Revival by Stephen King

I decided to read King’s 2014 novel Revival after hearing it recommended, on two separate occasions, by Ramsey Campbell and Guillermo del Toro — and was delighted to find it was dedicated to a host of classic horror writers from Mary Shelley onwards, with a particular emphasis on Arthur Machen for The Great God Pan (from which it borrows one of its final scenes).

The story starts with its narrator, Jamie Morton, at the age of six, meeting the new pastor for his town, Charles Jacobs. Jacobs is surprisingly young for a pastor, and comes with a pretty wife (who all the local boys immediately fall in love with) and a very young son. His hobby is electricity, and when Jamie comes to him, desperate for help with his brother Con’s loss of voice after an accident, Jacobs cures the boy with a hastily-made electrical device that stimulates his paralysed nerves back into activity. But when Jacobs’s wife and son are killed in a car accident, the young pastor delivers a bitter, despairing sermon about how religion is nothing but “the theological equivalent of a quick-buck insurance scam”, and leaves town.

Jamie grows up, becomes a gigging, getting-by musician, develops a drug habit, and is on the verge of a nosedive into junkiedom when he meets Jacobs once more. No longer a pastor, Jacobs has nevertheless not lost his faith in electricity (“If you want truth, a power greater than yourselves, look to the lightning” as he said in his infamous final “Terrible Sermon”), and is now making a living on the carnie circuit (he mentions playing in Joyland) as a purveyor of “Portraits in Lightning”, a sort of animated melding of photograph and fantasy. But his main passion is what he calls “the secret electricity”, something which bears little relation to the thing that powers lightbulbs, being infinitely more powerful, and capable of curing virtually any illness. He cures Jamie of his drug addiction, briefly inducing a few odd side-effects, and the two part.

When Jacobs comes into Jamie’s life again, he’s in the religion game once more. Jacobs is now a revivalist preacher and faith-healer, using his electrical touch to make the lame walk and the blind see. But Jamie is unconvinced — not by the healing, which he knows to be genuine, but the faith. He knows Jacobs is only using the pose of religion to go deeper still in his pursuit of the “secret electricity” — something Jamie’s friend Bree tells him was called potestas magnum universum by the alchemists and mages of the past: “the force that powers the universe”.

The trouble is, this “force” isn’t a passive thing like the electricity we know. People cured by Jacobs’s electrical touch don’t relapse, but a significant number go on to commit irrational crimes, including the murder of loved ones, or taking their own lives. It’s as if being touched by the power of the “secret electricity” lets something other get hold of them, something malignant and perhaps insane, but certainly inhuman — something Jacobs is steadily moving closer to encountering in the raw.

The dedication to Machen, an epigraph from Lovecraft, and the appearance in the story of De Vermis Mysteriis (invented by Robert Bloch, Latinised by Lovecraft), imply that, here, King is having a go at cosmic horror. And it’s evident the narrative is heading towards some cosmic-level revelation as we move ever closer to discovering the nature of the “secret electricity” that powers our universe.

…and that’s enough tents/churches with lightning for now.

But is what we get cosmic horror? Reading this book got me thinking about whether King — and this is no criticism of him as a writer or storyteller — is capable of what I’d call cosmic horror. And this is true, I’d say, of many writers, even some of the best horror writers. Lovecraft can do cosmic horror through conjuring the sheer indifference to humanity of his vast and alien, god-like entities. Ramsey Campbell, I think, does it in the way his cosmic entities, though apparently interested in individual humans — enough to prey on them, anyway — ultimately only want to absorb them into their inhumanity. Alan Moore does it in Providence, in the way deeply traumatic transformations are doled out to his characters so casually, irrevocably shattering their humanity, and then doing the same to the world as we know it. But conjuring the cold bleakness, and the crushing inhumanity of the authentically cosmic is a rare — and perhaps not enviable — talent. Clive Barker, for instance, can do perverse hells and transformed beings who follow weird philosophies, but I’d say he’s too invested in the fleshiness of the human experience to conjure something so resolutely anti-human as the cosmic. And King, also, has too much belief in the meaning of human life to go truly, bleakly cosmic.

Trying not to get too spoilery, here, Revival moves towards a revelation of what, it seems, is behind our world, and the vision King paints is of a Boschian Hell: insane, obscene, monstrous and grotesque, but, I’d say, not cosmic. It’s not cosmic because it has a place for human beings. Even though it’s horrific, it misses what for me is the truly cosmic note, the cold, bleak indifference to humanity. Just as space doesn’t care you can’t breathe in its vacuum, the cosmic doesn’t care what happens to you when it casually crushes you — or, failing to crush you, leaves you insane and traumatised. The cosmic doesn’t hate, it just doesn’t care.

