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.


Pinhead & The Scarlet Gospels

scarlet-gospels-uk-coverClive Barker’s new novel may open with the resurrection of a magician, but its primary purpose is not to revive the magical past, it’s to lay a ghost. Or, rather, exorcise a demon. For here, in a literary kill-off move that’s surely been played out too many times for anyone to believe it’ll work, Barker does a Reichenbach Falls on his most famous creation: the Hell Priest.


That’s Pinhead, to you and me — or the Lead Cenobite, if you’re a purist, as that was how he was credited in the first Hellraiser film (while in The Hellbound Heart, he wasn’t even the lead) — but apparently the entity in question prefers to be addressed as the Hell Priest. At least, until he slaughters the rest of his order and embarks on a new career as would-be King of Hell. (The Devil, in this version of Hell, having been absent for some time.)

It’s here, I think, Barker’s trouble begins. If you’re going to kill someone off, you’ve got to at least get their name right. I don’t even think he gets the location right. The Hell Priest is to be killed off in Hell, right? But Pinhead — the creature who, to me, made his one and only definitive appearance in Hellraiser, and whose name ought to be Pinhead, because it shows the proper degree of fear-hiding-behind-irreverence that such truly terrible monsters are often treated with — doesn’t belong in Hell. The ‘Hell’ in Hellraiser is figurative, not literal. ‘Hell’ is a state you go through — toils and torments raised to religious levels — not a place. (Certainly not as quotidian a place as Barker presents in The Scarlet Gospels: a Hell with uniformed police, bicycles, money, and other much-too-mundane details, far more reminiscent of the Hell of Barker’s mostly disappointing previous novel, Mister B Gone. It does have some glorious architecture, though.)

To me, Pinhead is a far different creature to this troublesome Hell Priest. His origins — along with those of Barker’s first (and best) feature film — lie in an experimental short film, The Forbidden, first glimpsed on The South Bank Show in 1994. Here, Barker presents us with a variant on the Faust myth, in which a lone magician in search of ‘the further reaches of experience’ summons a ghostly lover, then passes onto more esoteric pleasures, culminating in his being skinned alive. The Forbidden is scattered with abstract, purely cinematic sequences (which can be seen sneaking their way into Hellraiser, too — as in the shot of an unfurling, blood-red flower that precedes Kirsty’s waking up in hospital), some of which are of Barker’s ‘nail-board’: a square wooden base, criss-crossed with regular score marks, six-inch nails hammered into each juncture. Moving a light around it, Barker explores this for its abstract visual qualities (as he does the lights-through-slats that precede the appearance of the Cenobites in Hellraiser), but it’s unmistakably the origin of Pinhead:

‘Every inch of its head had been tattooed with an intricate grid, and at every intersection of horizontal and vertical axes a jewelled pin driven through the bone.’ — The Hellbound Heart

Contrasted with the Faust character’s visions and torments, the image of the nail-board contains, I think, a sort of boiled-down abstraction of crucifixion: nails (significantly, these aren’t points-upwards, as you’d expect from an image of torture), crosses and wood, simplified and multiplied, as though transcendence were being sold by the yard, and made available to anyone with a DIY temperament.

Moving from the nail-board to Pinhead, you see a man (or creature) who is in his own, permanent, self-crucified state, the very image of pain and transcendence unified. Summoned by Uncle Frank — who’s more interested in a far different meaning of the phrase ‘getting nailed’ — the Cenobites are ‘Angels to some. Demons to others.’ So they are, in Hellraiser, not evil, and do not belong to Hell. Instead, they’re a gateway to extreme experience that transcends the idea of pain being opposite to pleasure, or of evil being opposed to good. Heaven is their Hell, and vice versa; one is reached through the other. Their whole point is that they do not belong in a duality. Which means that, by putting its ‘Hell Priest’ in a very traditional Hell, The Scarlet Gospels, to me, strikes a false note. The Hell Priest that Barker is killing off isn’t the Cenobite known to the rest of us as Pinhead; he’s an imposter.

(Mind you, the Hellraiser movies have been doing just as convincing a job of removing Pinhead from his original ‘beyond good and evil’ meaning and turning him into a standard movie monster since the second film. And this, no doubt, is the version of the creature Barker wants to kill off.)

