Stephen King's latest novel, "Revival," is a slow burn. I was 90 pages in before I felt even a spark of scary, and then only smoldering heat until the last 90 pages, when the book ignites in horror.
Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed the pages in between, with their allusions to Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" and their moments of humor, but most of all I liked the in-between for its protagonist (the Rev. Charles Jacobs), and the possibility that perhaps a little autobiographical truth lies beneath the fictional façade. Aspects of "Revival" had me wondering if this might be King's roman à clef, his most personal novel to date.
For decades King has played in a rock 'n' roll band called the Rock Bottom Remainders, and he's been quite public about his addictions when he was a younger man. Jamie Morton, the novel's convincing narrator, is a rhythm guitarist who played "on [his] share of cheap singles and bad indie albums" while embracing the full-on rock 'n' roll lifestyle. Among other similarities, King and his narrator are in their 60s, have recovering leg injuries, and both have an "interest in popular culture" influenced by music.
Like Victor Frankenstein, the Rev. Charles Jacobs is a "half-mad scientist," obsessed with electricity. The Reverend believes it's "one of God's doorways to the infinite," and he wants to open it. When his wife and young son die in a car accident, grief-stricken he leaves his church and amps up his studies, experimenting whenever and with whomever he can. He becomes a carnival sideshow, creating "Portraits in Lightning," then an old school-white tent faith healer, the "chief prelate in the First Church of Electricity."
The Reverend's grief has shattered his faith and drives his alchemy. He's searching for "the cosmic punch-line," the reason why his beloved family had to die. He believes all religions have been "built on the blood, bones and screams" of those who won't kneel down for "the biggest party-line of them all." And in his final sermon before leaving Methodism, the Reverend exclaims, "If you want truth of a power greater than yourselves, look to the lightning."
And like Victor Frankenstein, the Reverend does, hoping to harness "the forces" in the universe for … something. (To say more about his experiments would suck the power from those final explosive pages.) The novel's ending is dark, disquieting and pretty horrifying, revealing a mind (the narrator's, for sure; King's, perhaps) searching for answers to life's age-old questions about life and death. Scary thing is, when you find the answers, then what?
Carole E. Barrowman teaches English at Alverno College in Milwaukee.