Stephen King’s Doubt
There’s a cheap rhetorical move you see a lot in religious debate, where the God-pusher retorts, “But don’t you ever doubt your doubt?” The hero of Revival, Stephen King’s 2014 novel of loss and obsession, could reply in tones of trembling horror: “All the time. God help me, I doubt my doubt all the time.”
King has always loved to wring horror from Americana: the bad hot dog, the classic car, the prom. In Revival he takes on the Methodist Youth Fellowship, where, back in the mid-’60s, little Jamie Morton first meets the Rev. Charles Jacobs. Jacobs is a young pastor, already a little mistrustful and untrustworthy—a little bit given to gimcrack, turning miracles into magic tricks. But he forges a deep and lasting bond with Jamie, his secret favorite. That bond will cast a shadow over the rest of Jamie’s life, through heroin addiction and miracle cures, carnival shows and guitar-heroics, and bring them both, at last, to the threshold between this world and the next.
Revival has hints of Pet Sematary. (How many King novels could be prevented if his widowers were willing to remarry?) A grieving man will pay any price to see his dead loved ones again—and the price is the same as always. The prose still has those trademark King one-liners ending each section on a plangent or worldly-wise note, and everyone speaks in his habitual semi-noir cadence. I love the enigmatic chapter headings, suspenseful and punchy. I do not love the frequency with which King here encourages us to view the suffering human body with revulsion. Obesity, stroke, the ravages of cancer: Some people can kiss people who suffer from these conditions, but Revival‘s characters recoil, and this seems to me to be a place where the conventions of horror writing (and the desire to portray honestly the real misery of grief and loss) serve the culture of death.
The most obvious outside influences are Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft, both of whom get name-checked. They make a strange couple, and that weird collision is part of what makes the book work—it does work, taking its place among respectable midlevel nightmare factories, not stunning like Pet Sematary but not disappointing. I have much more sympathy for the Bradbury school of chills: the high whine of the calliope, the lightning-rod salesman, the small-towners who sell their souls. (The price is the same as always.) Once you start making with the squamous indescribables and the crawling colors I start feeling like I’m just reading words on a page. But it turns out that the way to make me take Lovecraftianism seriously is to ease me in slowly, starting in a very different horror subgenre and requiring minimal contact with the insane gods behind the stars and all that. What is really scary in Revival is not the depiction of the Lovecraftian horrors but their effects on the humans who must confront their own helplessness.
It helps that the humans in question are so nuanced and memorable. King often creates terrible circumstances and then drops relatively-blank characters into them: Who is Jack Torrance when he’s not being a deranged alcoholic? Who is Carrie White, other than her torments? They are operatic, defined by their role and actions; the self they had before their barreling descent into hell isn’t that important. Charles Jacobs, by contrast, is most memorable in the early-to-middle stages of his catastrophe. His relationship with Jamie tilts between tenderness and opportunism, and for me the most touching sequence in the book involves Jacobs’s rescue of the adult Jamie from addiction. There’s already a lot of opportunism by then, but the tenderness is still at the forefront: Rest here, I’ll bring you something to eat. You’ll feel better soon. This will pass.
Revival is a book about theodicy and its inadequacy; and also a book about contempt. Rev. Jacobs leaves his first pastoral assignment after a “Terrible Sermon” which is a sort of store-brand version of the “Rebellion” chapter from The Brothers Karamazov; Jamie’s parents continue to believe, off on the margins of the book, but you won’t find anything here as powerful on the other side of the balance as Alyosha’s silent kiss. Revival is an atheist novel, but also a critique of that well-known variety of atheism that expresses itself as contempt for the faithful. When Charles Jacobs shows up with the amazingly American moniker “Pastor C. Danny Jacobs” he has become corroded by his pain. He sputters with contempt for his new flock; he views them the way Harry Lime viewed the people from atop a Viennese Ferris wheel, little mindless moving dots. (He’s getting that contempt from a higher power, as we’ll learn.) Jamie himself struggles with contempt. He’s a son of the ironic age more than the atomic one. He’s defensive at tent revivals and in any gathering of those he perceives as naive. He, too, is tempted by the vision from the top of the Ferris wheel, where all the people are rubes.
There are small, layered moments here, moments of renunciation, as when Jamie in late middle-age watches a rock band and nostalgically remembers the days when he, too, could play a mean rhythm guitar. “How much do you miss it, Jamie?”, a friend asks.
“‘Not as much as I respect it,’ I said, ‘which is why I’m sitting here.'”
The prose makes no attempt to remind you that this is surrender—the willingness to receive what you love as a gift offered only for a time, and to let it go when the time comes rather than clutching it or trying to drag it back. One of the many unbelievable elements of the Christian faith is its doctrine that God is both ultimate love and ultimate power. The ruler of the universe is made of self-gift, acceptance, surrender. How do so many of us shape our lives around this proposition, in the teeth of all the evidence that surrounds us?
Stephen King is breathtakingly good at depicting all the little gods that let us down. Way back in Cujo he gave us the Sharp Cereal Professor: the miniature of every embezzling priest and child-molesting teacher, every employer who winks at safety regulations and every parent who lies about what happened to our piggy bank, all the authority figures we gradually learn we cannot trust.
King doesn’t do faith nearly as often. Here, too, he has written a horror tale for Jennifer M. Silva’s America of shattered civic trust.
What saves Jamie in the end—to the extent that he is saved, in a novel that ends with two beautifully-timed gut punches—is his doubt, his well-honed ability to mistrust. What he clings to is the possibility that, once again, a powerful figure lied.
Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.