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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On Fairy-Stories by J R R Tolkien

“On Fairy-Stories” is one of those rare windows — along with Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, Moorcock’s Wizardry and Wild Romance, and Le Guin’s key essays in The Language of the Night — into the thinking of a major fantasy writer about fantasy itself. They’re often as much (if not more) about what the writer thinks others are doing wrong than how to do it right, and usually end up having to be mined for a few insightful gems — which, though rare, are always well worth the mining. Tolkien’s idea of the Eucatastrophe, the “sudden, joyous ‘turn’” which he believes ends the truly effective fairy-story, doesn’t appear till about a page before the end of his essay, but it’s certainly worth everything that comes before.

He first presented this piece as “On Fairy Tales”, delivered on 8th March 1939 as an Andrew Lang Lecture at the University of St Andrews. (Other Andrew Lang Lecturers include John Buchan, the Scottish Symbolist painter John Duncan, and, much more recently, fantasy writer Jane Yolen.) It was then published as “On Fairy-Stories” in Essays Presented to Charles Williams in 1947, alongside C S Lewis’s “On Stories”, and others. It would only have reached a wider public in 1964, when it was collected in Tree and Leaf.

Tolkien starts by asking, “What are fairy-stories? What is their origin? What is the use of them?” Much of what he says might sound commonplace today, certainly among people who read — definitely among those who read about — fantasy, but even when I first read it in the late 80s, it was the first time I’d encountered such positive statements about fantasy as a literary form. Perhaps the only thing that seemed off at the time was that Tolkien was using the term “fairy-stories” for what by the 1980s was firmly called “fantasy”, but his definition certainly fit:

“…fairy-stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faërie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being.”

A lot of what Tolkien says in his essay serves to defend fantasy against what was then the generally held view, that it was basically for children, and wasn’t worth taking seriously once you’d grown out of it. Fantasy was seen, at the time, purely as an exercise in “the willing suspension of disbelief” (Coleridge’s phrase), and thus an indulgence, a temporary dip out of the real world. Tolkien instead puts forward the idea of fantasy being an exercise in Sub-creation, in which the writer “makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world.” This might at first sound basically the same as “the willing suspension of disbelief”, aside from its being presented from the creator’s, rather than the reader’s, point of view, but Tolkien’s language is already hinting at the conclusion of his essay. “Sub-creation”, and “Secondary Worlds” are secondary to “Primary Creation” and “the Primary World”, which were, to the Catholic Tolkien, the works of God. Human beings couldn’t create as God did, but also couldn’t help imitating their creator by some act of creation. (Which recalls George MacDonald’s idea that “The imagination of man is made in the image of the imagination of God”, and thus is a route to knowing God.) Fairy-stories, then, aren’t an indulgence, but a fulfilment of all that makes you human.

Tolkien goes on to present four terms for what he believes are the function of fairy-stories: Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. Of these, Fantasy is the vaguest, perhaps because this is the sense in which we now use the word (of literature, films, and so on, anyway). For Tolkien, “Fantasy” is:

“a word which shall embrace both the Sub-creative Art in itself, and a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression, derived from image… the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality.”

Though perhaps he puts this best by saying:

“To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires…”

“Recovery” is a more useful idea, though one that can, really, be applied to all creative art. By “Recovery”, Tolkien means a “regaining of a clear view”:

“We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity — from possessiveness.”

Reading a poem about a cat, you might see all cats in a wholly new light; but having seen a dragon (even in your imagination), you’ll find all of reality renewed. One thing that’s interesting in the above quote is how Tolkien links the “drab blur of triteness” by which we can come to see the world when tired or jaded or cynical, with “possessiveness” — which recalls Gollum’s possessiveness of his Precious, and the One Ring’s even greater possessiveness of him.

As to “Escape”, it seems fantasy is less and less dismissed as pure escapism these days, but certainly it felt like the biggest criticism applied to it when I was growing up. Tolkien, though, ties Escape with Recovery in a neat comparison. Fantasy is not “the Flight of the Deserter” but “the Escape of the Prisoner” — the prison, in this case, being that “drab blur of triteness”. (Though in some cases it’s an actual prison, as with Malory or Bunyan.)