Scarlet Gospels (US cover)I’ve said before that Barker’s work is all about unifying the divides between, for instance, imagination and mundanity, between day-to-day experience and the transcendent extremes. For much of it, The Scarlet Gospels is too concerned, I think, with a storyline that doesn’t allow any of this deeper theme to come through. It reads like a checklist of what a Clive Barker novel ought to be: a very gruesome beginning, and then a lot of excessive, perverse, blood-soaked demonic goings on after that, but very little of the higher themes like transcendence.

Which isn’t to say there’s no transcendence. As well as being about the Hell Priest, The Scarlet Gospels is about two other characters with a literary pedigree: Harry D’Amour, Barker’s longstanding supernatural PI, and Lucifer. Both of these are transformed by the events of The Scarlet Gospels, in far different (and more convincing) ways than the demise of Pinhead (which can’t help being unconvincing — he’s been offed too many times in the movies).

The Scarlet Gospels isn’t the best of Barker, but that’s not to say it’s not worth reading. If at times it feels a little dated in its constant excess, it also feels like a reminder of the days when major publishers put out stuff that actually seemed dangerous and transgressive but which also had artistic intent. Barker is an artist, and I’d certainly like to read more of him — but moved on, not dwelling on the same old stuff in the same old way. And I wonder if there aren’t signs Barker might want this too:

Now Harry realized with terrifying clarity that he no longer wished to be the witness of such sights. This was not the world in which he belonged.


“I have heard this story. I have seen you. I have seen all of you! In countless incarnations!” the Devil shouted to the crowd who attentively watched his every move. When he spoke again, it was slow and deliberate. “I do not want this anymore.”


Weaveworld by Clive Barker

Tim White cover for Clive Barker’s Weaveworld

Weaveworld, published in 1987, was Clive Barker’s breakthrough novel. It was also his breakout novel, as it saw him transform himself from being the hottest new horror writer in town (with The Books of Blood and The Damnation Game), to being a hot new fantasy writer, or perhaps just a hot new writer full-stop. And of course, with the movie Hellraiser out the same year, Barker seemed to be announcing himself as an impressive creative force whatever the medium. He painted and illustrated, he wrote and produced plays; what was more, he was eloquent and outspoken in his views on the importance of imagination and the fantastic in art. I’d read some of his Books of Blood stories, but Weaveworld was much more my thing. After it, I read pretty much every novel he wrote as they came out (in paperback, anyway), faltering briefly at The Thief of Always, perhaps out of post-Imajica exhaustion (825 pages!). That ended with 2001’s Coldheart Canyon. I bought Coldheart Canyon, and it sat on my to-read shelf for about a year before I admitted to myself I wasn’t going to read it. I’ve never even looked at his Abarat books (perhaps feeling a bit cheated that he never got round to finishing his Books of the Art series). I read (and reviewed) Mister B Gone when it came out, as a toe-dip back in Barker’s world, but aside from the angels at the end, I mostly wished I hadn’t. I’m not sure, really, what happened. Perhaps it was simply Barker exhaustion (he does write long novels, and perhaps even marvels and wonders can wear you out). Whatever it was, I recently re-read Weaveworld, to see if I could sample a little of what it was that made him so exciting back then. Would it still be there?

It was. It is.

Weaveworld is about a magical land hidden in a carpet. But really, this magical land is made up of fragments of our world — nooks of wonder and beauty we came to ignore, or never discovered, and which the Seerkind (the people of the Weaveworld — or the Fugue as they call it when not in its woven state) took as their own. The Seerkind are mostly human in appearance, but have “raptures” — crafts such as weaving, singing & dancing, that work like magic spells. To the Seerkind, we ordinary humans are Cuckoos, and our non-magical world is the Kingdom of the Cuckoo. And although we Cuckoos have, in the past, pursued and persecuted the Seerkind, it was a far worse enemy that forced them into hiding, an awful power known as the Scourge, which of course threatens them again as soon as they wake. The novel follows two ordinary-ish people from our world, Cal Mooney and Suzanna Parish, who come into contact with the Weaveworld, only to find themselves inextricable parts of the struggle of the Seerkind to wake, find a safe place to unpack the wonders of the Fugue, and survive the onslaughts of their many enemies.

