Pet Sematary: Book in Review
When reading such works as Pet Sematary, one often wonders if, as King states, “the most terrifying question of all may be just how much horror the human mind can stand and still maintain a wakeful, staring, unrelenting sanity.” Pet Sematary invokes such fears of the human threshold for terror. Everyone has there own stigmas and taboos. The trick, I guess, is finding just the right spot to tickle. For me, Pet Sematary invokes that dark passageway, the images are heartbreaking and grotesque, and the storytelling is faultless. The characters are absolutely believable, and once you start off on page one, you’ll never stop. Pet Sematary, obviously, is one of my all-time favorites and is the 17th novel written by Stephen King between Feb 1979 and December 1982, the book was preceded by Christine (of which I’m reading now), and, as some of have called, a return to King’s typical format of storytelling. I think the latter is a critic response to a return to a Shining-esk format, as not many of those blowhards favored Christine. I’m not sure why, Christine is, thus far in my reading (and I’m nearing the end at the moment) a suburb story. But, we’re not here to talk about demon cars, we’re here to talk about another kind of demon. Shall we…?
The story follows…
Louis Creed, a doctor from Chicago, moves to a house near the small town of Ludlow, Maine with his wife Rachel; their two young children, Eileen (“Ellie”) and Gage; and of course the lovable cat, Winston Churchill, or Church for short. Their neighbor, an elderly man, and best character in both the book and film, by the name of Jud Crandall, who warns Louis and Rachel about the highway that runs past their house; it is used by trucks from a nearby chemical plant that often pass by at high speeds, and has “used up many family pets,” hence the trail leading to the Pet Sematary behind the Creed house.
Jud and Louis become fast friends. Since Louis’s father died when he was three, his relationship with Jud takes on a father-son like quality. A few weeks after the Creeds move in, Jud takes the family on a walk in the woods behind their home following a well-tended path which leads to a pet cemetery where the children of the town have been burying their deceased animals, most of them dogs and cats killed by the trucks on the road, for decades. A heated argument ensues between Louis and Rachel the next day. Rachel disapproves of discussing death and she worries about how Ellie may be affected by what she saw at the cemetery. It is later explained that Rachel was traumatized by the early death of her sister, Zelda, who suffered from spinal meningitis — as her sister grew more deformed and mentally unstable from the disease, she began to lash out at her family, eventually dying in the back bedroom of their house. Rachel had been left alone by her parents to take care of her unstable sister and the sordid experience obviously scared her for life. Louis is furious at the thought of Rachel’s parents’ neglect and promises to have a better understanding of Rachel’s attitude toward death. This becomes one of the first clues to the relationship between Louis and his in-laws who had never looked favorably on each other.
On Louis Creed’s first day at his new job, a traumatic experience ensues at the University of Maine’s campus when Victor Pascow, a student who is fatally injured after being struck by a car. Pascow will soon play a pivotal role as a semi supernatural guardian in the Creed story. On the night following his death, Pascow’s ghost visits Louis and leads him to the cemetery and refers specifically to the “deadfall”, a dangerous pile of tree and bush limbs that form a barrier. Pascow warns Louis not to “go beyond, no matter how much you feel you need to.” Louis wakes up in bed the next morning convinced it was a dream, but discovers his feet and the bedsheets covered with dirt and pine needles. Louis dismisses the episode as a result of stress caused by Pascow’s death coupled with his wife’s anxieties about death. He accepts the situation as a bout of sleep walking. This situation is really what gives the book credence. It’s a very real situation, is it not? How often do we come across something strange and unusual or maybe even something possibly traumatic and rationalize the event into nothingness?