Tolkien’s final factor, “Consolation”, is perhaps the one that’s still easiest to dismiss, though it’s the one that, being tied to his idea of Eucatastrophe, is the key idea (for me) of this essay. Consolation is “the Consolation of the Happy Ending”, and is embodied in Eucatastrophe, “a sudden and miraculous grace” that provides “a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire”. It’s this point, probably, that most critics would say is the essentially escapist (as in “Flight of the Deserter” escapism) aspect of fantasy, because “real life” doesn’t have happy endings. But Tolkien’s point could be taken as saying that it’s to return to the belief in the possibility of happy endings, or at least happy turns, that leads to the strongest sense of Recovery. But Tolkien’s actual point was that there is a happy ending to life, only it’s not in life, but after it. For him, the “Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of the story of Man’s history”, and Heaven is the happy ending. But I don’t think you have to believe as he believed to accept the psychological benefits of experiencing a happy ending, however artfully (sub)created, every now and then.

Tolkien, Machen, Lovecraft

It’s interesting to compare Tolkien’s ideas to those of other creators in a fantastic vein. Just as “joy” is, for Tolkien, the true function of a fairy-story, Arthur Machen, in Hieroglyphics (1902), puts forward “ecstasy” as the only mark of “fine literature”. And even though Machen allows other words to stand in for “ecstasy”, it’s obvious he means something darker, perhaps wilder, and certainly more troubling than Tolkien’s “joy”:

“Substitute, if you like, rapture, beauty, adoration, wonder, awe, mystery, sense of the unknown, desire for the unknown. All and each will convey what I mean; for some particular case one term may be more appropriate than another, but in every case there will be that withdrawal from the common life and the common consciousness which justifies my choice of ‘ecstasy’ as the best symbol of my meaning.”

Machen’s is a mystic’s joy.

There’s even more of a contrast with Lovecraft, particularly over Tolkien’s idea that the “joy” he finds in fairy-stories is “a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality of truth”. For Tolkien, this is a glimpse of the underlying reality of Christian truth, but for Lovecraft, whose tales also sought to attain “a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality of truth”, that truth was the antithesis of anything remotely Christian. Nevertheless, for each author, it was the truth — the truth of how they felt about the world, anyway.

Both Tolkien and Lovecraft saw their chosen literary form — fairy-stories and weird fiction — as existing to convey a single feeling, the essence of the world they felt they lived in. And this seems true of many writers, and artists generally, that they have a single essential thing — that might be named by a single word, but which, to them, conveys a whole universe of meaning — a feeling more often than a thought, which sums up reality, or their take on it.

And these are the writers, I think, who keep being read long after their deaths. They come to represent, through their works and their fictional worlds, access to their particular feeling, the thing they were most focused on conveying. I don’t know if this is as true of Tolkien — who you can enjoy as adventure and whose actual happy ending is tempered by a sense of sadness — but it certainly rings true for Lovecraft and Machen.

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Incarnate by Ramsey Campbell

Warner Books edition (1992), art by Oliver Hunter

First published in 1983, and in a revised edition in 1990, Incarnate was Campbell’s fifth novel (sixth counting his pseudonymous The Claw, ninth counting the three Universal Horror movie adaptations as Carl Dreadstone). It’s also significantly his longest at this point.

It starts with several people who’ve claimed to have precognitive dreams participating in an experiment at the Applied Foundation for Psychological Research in Oxford. Dr Guilda Kent hopes that bringing these people together might enhance their abilities. But something goes wrong, and when the narrative leaps forward eleven years, we find the experiment’s subjects doing their best not to remember what happened — or to acknowledge their once-so-central dreams at all. Something from those dreams is nevertheless starting to make itself felt in each of their lives.