Two things make Barker an outstanding writer of the fantastic. The first is the wildness and freedom of his imagination. Before him, the defining style of supernatural horror was that of Stephen King, who made his horrors all the more believable by placing them in settings designed to feel as familiar as possible, and written in a voice that assured you the writer was an average Joe like you, speaking down-to-earth, yeah, you-know-the-kind-of-thing speak. Barker blew that approach away by writing horror and fantasy like an Old Testament prophet. Where, with King, one subtly-built up supernatural element was enough to fuel a blockbuster novel, Barker has monsters and magical beings by the dozen before we’re a quarter of the way through. If King is the fireside storyteller, making you gather round while he whispers his tales towards their slow climax, Barker takes the Barnum and Bailey approach, full of fireworks, cymbal crashes, dancing girls and lion tamers. (And there’s a lot of the performer in his works — his Seerkind are, mostly, performers, Bohemians; perhaps naturally, considering Barker’s first career as a playwright & actor.)

That comparison to the Bible links to the other thing that made Barker such a notable new voice — the conviction with which he wrote, his belief in the transforming power of the imagination. In Weaveworld, when humans encounter the magic of the Fugue, it often has a near-religious effect on them. It changes their world, it opens them up to new possibilities, new beliefs. (Of Suzanna: “All she knew was that she was suddenly alive to a space inside herself where the haste and habit of her adult life had no dominion.”) Because, ultimately, Weaveworld isn’t about a magical world and a real one, it’s about one world which is both magical and real, it’s about the healing, the weaving together, of what can be imagined and what is accepted as real, between the mundane and the magical. The Seerkind aren’t ethereal beings, they’re “flesh and blood like you”; the Fugue is a place in which you can meet with wondrous experiences, but that is true of the real world, too, because the true place those wondrous experiences occur is in the mind:

“Magic might be bestowed upon the physical, but it didn’t reside there. It resided in the word, which was mind spoken, and in motion, which was mind made manifest;… all mind.”

“Imagination,” Barker writes, “was true power: it worked transformations wealth and influence never could.”

Two of the most interesting characters in Weaveworld are the villains, Shadwell the Salesman (whose name unfortunately reminded me of Siadwell, the comic Welsh poet from Naked Video in the 80s) and Immacolata the Incantatrix, who has a cold hatred for her fellow Seerkind. These, like so many Barker villains, aren’t merely evil; they are led to evil ends by understandable (if unordinary) motivations. Something to note about Barker’s monsters — they’re not just killers and beasts, they’re philosophers. They like to explain themselves. They have an aesthetic. (Just not the sort you’d expect to be expounded by the local art society.) In a sense, like the Seerkind, they’re performers, too, artists of a brutal kind, Bohemians gone bad. One of the things Barker seems to be saying is that all experience, potentially, can be transcendent experience, and that includes the painful experiences, the dark experiences, and the dark drives and motivations, too. At the end, the Scourge is not defeated, it is healed. The “Old Science” of the Seerkind (which perhaps could better be called Art) is used to “seduce it into confessing its profoundest desire: simply to see its own true face, and seeing it know how it had been before loneliness had corrupted it.”

Which reminds me of Barker’s own words about himself in the 1994 South Bank Show episode about him:

“My life has absolutely been transformed by the imaginative possibilities offered to me by artists. Isn’t that one of the reasons we go to books and paintings and theatre and movies? We go because we want our lives enriched. And that enrichment is a kind of change. We want our pain illuminated, and if it’s illuminated, maybe it isn’t quite so terrible… I think my kind of fiction, and I get this in conversations with people and in letters, is to some extent about saying these journeys are journeys which we’re all taking. And it’s okay to take them. And it doesn’t mean you’re crazy. It doesn’t mean you’re marginalised. Just because you’re bringing your dreamscape into your daily life, into your conscious life, doesn’t make you fit for the madhouse. It makes you very healthy.”

Barker’s art is working the Seerkind’s sort of magic. He’s not merely peddling wonders to make a sale, to get a wow and a round of applause. He very much has a belief in what he’s doing, in its power to affect people, and for their ultimate good. Even if it takes them into some pretty dark places on the way.