Revival by Stephen King

Revival
US edition (Scribner)

Frankenstein meets The Great God Pan in a story that spans a lifetime of two men; the fates of young Jamie Morton and reverend Charlie Jacobs become intertwined when the latter becomes the town’s new reverend. Affable and easygoing, he’s liked by everyone – until he loses his family in an accident and angrily renounces God.

But there’s a new god waiting in the wings for the good old reverend: electricity. While we follow Jamie’s exploits (first love, first band, drug addiction, calm middle age), Jacobs uses his growing knowledge to go from a reverend to a carnival attraction to a spiritual healer, and later cures Jamie from his addiction. But some of Jacobs’ patients and test subjects begin to experience strange side effects, giving clues about Jacobs’ ultimate goal: to look beyond the veil of reality.

It’s straight out of Arthur Machen, the man credited in CAPITALS on the first page of the book; the final patient is even called Mary, just like in Machen’s story. But it’s mostly seasoning; structurally the novel is familiar King territory, reminiscent of From a Buick 8 or Joyland (there are many references to that novel’s carnival vocabulary). And on his home turf, King is undeniably the best there is. Revival is a great yarn, full of nostalgia and experiences that ring true. King’s characterisations are always above and beyond most in horror fiction.

But the seasoning can sometimes overwhelm the more astute reader. There’s the (silly) namechecking of certain mythos tomes, such as Robert Bloch‘s De Vermis Mysteriis or even the (bloody) Necronomicon. Perhaps King is having fun at the fanboys’ expense (others probably won’t even notice), but such references went out of style already back when August Derleth was churning out Lovecraftian pastiches.

revival-stephenking-cover-UK-hodder-stoughton--static
UK edition (Hodder & Stoughton)

The ending, or the great revelation of what waits us beyond death, is straight-up cosmic horror: death is no escape, only a doorway to something worse. The reader gets a small glimpse of the thing clawing out of Mary’s mouth, and it’s just enough – the reader’s imagination will take care of the rest. And the wave of suicides and murders in the wake of the final event echo Call of Cthulhu with its communal madness. There’s a lot of excellent ideas beneath the surface, even if the surface occasionally feels a bit too pleasant – King’s homespun horror stylings are perhaps too cosy and sane for all-out Lovecraftian horror. Even with the grumbles, Revival is a great novel, with a wonderful, solid emotional core.

**** (4/5)

Published in 2014 by Scribner. Visit the author’s site and get the new novel Finders Keepers (out in June)!

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The Concrete Grove by Gary McMahon

9879221A ghost having sex with a manatee? Strange imagery abounds in Gary McMahon’s The Concrete Grove, the first part in a trilogy about a rundown housing development that’s apparently also a portal into another dimension.

Single-parent Lana, her daughter Hailey and another resident of the area called Tom come into contact with the effects of this another realm while dodging a local loanshark and dogs wearing human faces. It’s a slow boil, and murky throughout; things progress very slowly and not much is revealed. What are the hummingbirds? Or the things in the TVs? By the end of the book I’m not much wiser about any of what I read.

While the writing is reasonably fluent, the pacing is a bit odd. Stylewise it seems like a cross between young adult fantasy and dark fantasy. It’s all very disconcerting, but not in a nice, giggly way. I admit I may have issues with this sort of suburban fantasy; while unicorns in bars might be intended to inspire awe, my own reaction is more on the lines of damn, that’s just ridiculous.

In the end the book just seems like a mess. There’re many ideas here but none of them are reasonably well explored or explained. Sure, weird for weird’s sake can be ok, but not if the weirdness comes consistently in such droves that it overwhelms everything else. The Concrete Grove just overdoes it all, it becomes a smorgasbord of manatees and hummingbirds, yet it doesn’t amount to much more than the sum of its ingredients.

A special mention must go to the surprise appearance of Arthur Machen, it’s a nice tip of the hat but sadly so very incongruous. But so’s everything else in the book.

** (2/5)