The main character is Molly Wolfe, a university student at the time of the experiment, now working as a production assistant at Metropolitan Television, at first with the lecherous Ben Eccles, but as soon as she can moving to work with someone she admires, an American documentarist, Martin Wallace. Wallace receives a film clip apparently showing the police murder of a black Londoner, but when he and Molly start to pursue the matter, Molly finds herself treading a difficult line between what is real and what isn’t.

Joyce, a middle-aged nurse at the time of the experiment, now runs a day-centre for old folk, though one that’s on the brink of closure thanks to the local authority’s redevelopment plans. Her story is told through the eyes of her stamp-dealer husband Geoffrey, who finds himself, when the day-centre is demolished, having to care for one of his wife’s elderly charges while Joyce looks for a new building. The old woman — almost too undefined in feature to seem properly human — takes up residence in the couple’s guest room, where her somnolent breathing begins to pervade the whole house.

Macmillan hardback (1983), art by Jon Weiman

The youngest participant in the experiment was trainee-librarian Helen, who now has a ten-year-old daughter, and has moved to London (from Liverpool) to start a new life after leaving her husband. She insists she doesn’t dream, and demands her daughter Susan shouldn’t either. Susan befriends a local girl, Eve, who seems to have a troubled home life, perhaps doesn’t go to school, and who’s a little too keen to insinuate herself into Susan and Helen’s tiny flat.

Screen projectionist Danny Swain, the only male experimentee, is still living at home, caught between a smothering mother and a disapproving father. None too bright, and bursting at the seams with a host of repressions, he bumps into Dr Kent after straying into Soho following a disastrous attempt at a job interview. Dr Kent, it appears, has moved on to a new project, helping men with their sexual repressions, and Danny is her perfect subject. He, though, starts to see this as an opportunity to revenge himself on the women who, he believes, ruined his life.

And Freda Beeching, a shop assistant in Blackpool, is drawn to London when her friend Doreen’s husband dies. Doreen, a spiritualist, hopes Freda’s dreaming abilities might lead to her receiving comforting messages from the other side. Freda is reluctant, but one night, getting lost on the way home, meets the enigmatic Sage, who convinces her to help her friend.

For me — no doubt in part from it being one of the first of his I read — this is the archetypal Campbell novel, for two key reasons. First, there’s Campbell’s trademark approach of having very real-seeming people caught between their day-to-day practical and psychological struggles, and an encroaching supernatural which overlaps and intertwines with those mundane problems, so that for a time it’s hard to be sure where one leaves off and the other takes over. (Campbell is particularly good at writing about anxiety, which might sound obvious in a horror context, but few writers I’ve read manage to capture that almost neurological distrust of reality in their characters’ viewpoints, which exists before any supernatural events occur.)

Panther PB (1985), art by Steve Crisp

Second, there’s what I might call Campbell’s “soft” horror — by which I certainly don’t mean his horror isn’t hard-hitting, but that, when the supernatural begins to manifest (or incarnate, I should say) it’s both fleshy and formless, tactile but slightly less than substantial, all-too-obviously only trying (and not very hard) to seem like reality: for instance, a face “that looked as if it were in the process of being shaped from putty”, “too pink” and “naked and fat and doughy white”, or footsteps that “sound less like footsteps than lumps of fat plopping on the carpet”. This sort of horror isn’t in every Campbell novel, but it’s one of his characteristic manifestations of the supernatural, and I think this is the first novel of his where it appears. (I’d like to think that, if Incarnate were ever filmed, it would be by a collaboration between Mike Leigh and David Cronenberg.)

As well as its semi-physical nature, the intent of the supernatural is another archetypical Campbell element. As Dr Kent says of the dreaming from which this supernatural threat emerges, “It isn’t a state of mind, it’s a state of being.” The horror, here, is about the human encounter with something utterly inhuman, though one we think we ought to be familiar with. It’s worth comparing it to Lovecraft’s form of cosmic horror (particularly as Campbell was so influenced by Lovecraft). In Lovecraft, the vast entities which are the focus of that horror — Cthulhu, Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth — aren’t antagonistic to humanity, we just don’t register on their scale. We’re like insects to them, and they’ll crush us, our civilisations, and our entire history, without a blink of their three-lobed, multifaceted eyes (if eyes they have). With Campbell, it’s different. His supernatural forces are often interested in humans, but only as a means to enter our world. After that, they won’t destroy us, they’ll absorb us. And as part of that absorption, all that makes us human will be lost.

