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)!

1986

1986

This blog has been on pause for a while, mostly because I was working on my comic book (you can see the cover above). The book is now out and available! (and therefore I will also resume this blog)

Not surprisingly, “1986” is a horror story – it begins as a ghost story, then becomes a decidedly Stephen King style coming-of-age story. The year in the title is no coincidence, it’s the year of IT and Stand by Me, among others. Other than eighties horror, the story pays tribute to the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. The game’s sanity loss mechanism plays a big role.

You can see samples of the book in my Twitter, as well as on the publisher’s page (click the numbers after “Näytesivut“).

If you wish to support the blog, or if you’re just curious about the book, you can buy it directly from me (contact me and I’ll give you the instructions). The cost is a mere £8 (or $10) and the price includes shipping worldwide.

DarkFuse #1, edited by Shane Staley

darkfuse1A novella-length anthology, DarkFuse volume 1 offers six stories; some are traditional, others experimental. All are quite good.

She Sleeps in the Depths by William Meikle: A man named Fallon gets an earworm, a sea-shanty of sorts. Close Encounter style, he takes a ship up north, and meets with a woman who hears the same tune in her head. And off they go, in search of the source somewhere out at sea.

A Lovecraftian tale, She Sleeps in the Depths has a great atmosphere; the pared-down, detached greyness of it all reminds me of Nordic noir crime novels. The writing’s strong throughout, and a mention of the ship’s karaoke hell certainly strikes a chord in anyone who’s ever travelled on the ferries in Northern Europe. **** (4/5)

Better Heard and Not Seen by Michael Penkas: A boy believes there’s a monster in his closet. Soon as he’s gone to bed, something comes out of the closet and climbs in the bed with him. But it’s not the monster.

Surely it cannot get any more traditional than this. It’s an old-fashioned story that feels almost like a lost classic from an earlier age. The story gets a lot out of its overtly familiar premise, and the writing’s good, but all in all it’s still a very simple story. *** (3/5)

Carrion Fowl by William R. Eakin: People suddenly mutate into some sort of cannibalistic flying creatures with beaks and everything, and then they fly around eating people and each other and going “wrocckkkk!”

It’s a nice juxtaposition, putting this after the most traditional story here! What a weird story this is. There’s not really much plot, mostly we follow a couple as they start their new posthuman lives as some sort of pterodactyls. They also seem to go insane in the process, relishing their new reality with epic phrases (the writing’s excellent, but some sections go on for a bit too long) and really going about it all like it’s actually quite natural to turn into a monster. Would’ve fit nicely in the Cthulhu’s Reign anthology. ***½ (3.5/5)

Jaws of Life by E.G. Smith: A salesman rolls his car over on a remote stretch of road and gets stuck upside down, unable to move. Scruffy children find him, but they don’t call for help.

It’s a limited setup; the whole story is set inside the turned-over vehicle, with the reader seeing only what the main character sees through his window. At first the story feels like a Lord of the Flies kind of thing, but ultimately it may be more related to Richard Laymon. A well-executed tale that reveals its secrets slowly, with a nice, nasty, pitch-black final twist. **** (4/5)

Netherview by Gary McMahon: As a lark, a couple visit a home showing at a new residential area built on the site of an old asylum. Leaving, they find their car wrecked, and the gate of the compound locked.

The situation is weird, as in almost Ligottian. The residential area is empty, the phones don’t work and it almost feels like a trap designed to lure people… for what purpose? For food? There’re glimpses of something, possibly some creature, but it never gets near enough to allow for any details. Luckily, since the story works better with just the characters and their growing confusion and fear. The final desperate escape attempt with its possibly fatal consequences is far scarier than any imaginary monster could be. ****½ (4.5/5)

Children of the Horned God by Christopher Fulbright: A horned creature grabs a man’s wife. Some time later, the man begins to hunt the creature, and in the process uncovers some secrets about his fellow citizens.

It’s all very eighties in style, with a Satanic style coven, hints of paganism (Herne is referred to, there are trees with faces etc) and even some Lovecraftian overtones. There’s a lot going on, a lot of cheese, with scenes upon scenes of convenient pulpy revelations. It’s all kind of good, but there simply might be a little too much good stuff here, at least for a short story (you could make several lurid eighties horror novels out of these ingredients). A more straightforward storyline, with a little more normalcy and less cheese would’ve probably made more of an impact. **½ (2.5/5)

Anthology rating, rounded up: **** (4/5)

Published in March 2014 by DarkFuse.