But the devils of Bosch’s Hell — and the equivalent in Revival’s ultimate revelation — do care. They care enough to be really, really horrible to human beings, so I’m not saying King paints a nice picture; but humans have a place in it, so it’s not cosmic. (Not that I’m saying cosmic horror is the best or only sort of horror, it’s just one I like, and like to see done well.)

Another aspect of the cosmic is it’s horrific at a philosophical level. Its revelations have deep implications, and it is these that really deliver the blow. And the thing is, King’s revelation doesn’t even make much sense. That may be the point — King may be saying, here, that the ultimate order behind the universe is insane — but the slow build-up, with its laying out of clues as to what the “secret electricity” seems to be, imply there is an order. In a Lovecraftian tale, the final revelation of cosmic horror would bring those clues together in a way that made perfect, but terrible, sense. I don’t think that happens here.

King a few times has his narrator and Jacobs debate the ethics of what Jacobs is doing with his quest for the truth behind the “secret electricity”, but as with The Institute, while both sides raise valid points, ultimately King backs away from laying out a full, convincing argument. His narrator instinctively adopts an emotional response before Jacob’s self-dehumanising but logically-stated obsession, and that’s okay, but I’d have liked the narrator’s response to be equally convincing.

Still, it was an enjoyable read. King is a great storyteller, and at no point was I disappointed in Revival. It’s just that, once I’d finished it, I couldn’t think of much that was particularly memorable about it, either.

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Something More Than Night by Kim Newman

The premise behind Kim Newman’s latest novel is that Raymond Chandler (RT to his friends) and William Pratt (better known as Boris Karloff, but Billy to his friends) not only knew one another — both came from English public schools, and lived near to one another for a while in Dulwich — but teamed up to fight often macabre, even supernatural, crime. And it’s narrated by Chandler, so it’s all done in that classic hardboiled style:

“In a mystery, Joh would be the hero. In life, as it now turned out, he was the corpse.”

The above-mentioned Joh Devlin is — or was — the third of their crime-fighting trio, an ex-cop-turned-private-eye whom Newman based loosely on Leslie T White, a real person the real Chandler used as the partial inspiration for his fictional private eye Philip Marlowe.

At the start of the novel, RT, Billy and Joh have already got a few cases behind them, including “the Mystery and Imagination Murders” and “the Ape Ricotte Abductions”, referred to, and occasionally hinted at, in the best “Giant Rat of Sumatra” style. Then things get serious when Joh Devlin turns up dead — shot in the head, seemingly by himself, while behind the wheel of a car that simultaneously drove off the end of a pier. Everyone immediately recognises it as straight from Chandler’s own fiction, it being an echo of a notoriously untied loose end (who killed the chauffeur?) from Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep. (Which, at the time of Newman’s novel, Chandler has only just had published. For most of the book, which largely takes place before Joh’s death, Chandler is only known to the world — if he’s known at all — as a writer for the pulps. Billy, meanwhile, though a star thanks to playing the monster in Frankenstein, is in something of a career dip, as horror movies have temporarily gone out of fashion.)

We then take a step back in time to the bizarre case which led to Joh being ousted from the police force, and his becoming a private eye. Junior Home, the son of an ultra-wealthy Hollywood magnate, has been found nearly dead after being fried alive by some sort of electrified metal cage-suit. Turning up at his mansion immediately afterwards, Joh finds a basement straight out of James Whale’s Frankenstein, complete with crackling generators and knife switches — with the added macabre detail of four bodies hanging from the wall, each encased in a similar cage-suit as Junior Home was fried in. Only, one of these bodies isn’t dead.

Joh gets thrown off the case — and the force — because this is the kind of investigation the corrupt LAPD wants in the hands of officers happy to take bribes. So Joh tells his pals RT and Billy, who decide to do some investigating of their own. Their first stop is the mysterious Lamia Munro Clinic where Junior Home is recovering. Or, it turns out, more than recovering. Because when they find him, he’s far from the frazzled little man he was when Joh last saw him. He is now, somehow, a giant with incredible strength, a super-fast healing ability and perhaps even telekinetic powers. His explanation:

“I decided I didn’t want to die. Not now, not ever; never.”

RT calls him “The world’s first self-made Übermensch”, and:

“As for moral constraints—he was third generation Hollywood money… qualm was bred out of him.”

