Let’s Pick Apart Great Writing To See Why It Works

revival

“The most terrifying conclusion Stephen King has ever written” Not my words. The inside jacket says that; and it’s a huge claim.

This is no book review. If you’re planning to read Stephen King’s Revival and spoilers bother you, skip this one. My purpose isn’t to tease you with it or give you enough zap to want to read it. I’m going to dissect this little guy like a Roswell alien to see…when it does work really well…why it works. I could have picked perfect works for this exercise, like Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1, Frank Herbert’s Dune, or even King’s 11/22/63. One reason is I read this recently. The other is it isn’t perfect; and in particular breaks down like a clunker at one point. Just like almost everything King puts out, when he’s bad, he stinks. When he’s good, he’s freaking brilliant and outshines almost everybody else putting words together. Let’s see why that is, so we can distill some basic principles that would be of value to someone crafting their own stories. Cool?

The story follows Jamie Morton, a boy growing up in 1960s Maine who first encounters a Methodist minister, Charles Jacobs when Jamie is six and the reverend’s young family moves in. Jacobs apparently heals Jamie’s brother using snake-oil sounding hoo-doo he describes as relating to “secret electricity”, a practice that forms the backbone of the whole book. The reverend’s family is killed in a terrible accident, sending him into a bitter tailspin; and over the decades, fate swings these two together again and again in  occasional intersections. Jamie falls in almost-love, then out; and he gets first hooked on heroin, then cured of it by Jacobs. There’s rock and roll and carnivals and fantastic characters along the way. Things finally culminate with Jacobs bringing Jamie in for his grand experiment: bringing someone back from the dead to finally know where his family has gone…to at last know what happens after you die.

1- The opening is chatty and conversational, though immediately alludes to Jacobs being somehow entangled in horrors.

2- Within a few pages, we’re given a host of mundane details we can relate to like comic books, a kid’s imagination, crappy family gifts, toy army men

Straight away, he’s trying to hook you…to make you interested within a page or two before most of us would put it down.  He invented neither foreshadowing nor characterization; but he excels at getting you inside his people’s heads with slice-of-life details. That’s my point. Read it and see how he uses specifics like the name of a TV show his mom is watching to lend flavor and engagement to what he’s telling you…little details we can relate to. A majority of the reviews for this book gush about how much they enjoyed the first part of this book when he’s doing this. In fact, he almost always does this. I had to put down Under The Dome because he was vomiting details and overdoing this trick.

3- Much like the accident it describes, chapter three hits hard and fast with horrifying descriptions of a brutal car accident

Following a brief opening with more relaxed details like: “Three miles away, a farmer named George Barton – a lifelong bachelor known in town as Lonesome George  – pulled out of his driveway with a potato digger attached to the back of his Ford F-100 pickup.” It goes on to describe him as “a good neighbor, a member of the school board, and a deacon of our church”. Then a paragraph later, there’s a scorpion sting that stuck with me for a couple of months after I finished this book. Seriously, it’s brutal how the accident is described. It was fast and brutal. It drew me in, horrified me, scared the crap out of me because of how likely it could happen with nothing supernatural. Incredibly well written. This was brilliant. If you’re trying to scare a reader, striking quickly like this with graphic brutality on characters we’ve been made to care about and relate to is a genius move. It drove everything else that happened. Just genius.

4- The narrative winds and builds, resonating with the title quite well, leading the reader on to believe these ‘secret electricity’ experiments we keep hearing about are going to bring the family back, just in more of a “Monkey’s Paw” style probably. I was thinking it the whole book.

Except when he at last gets to the end, that’s not really what he does. A really brilliant use of the title and narration to make you think you’ve got one ending coming when you don’t.

5- Jacobs brings back a corpse to ask about the afterlife, to know where his family is. Clunk! We’re shown the monster.

To previous generations, it was expected of a horror writer to show the monster. Read Lovecraft – he was very much into that. Abraham Merritt was an incredibly successful sci-fi writer back in the 1920s and 1930s; and he spent pages in lush detail on his visuals. Understanding preferences in fiction are subjective, I can still confidently tell you the prevailing aesthetic in the 21st century is we’re much more frightened when it’s in our heads and the imagination runs wild. Troll Netflix horror flicks and have a look at how many have grainy, security footage-style or lost footage-style preambles for three fourths of the movie before you finally get to the money shot, which is even then only a glimpse of some lady crawling backwards on the ceiling or whatever. King broke the rule with this one; and he has a habit sometimes of cracking the horrifying dread he’s conjured in us like he did this time by describing the afterlife as a place of torment like something from Dante’s Inferno, with massive basalt columns and wide-eyed people led in chains by ant-things to punishment.

On one hand, I’m impressed that a horror genius like Stephen King has picked the most frightening thing about being a human, not knowing what happens after you die, and built a book around it. That’s the mind of a guy who knows what he’s doing. Point in his column. On the other…’ant things’? When he got to this point, the atmosphere and pacing were incredible, driving the quick page turns and breathless wait for what happens next…excellent wordcraft. It’s just for me, when he showed his answer, I disengaged. It isn’t just me, many of the reviews make similar comments without the details of why they felt that way.

Anyway, that last principle is what made me think writing this article made sense. A quote from Great Gatsby came to mind, which is saying practically the same thing:

“No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart”

 

One thought on “Let’s Pick Apart Great Writing To See Why It Works

  1. “I can still confidently tell you the prevailing aesthetic in the 21st century is we’re much more frightened when it’s in our heads and the imagination runs wild. ”

    My favorite example of this is how Spielberg was kinda’ forced into it during the filming of “Jaws”.

    Like

Leave a Reply to T Swift Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s