(Now I think about it, Lovecraft does have the absorption-fear, too, and plenty of it, as in possession-narratives like “The Thing on the Doorstep” and “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”; absorption by one’s ancestral insanity in “The Rats in the Walls”; absorption into an inhuman biological destiny in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”; and absorption by the supernatural, as hinted at in a line like “I am it and it is I” in “The Haunter of the Dark”.)

Granada HB (1984)

The trouble Campbell’s characters face is that, on the surface, there’s an inviting element to that absorption: we lonely, struggling human beings can become part of something larger than us — and so lose our loneliness and our struggles — the catch is, we lose our humanity too. It’s like being rolled into one vast ball of plasticine.

But this sort of struggle — wanting to be part of something, and the threat of being absorbed by it — is already present in Campbell’s fiction in the non-supernatural realm. It’s part of human relationships. Take Helen’s ten-year-old daughter Susan, for instance. She loves to read, and is obviously imaginative, but she knows she’s not supposed to dream, because her mother is very insistent on that fact. Her burgeoning individuality (her imagination) is already being stifled, as her mother is effectively instilling her own neuroses into her daughter (“There are pills for children who can’t control their imagination, you know.”). And you only have to look at Danny Swain to see where Susan might end up. He’s caught between a mother who just wants things to stay as they always were (and uses a constant, unconscious emotional blackmail to ensure they do), and a father who simply crushes any remaining ambition he might have with a barrage of scathing judgements. His mother wants him to remain a boy; his father tells him he’s never going to be any sort of man. Danny’s only way to belong to his family is to disown a core part of himself, and give up on his individuation as an adult. The supernatural, when it enters into it, only makes things worse for both Susan and Danny.

(And it doesn’t have to be family relationships. The scene where Freda’s friend Dorothy keeps her trapped in a nightmare situation through kindness and sympathy, coddling her back into helplessness for her own good, is subtle but very hard hitting.)

Tor PB (1984), art by Jill Bauman

Oddly, in the face of all this talk of absorption into something larger than oneself, the threat in Incarnate comes about through one of the most personal and intimate elements of our human makeup: our dreams. (Another Lovecraftian obsession, too.) We use the word “dreams” to mean what gets to the essence of our individuality: our hopes, wishes, and deepest longings. But we know the actual things, those nightly, often random-seeming, unforgiving, surrealistic romps through the unconscious, are a far different thing. We might want to “live our dreams” — fulfil our wishes — but I doubt anyone would want to live in their actual dreams. They’re too weird. Campbell’s Dr Kent calls it “the dream thing”, a separate, alien order of being, trying to take over our waking reality, with us as the means to do so.

And the “dream thing” has gained its power over us through our refusal to face up to the true nature of dreams. As Dr Kent says:

“We’ve told people that not everyone dreams, we’ve given them the chance to believe that of themselves. We’ve let them ignore their night selves, even though we know that whatever is repressed grows stronger.”

The enigmatic Sage puts it more poetically:

“One may live in a single room of one’s house, but something else will live in the other rooms. Something else will grow there.”

How to fight such an insidious, if soft, invasion? Dr Kent, again:

“What do you think holds reality together if not our shared perception of it.”

Just as our refuge from controlling, repressive, or abusive relationships is our inner worlds, so our refuge from the darker excesses of those inner worlds — the destabilising anxieties, obsessions, fears, and nightmares — is other people. It’s all about balance.

Campbell’s is not a black-and-white world where good and evil are clearly separated. His is a dark, often anxious world, with very porous borders between the real and the unreal, anxiety and perception, the psychological and the supernatural, but it isn’t a wholly bleak one. People can be saved from his horrors — by people. Even if people are also, often, the source of those horrors.

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