Challenging the Pale Prince of Providence
in Stephen King’s
“These days, you never know what to expect when you pick up a new novel from Stephen King. Then again, perhaps you never really did.
“King has always been close to being a one-man industry. He churns out books—and quite often truly high-quality books– at a rate that many authors could only dream about. Indeed, it may be the man’s truly breathtaking output and sheer love of the written word that has denied him the literary credit that he deserves. Some elitist ass-pains seem to believe that unless you’re producing work at the pace of a Joseph Heller then you are not writing anything that is worthy of lasting. Any cursory examination of King will prove that wrong, except that the nay-sayers are not willing to give him that much credit.
“Yet King’s themes and beautiful embrace of his characters have been consistent since his first appearance back in the early seventies. And few do nostalgia like he does. I may not have been particularly knocked out by Under the Dome but, oh man, did 11.22.63 leave me wonderfully exhausted and wishing that I could have been born about fifteen years earlier, so that I could have enjoyed the ’fifties. I read it slowly, savouring every page, and at the end I could have read another 500 pages.”
This is how I introduced a review of the novel Joyland last year. It’s one of King’s slighter pieces but no less interesting for that. Since then I’ve also reviewed Dr. Sleep, which I would consider to be a major work from a major writer.
Well, Revival (his 58th novel!) is a hell of a lot more problematic than any of the above. In fact, I had an awful lot of difficulties with this one, much as there is to like in it at the same time.
An Unfortunate Pre-empting
You know, I wish to hell that I had never heard so much about this one being his major stab into the Lovecraftian universe. Perhaps if I had read it completely cold I would have been more receptive to it; but I don’t think so. And in any case he highlights the supposed influences himself, in a dedication that covers ‘some of the people who built my house’ and naming Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth and several others – and every one of them worth reading. Then he ends with: “And ARTHUR MACHEN, whose short novel ‘The Great God Pan’ has haunted me all my life.”
Well, I can’t fault his taste; and anything that brings the neglected Welsh Bard to the attention of another generation is all right with me. But to be honest, although the spirit of Helen Vaughan is in here somewhere, it throws things off balance and you would have to be really squinting to find her. Then he opens the novel proper with:
That is not dead which can eternal lie
And with strange aeons even death may die
Lovecraft first used the ‘unexplainable couplet’ from Alhazred’s Necronomicon in his short story The Nameless City. It has become one of his most recognisable quotes, even appearing on the cover of a heavy metal album from Iron Maiden, albeit slightly misquoted. So it’s not as if King wasn’t making an announcement of intent. The only problem with this is that afterwards there is arguably nothing of the supernatural – and certainly nothing of Lovecraft’s beloved ‘cosmic’ themes for 300 pages; and this is in a book of 370!
What Revival really tells is the story of a likeable young man who grows up in the typical King milieu of a small New England town in the early sixties. God, King is so good at this kind of thing and we really care for Jamie Morton’s family and their lives. He becomes a rhythm guitarist (allowing the author to give free reign to his own love of music), earning a decent living at first before descending into the horrors of heroin addiction. And of course, having been through his own personal hell as an alcoholic and drug addict, King can write this kind of thing very convincingly. Morton eventually finds a sort of redemption – at a price—and spends the rest of his life clean and sober.
And we care about him and are with him all the way. This is King’s genius.
B-Movies and Forbidden Tomes
I don’t have the book to hand, but in his outstanding history of the horror genre, Danse Macabre, King writes something to the effect that every writer in the field labours in the gigantic shadow of H. P. Lovecraft. This is something that I obviously agree with (although King has become inexplicably more ambivalent of late). And so too does almost every aspect of Jamie Morton’s life fall under the shadow of the Reverend Charles Jacobs.
He first encounters him as a six-year-old when the eager young cleric with a passion for electricity comes to town with his lovely wife and little boy. When tragedy strikes them, however, he turns against God with a savagery that sees him deliver a devastating sermon in one of the book’s high points:
“’There’s no proof of these after-life destinations; no backbone of science; there is only the bald assurance, coupled with our powerful need to believe that it all makes sense. But as I stood in the back room of Peabody’s and looked down at the mangled remains of my boy, who wanted to go to Disneyland much more than he wanted to go to heaven, I had a revelation. 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.’”