There’s an excellent interview with Newman about this book at the Talking Scared podcast, where the interviewer points out how redolent the character of Junior Home is of a certain ex-president: a rich man-baby using the wealth he inherited to buy himself power he doesn’t deserve and will only misuse. Newman says it wasn’t a parallel he’d intended (he partly based the character on the Hollywood moguls of Chandler’s and Karloff’s day), and that he’s used such characters since he started writing — which is depressing as it means it’s a type that will no doubt recur, in real life, again and again.

But this isn’t a book about the takedown of a monstrous, over-powered tycoon, so much as it is an exploration of ideas about what drives creativity, and how it too often produces monsters.

“Monsters”, in this book, is an ambiguous term. Sometimes Newman uses it as a straightforward indicator of what is monstrous in humankind — the need for power, and its inevitable misuse — but in a more nuanced way, he sets the term “monster” against “villain”. The monsters of monster movies, though undeniably monstrous, are also often flawed creatures we can feel sympathy for, Frankenstein’s creature being a clear example. These monsters are monstrous because they’re different, and often have a sort of innocence about them. Monsters, RT writes, are often monsters because they’re afraid; villains, on the other hand, are villains because they don’t feel fear. Monsters are the misunderstood; villains are plain bad.

(We get a bizarre example of such villains in the second half of the book, as Junior Home sends out his peculiar bunch of henchmen to deal with the investigators. These henchmen double as the stars, stand-ins, and stuntmen of Home’s rip-off series of Marx Brothers-style comedies, the Sparx Brothers, and they like to do their killing in the style of slapstick jokes and silent comedy gags. Like dropping a safe on you.)

Raymond Chandler

Then there’s where creativity comes from. Newman has RT and Billy both driven by a sort of muse character, a woman or supernatural entity called Ariadne. She has turned up, as a real person, in their past adventures, and both know she’s fascinating and dangerous in equal measure. They glimpse her again during this case, and we never learn fully who or what she is, only that she’s a driving force behind some of the more daring, deep, and dangerous creative acts in history, both those of novelists like Chandler, and of mad scientists like the Dr Vaudois who runs the Lamia Munro Clinic. In this world, creativity is driven by something monstrous like Ariadne, and often produces monsters of the likes of the now-super-powered Junior Home, but only comes about because of the actions of human beings — human beings who are weak, and so can’t help being driven by the likes of Ariadne, and whose weaknesses can’t help being transformed into unbalanced, Frankenstein-like monstrosities in a seemingly endless cycle. As RT says:

They’d shot I don’t know how many Frankenstein pictures and still nobody learned the lesson of the story.

Don’t make Monsters. Just don’t.

It’s a densely-packed novel, both in terms of ideas and language — certainly, one of its joys is the way Newman pulls off the hardboiled Chandleresque tone. (“He contemplated the ingredients of a friend’s head. The puzzle had too many pieces missing ever to make a picture you’d want to look at.”) In his afterword, Newman says it’s a standalone novel, though some of the characters (including Ariadne) have apparently appeared in his other fiction — but I wonder if there won’t be more adventures featuring RT and Billy from Newman’s pen in the future.

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The Children of Light by H L Lawrence

I wrote about Hammer’s 1962 film The Damned back in 2014, and ended by saying that the novel it was based on, H L Lawrence’s The Children of Light (from 1960), was “rather difficult to get hold of”. I set up an AbeBooks want anyway, and seven and a half years later a copy popped up for only £10 — a little battered and page-stained, and with no dust-jacket, but at least it meant I could read it.

Having watched The Damned a fair few times since — it’s become one of my favourite films — what of course stood out on reading the novel were the differences between it and the film, so that’s what I’m going to concentrate on here (which means I’ll be going into plot spoilers for both book and film, so be warned). The basic premise of book and film, though, is the same: a man and woman, thrown together and on the run, stumble upon a secret government enclosure where a number of children are being raised in isolation, their only contact with adults being by TV screens. It turns out these children were born after their mothers were accidentally exposed to lethal doses of radiation, and are, as a result, highly resistant to its effects. Unfortunately, it also means they’re radioactive themselves, and anyone who spends time with them will sicken and die.

