I can see it plainly now. Stephen King has been playing me. The old Stephen King, the real one. I'd forgotten about him. That was his plan all along.

I was never a big King reader, back in the day: the day being the 80s, when his star was first really rising. It was a red star, garish, with a long comet's tail made up of lurid book covers. When it shone on you, everything seemed to be covered with blood.

But he seemed to mellow. His last half dozen novels have their horrors - between them they feature multiple serial killers, a gang of child-molesting psychic vampires, alien torturers, and a glimpse of the end of the world - but they are not in any real sense horror novels. If I had to pick one adjective to describe them collectively, I would be scratching my head over whether to go with "readable", "exciting", or "sweet".

Sweet? Seriously? Yes: the man who wrote Carrie, Pet Semetary and The Shining has become a charming avucular chap who beckons you in close and tells you the world has decent people in it. In books like 11.22.63, Joyland and Doctor Sleep, that essential underlying kindness matters far more than the dark narrative complexities woven over and through it.


These books lulled me into a dangerous trusting mood, for which I have now paid. Reading Revival was like sitting down comfortably next to dear old Uncle King and seeing his smile widen and split open into shark jaws. The Pet Semetary King is back.

This is a short book - I read it in one day - and for much of its length it simmers rather than boils. A young boy comes under the sway of a charismatic preacher. The preacher's wife and child die in an accident, and he sours. Years pass. Our young protagonist grows into a musician and develops a drug habit - the terrible power of addiction is one of the major through-lines of King's late work - and he meets the preacher again.

But the preacher, who was always brilliant, has become obsessed with curing incurable sicknesses. He is trying to unlock one of nature's hidden doors. Something is hiding on the other side. The book pushes you inexorably towards the moment when the door begins to open.

King's storytelling craft has only got better with age. There's a great deal of indirection in this novel, and a lot of the most important events are tucked away out of sight, referred to after the fact in a way which may frustrate some readers. I found it gave the book more weight, while also making it harder to predict its exact shape. The thing which is easy to predict from quite early on is that King is not in avuncular mode this time. Horrors aplenty are smeared all through the book. Horror. Fair warning.

Revival by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton $39.99)