Reanimators by Pete Rawlik

reanimatorsThey really don’t come back the same once they’ve been dead a while. Pete Rawlik‘s first novel Reanimators (2013) takes its cue from Lovecraft‘s classic story Herbert West — Reanimator (1922), spurts the old story full of the green reagent, and goes crazy.

The setup is ingenious; as in Lovecraft’s original story, Herbert West’s experiment goes horribly/exhilaratingly wrong, and people die. Only in Rawlik’s interpretation those people have a son, Doctor Stuart Hartwell, who then swears revenge on poor West. Somehow Hartwell also figures out a formula for reanimation, thus giving the title its plural suffix.

So far so good, but then other folks from Lovecraft’s stories start appearing. Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee (of The Shadow Out of Time), the Whateleys (of The Dunwich Horror), Doctor Muñoz (of Cool Air) and Erich Zann (of The Music of Erich Zann… and others. Every name connects to some other piece of fiction somewhere.

And the novel gets sidetracked, time and again. Some references slip in smoothly, others have to be shoehorned in. And sure, it’s fun to read about Hartwell observing a certain hill in Dunwich at a certain time, when a certain Great Old One shows up in all his glory, glowing balls and all. But does it amount to anything?

Not really. The main plotline, when it occasionally surfaces from the seething tangle of recycled references, is great; the chapter where Hartwell inadvertently creates zombies in the trenches of World War I is brilliant, as is the storyline concerning the Spanish flu epidemic. Maybe the original Reanimator story, as a born and bred pulp tale, is well suited to such tinkering (as seen in the movie adaptation and its sequels); messing with the other stories is far more difficult, and the line between good fun and preposterously ridiculous is a very thin one.

The writing, in first person and ostensibly by Hartwell, is solid and insanely serious; Rawlik has the Lovecraftian protagonist spot on. Certain chapters and episodes are excellent, but as a whole the plot barely holds together. No doubt the numerous sidetracks to other stories will tickle any hardcore Lovecraft fan; it’s fun just to spot which story is currently being cannibalized. But for the rest of humanity, it all probably comes across as slightly meh.

*** (3/5)

Southern Gods by John Hornor Jacobs

10900272Gods and men clash to the soundtrack of blues in John Hornor Jacobs‘ first novel. Set in 1950s Arkansas, the story follows a hardboiled WW2 veteran as he is hired to locate two men, one of whom makes such music as will drive men to kill.

The gumshoe is Bull Ingram; his first target is a record company man who’s disappeared during payola visits to local radio stations. The other man, Ramblin’ John Hastur, is a bluesman, whose crazy tunes about yellow signs and other Lovecraftian thingumajigs are transmitted on pirate radio throughout the South.

The setting is brilliant, the atmosphere well developed. The world of murky blues recordings and 50s radio offer a rich and colourful background for Bull to roam in. Jacobs has a natural rhythm to his storytelling and the characters are, for the first half of the novel, compelling creations. Bull’s story reaches its zenith at a blues gig, where the main attraction literally brings the house down.

Unfortunately, the second half of the novel gets bogged down in static scenery (it’s mostly set in one house) and too much Lovecraftian exposition. The fine theme of blues, so evident in the first half, fades away. The already pulpy characters get increasingly pulpier; there’s a love interest, Sarah, and a Montenegran priest, Father Andrez, who seems a strangely sane individual for someone who has so much Cthulhu Mythos. All the tantalising mysteries of the first half are explained away in embarrassing detail, and as the story is set in the South, family histories also come into play in a heavy way.

However, even in the midst of Derlethian tripe of good versus evil, Jacobs displays an original voice: the take on the eternal struggle is a bit different, the good old Necronomicon gets a new treatment, and instead of a Christian god, it’s an ancient Roman deity that proves to be of most help to our heroes and heroines.

Altogether, the first half of the novel is unreservedly great; the second half is a trudge with some small pockets of guilty pleasure. Luckily, Jacobs’ leisurely storytelling and a natural knack for creating atmosphere provide just enough glue to keep the package enjoyably together. But the seams are clearly visible.

**** (4/5)