The novel kicks off with an immediate difference from the film. The protagonist of the The Damned, Simon Wells, is a holidaying American (imported for box office reasons, in much the same way Hammer did with Brian Donlevy in The Quatermass Xperiment); in The Children of Light, he’s an Englishman, Simon Largwell, and has just murdered his wife. Actually, we later learn (once the author has allowed us to sit with that shock for a moment), it’s not murder but manslaughter, as what really happened was she tried to stab him with a pair of scissors when he discovered her with another man, and in the struggle he accidentally stabbed her. Nevertheless, he runs from the scene, leaving her alive long enough to tell the police it was her husband who did this to her. From this moment, Largwell is on the run. And, as he admits, he’s not very good at it. He heads for the coast, “borrows” a friend’s (very identifiable) car, then has the misfortune to run into a gang of criminal youths, who steal the car and his money, and beat him up pretty thoroughly before deciding that, as he’s a wanted man and is going to hang, they might as well have some fun and see what it looks like when a man is hanged. These, then, are no stylishly strutting youths as in the film, but a bunch of utterly psychopathic criminals with no redeeming features. Whereas in the film their leader (Oliver Reed) is called King, in the book his name is Caesar (the gang, unlikely as it sounds, call themselves the Borgias, and have taken names from characters in Shakespeare). Caesar is nothing but an ultra-violent thug. Joan, the gang-member who goes on the run with Simon, is King’s sister in the film, and King’s slightly incestuous possessiveness of her is what makes him pursue her all the way into the children’s domain; in the book, Joan is Caesar’s half-sister, but the only reason he wants her back when she makes off with Simon is she knows enough to see him hang, and he’d rather she were dead than in the hands of the police.

1962 PB edition

Simon and Joan, on the run, happen upon a War Department enclosure and, despite the fact it says it’s a minefield, go in. Unlike the film, it’s not on the coast, though they do end up falling down a cliff — in this case, not to a beach but an artificial pit-like area in the middle of the countryside where the children are kept. Here, just as in the book, the adults are found and taken in by the children. (Simon has broken his arm in the fall. One of the children, already an expert doctor, gives him an advanced healing drug that will bind the bone in days rather than weeks.)

Unlike the children of the film, though, these kids aren’t cold to the touch. But it’s possible that idea came from a scene in the book where they first meet Simon and Joan. One child touches Joan’s arm and says:

“She’s warm!—she’s warm! She’s not cold. I said she’d be warm!”

And another child, Sylvia, says:

“That’s very rude. Besides, I told you they were warm, and just like us.”

So, it’s just that the children, bereft of adult contact (except, perhaps, with men in radiation suits), have simply got into believing adults might be cold. (More, perhaps, from the lack of emotional warmth they’ve experienced than anything else. This is one of the novel’s few insightful moments into what life must be like for these poor children.) Unlike the film, the kids don’t believe they’re in a spaceship bound for another planet. We don’t really know they’ve been told anything. But their education is at once highly practical (there are tractors and other agricultural equipment in their stores), highly scientific (these 10-year-olds can quote the radiation resistance of various micro-organisms from memory), and highly impractical (they’re taught ballet and interior décor) — that is, impractical considering these fourteen children are expected to be the lone survivors of the human race, and painting their future homes in coordinating colours is likely to be one of the last things they’ll need to know.

1962 Italian translation. The title means something like The Isolation Pit.

Which leads to another key difference with the film. In The Damned, these children are an insurance policy against the assumed inevitable end of the world through nuclear war. They alone will survive the high levels of post-war radiation. In The Children of Light, Lawrence has his characters dismiss the idea there’s ever going to be a nuclear war, but it turns out the children are needed for a different reason. The amount of radiation released into the atmosphere already, simply through testing bigger and bigger H-bombs, has resulted in the gradual sterilisation of humankind. This has affected people living in mountain areas first of all, but has started to trickle down to lower elevations. It’s only just beginning to be noticed by the press, and is going to result, sometime or other — or so the authorities believe — in a mass panic. And this is the reason they have to keep the children secret: if a foreign power learned of them, it would want a say in the their upbringing. As it is, the British want a monopoly on this hope for the future, and are intent on equipping these children to found an ideal (to their thinking) civilisation after the current one collapses. Johnny Parks, a reporter, comes across an example of what the children are being taught in an essay in one of their exercise books:

“We (he read) will be known as The Race. In our minds and hearts we shall carry all the knowledge and wisdom of the Past. We shall create in an empty world the people of the future, free from racial pride, free from the Babylon of speech confusion, free from the terrifying superstitions of the past so-called religions, free, for the first time in human history, to form a society of healthy, intelligent Beings; we shall have the knowledge of every science, from the beginning; knowledge will be all we shall have; but as we shall increase in numbers, we shall be able to use our knowledge and once again force Nature to provide us with all we need. Mankind, the Old People, are doomed to perish at the dawn of the Space Age. We shall begin, in a few generations, where they finished. But this time we shall begin as One People, The Race, with neither false pride nor false illusions to frustrate us.”

