Stephen King’s splendid new novel, “Revival,” offers the atavistic pleasure of drawing closer to a campfire in the dark to hear a tale recounted by someone who knows exactly how to make every listener’s flesh crawl when he whispers, “Don’t look behind you.”
“Revival” opens in rural Harlow, Maine, in the early 1960s. Jamie Morton, the novel’s narrator, recalls an incident from when he was 6 years old and outside playing when a stranger appears:
“On top he was wearing a black-for-church jacket and a black shirt with a notched collar; on the bottom blue jeans and scuffed loafers. It was like he wanted to be two different people at the same time.”
Charles Jacobs, who is the new Methodist minister, brings the boy to his garage to show him a wonder: a realistic tabletop model of the countryside, complete with what appears to be a real lake and miniature power pylons. With a wave of his hand, Jacobs illuminates the vista. Streetlights glow, and a figure of Jesus walks across the surface of the lake.
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Jamie is amazed, even when Jacobs shares the secret of the apparent miracle: electricity, which the minister later says is “one of God’s doorways to the infinite.” Fascinated, the boy becomes a surrogate son to Jacobs, a role Jamie will continue to play long after tragedy strikes and Jacobs disappears.
All of the novel’s themes are contained in that early scene: the tug of war between science and belief; the ability of a good huckster, whether preacher or carny, to hold a crowd rapt with the promise of healing.
Most of all, the novel explores the nature and abuse of power, whether it’s love, religious faith or Jacobs’ lifelong obsession, electricity.
Decades after Jacobs leaves Maine, he and Jamie meet again at a carnival. Here the former preacher, now calling himself Dan the Lightning Portraits Man, astonishes onlookers by using “secret electricity” to perform impossible feats on audience volunteers.
Afterward in his workshop, Jacobs uses his secret electricity to pull off another miracle: a bit of electroconvulsive therapy that cures Jamie of his heroin addiction.
But the two part when Jamie questions Jacobs’ act and his old friend’s real intentions. “All your customers are actually guinea pigs, I was a guinea pig.”
Years later, Jamie sees a website for evangelist C. Danny Jacobs, whose old-fashioned tent-revival show advertises that “God heals like lightning.”
Jamie finds himself drawn back into Jacobs’ malign orbit, even as he begins to track down those people who have been “healed” by the evangelist’s secret electricity but display disturbing side effects.
King spins this story slowly and with great compassion for his characters, damaged as many of them are by grief and loss, addiction and disappointment; the teeth marks left by time gnawing away at youthful love and ambition. His restrained prose explodes in an ending that combines contemporary realism with cosmic horror — the tormented relationship between Jamie Morton and Charles Jacobs takes on a funereal shading — albeit one electrified by the power to bring the dead to life.
Elizabeth Hand’s short novel, “Wylding Hall,” will be out next year.
Revival, by Stephen King (403 pages; Scribner; $30)