Louis is forced to confront death during Halloween, when Jud’s wife, Norma, suffers a near-fatal heart attack. Thanks to Louis’s immediate attention, Norma recovers. Jud is grateful for Louis’ help, and decides to repay him. A month later, during Thanksgiving while Rachel and the kids are visiting the dreaded in-laws, Jud discovers the crumbled corpse of Church, obviously run over by a truck. Louis is struggling over how to break the news to Ellie. Jud decides to make good on his promise to “repay” Louis and takes him to the pet cemetery, supposedly to bury Church. Instead, the elderly easterner leads Louis a few miles beyond the deadfall, the very one Pascow warned Creed about in his “dream” to “the real cemetery”: an ancient burial ground that was once used by the Micmacs, a Native American tribe ingenious to Maine. Following Jud’s instructions, Louis buries the cat and constructs a marker of sorts out of the small pile of stones he took out of the impromptu grave.
The next afternoon, the cat returns home. However, while he used to be vibrant and lively, he now acts strangely and “a little dead,” in Louis’ words. Church, who had started acting a tad lazily after having his “manhood” snipped, now after returning from the grave hunts for mice and birds much more often, and much more furiously, ripping them apart without eating them. The cat also gives off an unpleasant odor. Louis is disturbed by Church’s resurrection and begins to regret his decision. Jud tells Louis about his dog Spot, who was brought back to life in the same manner when Jud was twelve. Louis asks if a person was ever buried in the Micmac grounds, to which Jud answers vehemently no. And goes on to give us one of the best quotes in the entire book when he states, “Sometimes, dead is bettah…”
Fast forward several months later, Gage, who has just learned to walk, while playing in front of the Creed house, gets away from the family, almost sprinting towards the main road. Louis gives chase, but comes up short. Gage is tragically run over by a speeding truck. I believe this part in the book gives most parents a cringe. The thought of not being able to protect our kids, to save them, is a horrifying thought. In the story, Rachel sinks into a deep depression; Ellie becomes depressed as well. At Gage’s wake, Rachel’s father, Irwin, who never respected Louis or his daughter’s decision to marry him, obviously very drunk and bitter, berates Louis harshly, blaming Louis for the boy’s death. Louis snaps and the two fight in the funeral home’s viewing room, accidently knocking over the casket; Rachel witnesses the fight and becomes hysterical, seeing the cold arm of their dead baby, fall lazily from the coffin. Exposed.
Overcome with grief and despair, Louis considers bringing his son back to life with the power of the burial ground. Jud, guessing what Louis is planning, attempts to dissuade him by telling him another story of the burial ground that of Timmy Baterman, a young man from Ludlow who was killed charging a machine gun nest on the road to Rome during World War II. His father, Bill, put Timmy’s body in the burial ground, where he came back to life, and was seen by terrified townsfolk soon thereafter. Jud describes Timmy’s behavior; he’d acted much like Church had, wandering listlessly along the road near his home, unable to speak and having a haunted look on his face.
Jud and three of his friends had gone to the Baterman house to confront the pair, but Timmy confronted each of them with indiscretions they had committed, sins Timmy should have had no way of knowing, thus giving the impression that the resurrected Timmy was actually some sort of demon who had possessed Timmy’s body. Jud and his friends flee the house horrified, and Bill shoots his son and burns his house to the ground, killing himself.
This is the part in the story in which we find ourselves begging the question: What if what comes back isn’t the deceased, but something else?
King craftily injects some possible clues for us to follow. Namely using Jud and his rationalized guilt, assuming that Gage died because he showed Louis the burial ground. There are also hints that at some point the burial ground was used for victims of cannibalism and that it became the haunt of the Wendigo, a terrible creature of the forest, whose mere presence gives men a taste for the flesh of their own kind. Through Louis, we later get a glimpse of the creature, but nothing really salable. What I got from all this was, in Jud Crandall’s words, the “ground had gone sour” and now acts as a conduit to a darker place, corrupting any animal or person buried there, and possessing the deceased with some sort of demonic presence.
