REVIVAL, by Stephen King. Scribner. 403 pp. $30.
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. He’s outside playing with his toy soldiers 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.”
The stranger is Charles Jacobs, Harlow’s new Methodist minister, happily married, with a beautiful young wife and toddler. Jacobs quickly befriends Jamie (King deflects any intimations of child abuse). He brings the boy to his garage to show him a wonder: a realistic tabletop model of the countryside. With a wave of his hand, Jacobs illuminates the vista. Streetlights glow, and a figure of Jesus walks across the surface of the lake.
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.
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,” Jamie notes. “They just don’t know it. 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’s restrained prose explodes in an ending that combines contemporary realism with cosmic horror. The tormented relationship between Jamie Morton and Charles Jacobs takes on the funereal shading of an Arthur Miller tragedy — albeit one electrified by the power to bring the dead to life.