Revival: Stephen King’s Perfectly Good Take on Cosmic Horror

By: Jacob Lewis

I just heard that Stephen King’s Revival: A Novel is going to be made into a movie. I love Stephen King, but I have not been excited for one of his movies since…actually I don’t think I ever have. All his great/great stupid movies, the Shining, Christine, Maximum Overdrive, Pet Cemetery, The Stand and Salem’s Lot miniseries, Carrie, Misery, Cujo, Shawshank Redemption, the Running Man, Creepshow, Cat’s Eye, Silver Bullet came out before I was aware of him, and while I love most of these movies, I was never excited for them to come out. What I was left with was the Green Mile, Dreamcatcher, the Night Flyer, Cell, the Shinning and Desperation miniseries, Hearts in Atlanta and Under the Dome, all off which I hate. The only recent media projects involving Stephen King works that I have any place in my heart for are The Mist (which I truly love), 1408 (which has really grown on me) and the Four Past Midnight and Kingdom Hospital Miniseries. I was not looking forward to any of those movies/series coming out, and for the most part I was largely disappointed by them.

Why am I excited about this one? First, its one of the first books I’ve read from him that I’ve liked for over a decade, since The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon was published. Second,I love cosmic horror. In case you don’t know, Cosmic Horror, sometimes referred to as Lovecraftian Horror, is a horror subgenre that emphasizes the horror of the unknowable more than the monsters, violence and gore of other horror genres. In a way, Cosmic Horror stories hit closer to home than these other subgenres. We know vampires, werewolves and ghosts aren’t going to come after us (with the exception of Ghost Dog, don’t mess with him, he will come after you and he won’t stop). We know if a masked lunatic in a hockey mask gets blasted in the face with a shot gun he’s not going to get back up. Do we know that there aren’t forces out there, beyond our own comprehension, who treat the workings of mankind like those of the mindless bacteria that exist on the shoulder of a single worker ant? I’m not going to say yes to that question, that’s just asking for the morning sky to turn to night and giant tentacles descending from the stars to rip your mind from this dimension. Not worth it.

The Cosmic Horror subgenre has its own spectrum of the unknowable force at the center of the story. H.P. Lovecraft, not the founder of the genre but the most well known author, gave names to his cosmic forces (Cthulhu, Nerelhotep, Yog Sogoth) had them abide by, at times, mystical and metaphysical rules that humans coud understand, and while made them mostly indifferent the workings of man, usually pit their goals and desires against man’s interest. The multitude of authors who have been inspired by Lovecraft, or more frequently outright steal from him, follow suit with this take on the subgenre. Other authors, including August Derelith (particularly in his famous, and best, short story “the Willows”) and more recent writers like Ramsey Campbell (“The Winter Sun”) make the forces that confront their human characters a little more unknowable. Basically, the spectrum is between the somewhat conceivable cosmic horror and the absolutely inconceivable.
Stephen King fully acknowledges both the faults in Cosmic Horror and the amount that it has influenced his work, which is a lot. However, his usual stories that have a cosmic horror element don’t use the typical indifferent to humanity aspect of the genre. His cosmic horror forces always exist in balance. The Stand had the presences of Randall Flagg and his opposite Mother Abagail. IT has Pennywise and his opposite “the Turtlle”. Insomnia had the bald doctors of “the Purpose” and Altropos and the Crimson King of “the Random”. Desolation and the Regulators had the being Tak and…something else, not going to look it up, those books were pretty awful.

However, Stephen King’s take on Revival mixes everything up. There is no more good balancing evil…there simply “is”. Revival tells the story of about 50 years in the life of a man growing up in a small town Maine town. He makes a connection with a young Minister. That connection is eventually severed when the minister suffers a horrific tragedy in the death of his wife and son and loses his belief in god. While the Minister and the man are connected, the story follows the path of the man throughout his life, as it intersects with the minister every decade or so. Is this random chance? According to the book, no. but neither is the purpose behind it. At one point the character says that he does not believe in god, but he doesn’t believe that life is random. “There are forces” he says.
In regards to the man’s story, his life isn’t a complete downer, but it is filled with tragedy. An older sister is killed by an abusive husband. Family members get sick and die before their time. Bad things happen to friends and family. These play out mostly in the background, with the main character catching us up on these events as the story progresses. King presents these events, not as random, but as occurring for an inconceivable purpose. In a way, Stephen King treats these events like someone saying, “all part of God’s plan” after tragedy was 100% accurate. Except, what if the god being referred to didn’t really love us and our existence didn’t really play that big of a part, or any at all, in its plan. Essentially, what Stephen King has done with this book is to say that to some extent life is Cosmic Horror. Whether or not we believe there is an intelligence or design behind the forces that effect our lives, they do exist. Whether or not these forces intend or are indifferent to the tragedies they create does not stop them from occurring. This take on the Cosmic Horror genre is the farthest I have ever seen it go in the “absolutely inconceivable” of the spectrum.

Now, just in case you think I am drawing a Cosmic Horror inspiration from the ether of this book, its not all “DON’T YOU SEE SON…LIFE IS COSMIC HORROR” —cut to black…role credits. There is an actuall Cosmic Horror presence in the book. When we run into the minister every few years we see that he has become become obsessed with electricity, or at least a special type of electricity, that when used properly can do things. Heal the sick, cure people of addictions and bad thoughts and he is trying to harness it for his own purposes. He does this as both a carnival attraction and later as a televangelist. The people he cures with his electricity have strange affect effects, including shared visions and dreams of ant headed humanoid creatures, desolate landscapes, giant mortared towers reaching out to infinity and an entity known only as “Mother”. However, until the last 10% of the book, this aspect is kept largely in the background with only its effects emanating across the main character’s life. It does, in the end, go full on balls out Lovecraft and culminates in one of the most depressing concepts that I think has ever sprung from this subgenre.

Is it a perfect book, no. Is it King’s best, No. It is however the best and most interesting Stephen King book I have read since his series of hits in the 1980s and early 1990s. I recommend it and I look forward to watching this movie.

 

 

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