Despite Jud’s warning and his own reservations, Louis’ grief and guilt spur him to carry out his plan. Louis has Rachel and Ellie visit her parents in Chicago again, not telling them his intentions. Louis meticulously exhumes his son’s body. This scene is one of the more powerful ones, the slow progression of madness mixed with the tragedy of losing a child. It was an equally heartfelt moment as it was a horrifying one. Finished with his work, Luis takes his son’s corpse to the burial site. Along the trail, the Wendigo nearly scares him away but Louis’ determination, combined with the power of the burial site…or perhaps his own creeping insanity, keeps him moving.
In a strange twist in the story, Ellie has a nightmare featuring Victor Pascow on the flight to Chicago. In Chicago, again Ellie has a seemingly precognitive episode, something very similar to Danny Torrance in The Shining, and something that King uses in most of his stories, including The Stand and Doctor Sleep, which I find to be interesting. Rachel, in her own mind, agrees with her daughter that something is strange regarding Louis’ behavior. She fears Louis may be planning suicide. Convinced something is amiss, Rachel attempts to fly back to Maine, but misses her connecting flight at Boston and decides to drive the rest of the distance. On the road, she passes the infamous Jerusalem’s Lot, and is pledged with “car problems,” as if some dark entity were preventing her from reaching Louis in time to stop him.
Louis buries Gage at the burial ground. Later, Gage returns as a demonic shadow of his former self, suddenly gifted with the ability to talk with intelligence. He sneaks into his old home and steals a scalpel from Louis’ medical bag — Louis, in a deep sleep after returning from the burial ground, is repulsed by Gage’s foul odor while unconscious but strangely does not wake up.
Perhaps something dark is at work here?
Across the street, Gage breaks into Jud’s house and taunts Jud about his wife’s implied infidelity, again displaying knowledge Gage should know nothing about, giving the audience the impression that this is not Gage at all, but something else entirely. Gage then brutally kills Jud with Louis’ scalpel. When Rachel arrives at Jud’s house, Gage kills her also (and, it is implied, partially eats her corpse). Louis, upon waking, see the footprints of his resurrected son and his open medical bag and missing scalpel. Louis, wanting to put an end to everything, kills Church and gives Gage a fatal doses of morphine, and then grieves for his son by sitting and rocking with the corpse in the corner of the hallway.
Discovering the body of his wife, Louis, now utterly out of his mind, burns down Jud’s house, then carries Rachel’s body to the burial ground, saying that he “waited too long” with Gage but is confident that Rachel will come back the same as before. After being interrogated by investigators about the fire and revealing nothing about his involvement, Louis waits until nightfall for Rachel to return. Playing solitaire, he hears his resurrected wife walk into the house. A hand falls on his shoulder and his wife greets him with “Darling…” with the sound of gravel and dirt in her mouth.
Bringing the story to an absolutely chilling end.
The reviews for Pet Sematary are mixed. The New York Times in 1983 considered it to be an unlikely choice as “most frightening book.” But it was, very much so. Skillfully crafted from the mundane experiences of the American family, the mood thickens in a chilling and subtle way. King invokes the old short story, “The Monkey’s Paw,” by W.W. Jacob, where an old couple wishes upon a talisman to conjure up their dead son, who was mangled in a factory accident. It is a credit to King’s talent during this era to be able to keep the attention of readers with a story so banal…until it’s not. There is even a behind the curtain story in which King did not want to publish Pet Sematary because he thought he’d gone “too far.” Did he? I don’t think so. In fact, I believe it is the writer’s responsibility to push boundaries in storytelling, as long as it is done in an thoughtful, provoking, and intelligent way. And Pet Sematary certainly fits all three criteria. Personally speaking, Pet Sematary has influenced me greatly in my own work. Pushing boundaries through situation-driven story’s. Keeping true to the characters and fleshing them out as real people, and not meta-humans. Surrounding the mundane and banal with supernatural forces that cannot be fully explained and certainly do not glitter in the sunlight, but rather shriek from it, laying hidden in the shadow of the human heart.
My rating: 5/5
Thanks for stopping by. You can listen to the above review (originally posted on Paper Cuts) on the Dead as Hell Horror Podcast.