Dark arts: King has just published his 58th book
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Why Stephen King should stop worrying about literary extinction

Mark Lawson’s Critics Notes. 

A character in Stephen King’s new novel suffers from “prismatics” – his term for sudden episodes of super-sharp eyesight. Admirers of the American writer may soon need such an optical transformation when looking at the list of his previous titles. Revival, published just five months after Mr Mercedes, fattens the King backlist of novels to 58, a torrent that has forced Hodder & Stoughton to print the “Also by” page in a type size generally used for the exceptions on insurance policies.

These titles have sold more than 350 million copies globally, yet their author seems concerned with the prospect of literary extinction. In one conversation in Revival, the enduring power of pop music is contrasted with the way that “pop fiction goes away”. Even more pointedly, the narrator’s mother is a devotee of Kenneth Roberts (1885-1957), a bestselling writer of the early 20th century who, like King, came from Maine but is now largely forgotten.

More optimistically, the dedicatees of Revival include two predecessors in the horror genre whose reputations are very much undead – the creators of Frankenstein and Dracula – and so the question running under a reading of King’s latest fictions is whether the literary afterlife will treat him like his state-mate Roberts or Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker.

Fittingly, Revival is also concerned in a much more fundamental sense with posthumous possibilities. The narrator, a session musician and recovering addict called Jamie Morton, recalls inspiring and terrifying encounters with Charles Jacobs, a Methodist cleric from his childhood, whose hobby of electrical experimentation encouraged metaphors in his sermons about the power of lightning. Jacobs is forced to leave his ministry after events culminating in a pulpit address dubbed the “Terrible Sermon” but later re-emerges in the territories – state fairs and carnivals, TV, the internet – where showbiz and religion meet in America.

Christianity overlaps with horror fiction in the central assumptions that the world will end and corpses may walk. Revival is King’s most systematic treatment of the depth of American belief in religious supernaturalism and his title cleverly alludes to both the “revivalist” evangelical religious movement and to another kind of awakening: the dedication to Shelley leads readers to expect that the electrifying Charles Daniel Jacobs must at some point try to galvanise dead flesh.

Although King has generally preferred to work within the populist frameworks of horror, thriller or fantasy, his books have recurrently shown a rare talent for the re-creation of personal history, most directly in the coming-of-age novella The Body but also in several books – including Dolores Claiborne and the JFK-assassination novel 11.22.63 – that intricately recall past decades.

Covering events spanning more than 50 years, Revival opens another room in this museum of American social history. Jamie curates the TV shows of his adolescence (Mighty 90 and Petticoat Junction), once-exotic food (Neapolitan ice cream, translated in Maine as “van-choc-straw”) and the euphemisms used in a puritanical era to avoid swearing (“dadgum”, rather than “goddam”).

As with Alan Ayckbourn, who has written plays at a rate similar to King’s novelistic output, the astonishing productivity risks becomes a defining detail that distracts from the skill and interest of the content. But, in both cases, the craft is remarkably consistent. In his 58th book in his 68th year, King continues to display un­cannily sharp eyes and ears and deeply engages with the religiosity at the heart of US politics and culture.

In one startling image, a huge crucifix is decked out in red, white and blue light bulbs, decisively Americanising Christ. A serious book by a major writer, Revival reads like a populist sequel to Sinclair Lewis’s evangelical satire Elmer Gantry.

Pitch perfect

Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is rarely far from production but the current revival at Harrington’s pie-and-mash shop in London is the first to be staged in the sort of emporium (minus the flesh fillings) in which the murderous barber’s sweetheart, Mrs Lovett, works. This extends the trend of putting on shows in spaces that aren’t playhouses or that have been disguised: the National Theatre’s Dorfman auditorium is reconfigured as a disco for David Byrne’s and Fatboy Slim’s Here Lies Love and the Donmar Warehouse fitted out as a women’s prison for the current Henry IV.