There’s more; oh boy, is there more. Enough for Reverend Charles to find himself booted out of the Union of Sky Pilots, that’s for sure.
Over the years, though, Morton and Jacobs run into each other again and again as the increasingly deranged preacher metamorphoses from carnival huckster to Big Tent faith healer with eventually his experiments with electricity (in a nod to Frankenstein?) taking him into raving- mad scientist territory.
He’s also been dipping into forbidden tomes, like a good Lovecraftian. And this is where I don’t understand King’s artistic decisions. The main volume is De Vermis Mysteriis. And that’s fair enough, because King had already used this well in his excellent Lovecraftian short story Jerusalem’s Lot – the township of which is namechecked in this novel. However, he rather recklessly goads the reader into googling it. If you don’t already know then you’ll find out that Mysteries of the Worm was actually created by one of the Lovecraft Circle back in the ’30s – Robert Bloch, author of Psycho. Even more recklessly he adds:
“According to the Catholic Church, De Vermis Mysteriis is one of half-a-dozen so-called Forbidden Books. Taken as a group, they are known as ‘grimoires’. The other five are The Book of Apollonius ( he was a doctor at the time of Christ), The Book of Albertus Magus, (spells, talismans, speaking to the dead), Lemegeton and Clavicula Salomonis (supposedly written by King Solomon), and the Grimoire of Picatrix. That last one, along with the Vermis Mysteriis, was supposedly the basis of H. P. Lovecraft’s fictional grimoire, called The Necronomicon.”
I make no apologies for taking this review in a direction to others you may have read. My own website started life as aiming to be a Lovecraftian one before taking on (appropriately enough) a life of its own. So the way he handles this was of enormous interest to me. But it doesn’t work. HPL was able to bend people’s heads out of shape in the ’20 and ‘30s with his seamless mixing of fictional and real tomes; but in the age of the internet that’s a lot harder to do – especially if you’re goading people into checking the sources!
I also had a major problem with King’s attempt at depicting– let’s be generous and call it— ‘an’ after life. Right from his friend Hugh’s vision in the revival tent (complete with B-movie man-sized ants) I just wasn’t buying it. And that wasn’t helped by the ‘apocalyptic’ ending. I’ll avoid that as I don’t wish to spoil this for those who haven’t yet read it; and if you are looking forward to it then take solace from the fact that my view is in the minority.
There are without doubt some startling images here, mind you; although one particularly vivid one reminded me rather strongly of a similar one from Michael Moorcock’s 1965 fantasy novel Stormbringer.
What King does do (and I wasn’t expecting this!) was imbue the ‘That is not dead…’ quote with a whole new power, a whole new and horrifying meaning. To breathe new life into words that I have read hundreds of times over more than four decades is a feat worth forgiving a few mis-steps for.
But that’s King at his best. What he does with the most simple of words can often be incredibly unsettling, as when Jacobs uses electricity to cure Morton’s drug addiction. Jamie finds himself with a frightening form of Tourette’s:
“…the little white control box was nowhere to be seen, and my brain had gone wrong. It was stuck.
“’Something’, I said. ‘Something, something, something. Happened. Happened. Something happened. Something happened, happened, something happened. Happened. Something.’
“’Stop that. You’re all right.’ But he didn’t sound sure. He sounded scared.
“The headphones were gone. I tried to get up and shot one hand into the air instead, like a second-grader who knows the right answer and is dying to give it.
“Something. Something. Something. Happened. Happened, happened. Something happened.’”
Heaven knows what buttons that’s pressing with me, but I find it extremely unnerving.
Put simply, the differences between Stephen King and H. P. Lovecraft couldn’t be more obvious than in Revival. At its most basic it boils down to the fact that King can write the most believable, sympathetic and clearly-imagined characters you could wish for; Lovecraft had no interest in that whatsoever.
And on the evidence here (and at the climax of It or The Gunslinger, come to that) King would do well to think twice when taking on Lovecraft in the Cosmic Horror stakes.
His attempt in Revival just points up once again that the Pale Prince of Providence was one of a kind.