THUNDER RUMBLES and lightning cracks, and a shambling monster bursts forth: part Ray Bradbury, part H.P. Lovecraft, part Mary Shelley, mostly Stephen King. King's latest, Revival, is a touching, creepy tale—one that, rather unexpectedly, works better as a meditation on growing old than as a yarn meant to inspire an electric shiver of dread.

Spanning 50 years, Revival begins with young Jamie Morton meeting his town's affable new minister, Reverend Charles Jacobs. Jacobs takes a liking to Jamie, just as Jamie's Methodist neighbors take a liking to Jacobs, his gorgeous wife, and his adorable lump of a toddler. Jacobs' faith is rock solid—as powerful as his interest in electrical gadgets—until tragedy strikes. After that gorgeous wife and adorable lump of a toddler are killed in a car crash, Jacobs' final sermon has a harsh moral. "Religion is the theological equivalent of a quick-buck insurance scam," he proclaims, "where you pay in your premium year after year, and then, when you need the benefits you paid for so—pardon the pun—so religiously, you discover the company that took your money does not, in fact, exist."

Skip forward a few years, and then a few more, and then a few more: Revival follows Jamie from childhood to 60, as he seeks his path with women, heroin, and a guitar—even as Jacobs, now obsessed with the power of electricity, flashes in and out of Jamie's life, first as a money-grubbing carny, then as a shameless faith healer, then as something more sinister.

Nearly until Revival's climax, Jacobs' mystery is a slow burn, sometimes ominous and sometimes silly. King's more interested in how Jamie's life trickles by when the big, dramatic turns aren't happening, with Jamie narrating in a voice at once scarred and accepting, as bands, lovers, and relatives come and go. Along the way, King slides in some lines that not many other writers could get away with: "It was one hot bitchkitty of a night," a strung-out Jamie casually notes; later, at one of Jacobs' big-tent revivals, Jamie surveys the motley crew of those desperate to be healed, including "those who twitched and rocked helplessly as their CP-impaired brains did pissed-off jigs inside their skulls." On paper, Revival's a book about a mad scientist—but in practice, it's about Jamie coming to terms with his strange, twisting life, sometimes falling into nostalgia even as he recognizes its poisonous addiction. It is, in other words, a very different kind of book than one King would have written 10 or 20 years ago. "Time changes everything," Jamie says at one point, "and maybe that's okay."