But these strenuous efforts to get away from a theatrical feel make me think of an exchange in Christopher Hampton’s play Tales From Hollywood (1982), in which a fellow writer asks Bertolt Brecht to explain the “alienation” devices – interruptions, banners, lighting effects – that punctuate his plays. Brecht replies that he wants “people to be aware that they are in a theatre”, to which his rival asks: “But what makes you think they think they’re anywhere else?”

The present obsession with making audiences think they’re not in a theatre seems equally doomed. A place where football is played becomes a pitch. 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

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Broken and The Trial: From Sean Bean playing a priest to real life lawyers

A surprisingly involving depiction of a clergyman provides the saintly contrast to the sinner being judged by a real jury.

I was all set to scoff at Broken, Jimmy McGovern’s new series for BBC1 (30 May, 9pm). A drama about a Catholic priest and his impoverished parish in a “major northern city”, it sounded so hilariously McGovern-by-numbers (“Eh, lad, give us the collection bowl – the leccy wants paying”) that on paper it could pass for a spoof. Even funnier, Sean Bean, late of Game of Thrones, was to play the clergyman in question.

Naturally, I adore Bean, who comes from the major northern city that is Sheffield, as I do, and who is so terribly . . . virile (though when I interviewed him in a car park behind King’s Cross Station a few years ago, and a security guard in a high-vis jacket approached us furiously shouting the odds, he ran and hid in his trailer, leaving yours truly to face the music). But let’s face it: he’s not exactly versatile, is he? The idea of him in a cassock, or even just a mud-coloured cardigan, made me laugh out loud.

Settling down to watch the series, however, I soon realised that no scoffing would be taking place. For one thing, Broken is hugely involving, its Dickensian plot (no spoilers here) as plausible as it is macabre. For another, in the present circumstances, its script seems to be rather daring. Not only is Father Michael Kerrigan shown – cover my eyes with the collected works of Richard Dawkins! – to be a good and conscientious priest, but his faith is depicted as a fine and useful thing. If he brings his besieged parishioners solace, he is sure to be carrying vouchers for the food bank as well.

The flashbacks from which he suffers – in which his mammy can be heard calling him a “dirty, filthy beast” and a spiteful old priest is seen applying a cane to his hand – are undoubtedly clichéd. But they are also a device. Forty years on, he is happy to nurse his dying mother, and his love for God is undimmed: two facts that are not, of course, unrelated. How weirdly bold for a television series to set its face against the consensus that denigrates all things Christian as it never would any other faith.

I don’t for a minute buy Anna Friel as Christina, the gobby, broke single mother Kerrigan is determined to help. Even when covered in bruises – a bust-up at the betting shop – Friel manages to look glossy, and she never, ever quits acting (with a capital A), which is a drag. But Bean is such a revelation, I was able to ignore the voice in my head which kept insisting that a Catholic priest as young as he is – in this realm, “young” is a couple of years shy of 60 – would surely be Polish or African (I’m not a Catholic but I am married to one, for which reason I occasionally go to Mass).

He plays Kerrigan, whose overwhelming desire to be kind sometimes makes him cack-handed, with great gentleness, but also with an uninflected ordinariness that is completely convincing. Part of the problem (my problem, at least) with Communion is the lack of rhetorical passion in most priests’ voices, something he captures perfectly. One other thing: Line of Duty fans need to know that Adrian Dunbar – aka Ted Hastings – can also be seen here wearing a dog collar, and that he looks almost as good in it as he does in police uniform.

On Channel 4 The Trial: A Murder in the Family was an experiment in the shape of a murder trial in which the defendant – a university lecturer accused of strangling his estranged wife – and all the witnesses were actors but the lawyers and “jury” were real. Over five consecutive nights (21-25 May, 9pm), I found it pretty tiresome listening to jury members tell the camera what they made of this or that bit of evidence.

Get on with it, I thought, longing again for the return of Peter Moffat’s Silk. But I adored the lawyers, particularly the lead ­defence barrister, John Ryder, QC. What an actor. Sentences left his mouth fully formed, as smooth as they were savage, his charm only just veiling his mighty ruthlessness. Drooling at this performance – which was not, in one sense, a performance at all – I found myself thinking that if more priests came over like barristers, our dying churches might be standing room only.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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