(To which Johnny thinks: “My God—what a hunk of drivel… What the hell is this—a school for scientific political nuts?” … And need I add that, unlike the film, in the book all the children are platinum blond? It’s The Midwich Cuckoos again, only through radioactive disaster rather than alien invasion.)

(…And another point about the children in the book. We’re given all their names, and the first thing you notice is that the boys have surnames, but the girls don’t. Presumably their governmental “parents” decided there was no point giving the girls surnames as they’d only lose them when they grew up and got married. The other thing is that most of the boys have thoroughly normal-for-the-day English-sounding names — James Robinson, Albert Jones, Henry King — but one is called George Orwell!)

1979 Italian PB

Johnny Parks is another difference between the novel and the film. Whereas in the film King follows Joan and Simon into the children’s domain out of a need to get his sister back (and retain control of her), in the book Caesar contacts a local reporter, Johnny, to get him to find out if Joan is alive or dead. Because, some time after Simon and Joan enter the War Department enclosure, an explosion is heard and body parts are found, which are claimed to be the couple, who are then officially declared dead. But Caesar knows different. The remains were supposedly identified thanks to a silver cigarette lighter belonging to Simon Largwell, but Caesar knows Simon didn’t have that lighter on him, because he personally stole all of Simon’s possessions of any value. So, their death is a cover-up. Obviously, Caesar can’t go to the police with this; and anyway he just wants to be sure Joan really is dead, so as not to have to worry about her telling the police about his crimes. Johnny is intrigued by the air of government secrets and gets into the enclosure. There, he meets Simon and Joan and the kids, and arranges an escape. It’s meant to be just the three adults escaping, but one of the kids, Sylvia, tags along, desperate to see something of the outside world. They start to head back to London, where Johnny is going to give the story to a national newspaper. In the film, the characters escape but don’t get far before being captured, and by that point we know they’re dying of radiation poisoning anyway. In the book, about the final quarter is taken up with the characters’ attempts to reach London and get the story out, while the secret government organisation in charge of the kids attempts to silence them.

What’s also interesting is what’s in the film but not the book. One of the things I like about The Damned is that, as well as its Wyndhamesque science fiction elements, it has a lot of character moments extraneous to the plot. The book, being much more of a breathless thriller, has far fewer of these, meaning the film feels more novelistic than the book. The clearest example of this is the character of the sculptress, Freya Neilson, who is completely absent from the book. In The Children of Light, Bernard (who’s in charge of Project Mannekin, as the operation to raise the children is called) is nothing but a government official, driven entirely by the need to protect the children and the single hope for the future they represent. (He refers to himself and his fellows on the project as “custodians of our human heritage”.) In the film, he’s humanised by being in a relationship with the artistic Freya (though ultimately proves to be equally singleminded as the novel’s version).

Overall, I think the film makes improvements on the novel, sometimes in big ways (bringing in the character of Freya), sometimes in small ways (the fact that the children in the film have all selected pictures from books which they pretend are of their parents), all of which add a depth of character that’s mostly absent from the book. Johnny Parks, the reporter, is the one character I miss from the book, but it’s easy to see why he was dropped (to allow more screen-time for Oliver Reed). If nothing else, the book — like all thrillers, I expect — is a good gauge of what your average person in early 1960s Britain might have been worried about: the dangers of nuclear weapons, the scariness of violent youth gangs, and perhaps a growing suspicion the government were up to something secret and had the power to keep it covered up.

The author’s full name was Henry Lionel Lawrence. He was born in 1908 in Lambeth (and baptised Catholic), and died in Colchester in 1990. His parents were music hall artists, meaning young Henry and his siblings spent a lot of time moving about. He was educated in the north of England, and had some short stories published in his early twenties. (I’ve only been able to find one, which was subsequently anthologised, “A Journey by Train”, about an encounter with a man who was dead for four days before being revived, and is now overcome by occasional murderous urges.) Lawrence worked as an advertising copywriter. He moved to Australia for a while, then Ceylon, but was back in Britain in time to join the RAF during World War II (when he served as a photographer with a Bomber Command Pathfinder unit). He was married, and had a daughter by the time of his first novel, at which point he was “a Senior Copywriter in a well-known London Agency” (according to the jacket blurb of Children of Light). His second novel, another thriller, The Spartan Medal, came out in 1961, and he seems to have published no more after that, though a 1979 biographical snippet lists him as being a member of the Crime Writers Association, PEN, and the Television and Screen Writers Guild.

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