The first three quarters of REVIVAL brings forth the image of Stephen King sat at home of an evening, drinking ice-cool lemonade, reading some John Irving and thinking “y’know, I could do this.”
All the stuff you’d expect from your standard John Irving novel is there – meeting the central character in childhood; his extended (often colourful) family; crucial moments in adolescence that shape him; and a dramatic adult life narrated with good humour –REVIVAL hits every one of those beats. It makes for an interesting read, as clearly we have King trying something different here: a coming of age novel which, for the main part, isn’t trying to be horror.
Let’s be fair, if anyone can handle a ‘growing up in sixties and seventies Americana’ story it’s Stephen King. We’ve seen him do it in numerous other tales, albeit all while more directly servicing the trademark horror.
Most of REVIVAL is a breeze of a read.
But I can’t help thinking that the whole thing would have been more interesting if King had just kept going with a straight Irving impression and seen where it led him. Let REVIVAL be the strange outlier in his books, the one with no horror elements at all.
Maybe that would have worked, maybe it wouldn’t – certainly the first three quarters suggest that it could work, it would just depend on how well King could have landed the ending.
For in the actual novel we have, King in the last quarter goes right back to what he knows best and gives us a Lovecraftian horror show.
Now John Irving and H.P. Lovecraft are far from natural bedfellows, but if anyone can pull it off this unlikely coupling, it’s good old, homespun, folksy Stephen King.
A lot of what Irving writes about in his books – the lost America of the baby-boomers – is what King writes about, although from a very different angle. As for H.P. Lovecraft, King didn’t become the pre-eminent horror writer of his generation by not knowing his Cthulhu mythos.
But even though King is obviously the best writer to do this, this match up doesn’t quite work. Having taken a less beaten path for most of this novel, King ends on something he could presumably knock out whilst queuing for groceries.
There’s nothing wrong with it, and King does go out of his way to make sure that everything in the first three quarters is paid off in the denoument, but even with a master storyteller – who can bestraddle both these literary models – the change of tone between the two is just too great. They just don’t click together. Probably because we’re going from something really interesting in the context of a Stephen King novel, to something horror fans have read at least one thousand, four hundred and eight times before.
I don’t think anyone is going to hold ‘Revival’ as their favourite King book.
My suspicion is it will likely divide people in to two camps. Those who appreciate King trying something different will love the first three quarters and feel indifference to the end; whilst those who love horror and nothing else, will find this an interminable read and maybe even give up on it before it gets to the real horror parts.
I’m very much in that first camp.
Even though I’m a horror fan from my vampire teeth to my talon-toenails, the first three-quarters are just much more interesting and dynamic.
So much so that I ended the book wishing that King would actually settle down to write a straight novel of childhood and life in America, not concern his mind with any worry of fan service, and surprise everyone – maybe even himself – with where he ends up.
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