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, so ordinary…until it’s not. There is even a behind the scenes rumor that 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 a 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 characters. Keeping true to the cast and fleshing them out as real people, and not meta-bland 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, asking the hard question what would we be willing to do at the loss of love, life, and the pursuit of happiness.
My rating: 5/5
Thomas S. Flowers is an Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom Army veteran who loves scary movies, BBQ, and coffee. Ever since reading Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” and Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot” he has inspired to write deeply disturbing things that relate to war and horror, from the paranormal to his gory zombie infested PLANET of the DEAD series, to even his recent dabbling of vampiric flirtation in The Last Hellfighter readers can expect to find complex characters, rich historical settings, and mind-altering horror. Thomas is also the senior editor at Machine Mean, a horror movie and book review site that hosts contributors in the horror and science fiction genre.
PLANET of the DEAD and The Last Hellfighter are best-sellers on Amazon’s Top 100 lists for Apocalyptic Fiction and African American Horror.
You can follow Thomas and claim a free book by going to www.ThomasSFlowers.com
Into ghost stories?
“Evil resides in Amon Palace. Something worse came to visit.”
Imagine my delight after coming home from a hard day at work to find Pet Sematary staring at me from the Netflix feature screen, letting me know, “Howdy, we just added this here movie and thought you’d enjoy watching it.” Well Netflix, you bastards, you were right. I did enjoy watching it. And I so enjoyed the paranoid feeling that my daughter was going to come strolling into my bedroom with a razor sharp scalpel. That was fun too. But I suppose hearing the muffled patter of feet from our neighbors upstairs probably didn’t help matters much. Good times. Where were we? Oh yes, Pet Sematary. Lets talk about that, for a moment. Shall we?
Pet Sematary is my most favorite book of Stephen King. And I was delighted that he also wrote the screenplay for the movie adaptation of my beloved novel. But before we dive into a full blown movie review, for purposes here, I feel as if I need to discuss what aspects of the book I have adored so much over the years and discuss if any of that mystique actually crossed over the threshold into horror cinema. The charisma of the book, for me, is in the banality of the story. The mundane picture into the lives of the Creed’s and Crandall’s. Everything is so exquisitely normal. So much so, that when the macabre is slowly injected into the plot, we hardly take notice, until the macabre is all there is. And that’s pretty much it. The things that are unexplained, are perfectly unexplained. Nothing should be fully laid out. Pet Sematary allows the reader to play a part in the story. And the book is chock full of wonderful little quotes, such as: “Sometimes…dead is bettah,” or “The soil of a man’s heart is stonier; a man grows what he can and tends it,” or how about, “Death is a mystery, and burial is a secret,” or maybe, “What’s been tried once had been tried once before…and before…and before…” or perhaps the most philosophical one of the bunch, “That lesson suggests that in the end, we can only find peace in our human lives by accepting the will of the universe.” All together though, I think it really just boils down to the slow masterfully woven story that makes Pet Sematary so damn good.
Now…how about the movie?
The Creed family – Louis, Rachel, and their children Ellie and Gage – move from Chicago to Ludlow, Maine, where they end up befriending the elderly neighbor Jud Crandall, who takes them to an isolated pet cemetery hidden behind the Creeds’ new home. While working at the University of Maine, Louis “meets” Victor Pascow, who is brought in with severe injuries from a car accident. He manages to warn Louis about the pet cemetery near his home before he dies, calling Louis by name, despite the fact they hadn’t met before. After he dies, Victor comes to Louis in a dream to tell him about the dangers inherent at the cemetery. Louis awakens and assumes it was a dream, but notices his feet are covered in dirt, indicating he had gone to the cemetery. During Thanksgiving while the family is gone, Ellie’s cat Church is run down on the highway by the house, Jud takes Louis beyond the cemetery, to the Micmac burial ground, and buries Church where he says the real burial ground is. Church comes back to life, though a shell of what he was before, he now appears more vicious. Sometime later, Gage is killed by a truck along the same highway. When Louis questions Jud on whether humans had been buried in the cemetery before he recounts a story of a friend named Bill who had buried his son who had died in World War II at the site but he had come back changed. Realizing the horror that he brought to the townsfolk, Jud, Bill and some friends tried to destroy Timothy by burning him to death in the house, but Bill was attacked by Timothy in the process and both were killed.
