as a carnival healer, Jamie marvels at the willing suspension of disbelief coursing through the audience.
“Here were people who routinely used their computers to stay in touch with their friends and get the news of the day, people who took weather satellites and lung transplants for granted, people who expected to live lives thirty and forty years longer than those of their great-grandparents,” King writes. “Here they were, falling for a story that made Santa and the Tooth Fairy look like gritty realism.”
There is a “Frankenstein” aspect of interfering with life and death in “Revival,” a debt acknowledged by King in a dedication that includes Mary Shelley and other horror favorites. King, a founding member of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a garage-rock group whose members include fellow authors Dave Barry, Amy Tan, and Scott Turow, indulges in a few rock and roll guitar asides and, in the voice of Jamie Morton, summons an elegiac tone worthy of his coming-of-age novella “Stand by Me.”
And, for the millions of us who keep ignoring Camus and Proust in favor of “Cujo” and “Carrie,” King scatters a few Easter eggs in “Revival.” Among them: references to the amusement park setting in his short novel “Joyland” and a setting in Maine near Castle Rock, King’s version of Yoknapatawpha County.
This book isn’t as much fun as “Mr. Mercedes,” published way back in the summer of 2014, but King fans won’t lose any faith in his powers while breezing through “Revival.