Rachel and Ellie go on a trip and Louis remains home alone. Despite Jud’s warnings and Victor’s attempts to stop him, Louis exhumes his son’s body from the cemetery he was at and buries him instead at the Micmac ritual site. Victor appears to Rachel and warns her that Louis has done something terrible. She tries to reach out to Louis, then to Jud, informing him that she is returning home. She hangs up before Jud can warn her not to return. That night, Gage returns home and steals a scalpel from his father’s bag. He taunts Jud before slashing his Achilles tendon and kills him. Later, Rachel returns home and begins having visions of her disfigured sister Zelda before she had died, only to discover that it’s Gage, holding a scalpel. In shock and disbelief, Rachel reaches down to hug her son and he kills her as well.
Waking up from his sleep, Louis notices Gage’s footprints in the house and realizes his scalpel is missing. Getting a message from Gage that he has “played” with Jud and “Mommy” and wants to play with him now, he fills two syringes with morphine and heads to Jud’s house. Encountering Church, who attacks him, he kills the cat with an injection. Gage taunts him further within Jud’s house and Louis discovers Rachel’s corpse, falling hanged from the attic before he is attacked by his son. After a brief battle, Louis kills Gage with the morphine injection. He then lights the house on fire, leaving it to burn as he carries Rachel from the fire. Despite Victor’s continued insistence not to, Louis determines Rachel wasn’t dead as long as Gage was, and that burying her would bring her back to him. Victor cries out in frustration and vanishes as Louis passes through him.
That night, playing solitaire alone, Rachel returns to the house and she and Louis kiss. Unknown to him, she takes a knife from the counter and as the screen goes dark, Rachel stabs Louis -Wiki.
Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am! There you have it. Notice any subtle changes? I hope so, if you’ve read the novel, at least. For starters, let me say that the soundtrack is totally on point. Elliot Goldenthal certainly out-did himself on this one. And with the addition of the Ramones, pure classic tunes, man. However, despite the chilling score at the opening of the film, Pet Sematary is revealed in what feels like bright light. There was no darkness or creep factor. The only cemetery that is creepy during the day light is the one from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and this picture ain’t it. Okay…not a good start. Next, we find ourselves in a sprint to get the characters introduced and on screen and in the race I feel that the relationships are less genuine. Not to mention the slap in your face foreshadowing at the very beginning with little Gage walking toward the road and here comes big Jud to save him from a barreling tractor truck. Pace is typically something only books can afford…or if movie producers are willing to add an additional hour or so to the movie. Unfortunately, people have little patience with movies. They want action-action-action, explosions, gore, and sex. While those things are good to have in a movie, but come on! Sit back, enjoy the damn story for crying out loud! Stop and listen. Open your ears, you might learn something. Okay…I’ll step down from my old man soapbox. But still, that’s part of the reason why this movie feel so…discombobulated. Popular scenes from the book flash at you and unless you’ve actually read the damn thing, I doubt they had as much of an impact. This especially goes for the funeral scene with Gage and his grandfather confronting the father and the fight and the very end of the movie when Louis takes his dead wife to the Micmac burial ground. Where the hell is Steve Masterton? He had one of the best damn scenes in the book, watching mad-Louis walking in the woods. And lets not mention the ending with Rachel coming in through the door. In the book, the ending gave me chills. In the movie…ugh, whatever…
Some scenes that had been changed that were still effective includes perhaps when Louis unearths his son and rocks him back and forth in his arms in the graveyard. As a father myself, I found that scene very profound and one of the rare occurrences where Dale Midkiff’s acting was passable. In fact, I found most of the acting in the movie fairly awful, including the beloved Next Generation actress Denise Crosby, who played Rachel Creed like some ditsy blonde. In the book, Rachel was a strong character. Flawed, sure, but strong, especially at the end, working by her own intuition that something wrong was happening and not the prodding of some damn ghost. Speaking of which…come on! Victor Pascow was very creepy in the book and adding him in additional scenes in the movie came off as kinda corny. The only real talent in the movie comes from the late great Fred Gwynne, who played lovable “Down Easter” Jud Crandall, better known for his historic role as Herman in The Munsters (1964-66). Second best acting has to go to Church…the damn cat! Freaking creepy eyes, man!
So much more awful things could be said of the 1989 movie adaptation of Pet Sematary. Yet…somehow it was still a good movie! Despite all the flaws, it is still an enjoyable watch. Partly because, I think, King wrote the screenplay, and who knows what the editors did to his original script. Most of the really important scenes are there, mostly. And while “reboot” is kinda a no-no word, I think Pet Sematary would benefit from a really authentic re-make. Many may disagree. My strongest hangup on the idea is replacing Fred Gwynne as Jud…the dude had some serious acting chops and is one of the most iconic roles. I for one am not totally against remakes; I’m against terrible cheap remakes. If you’re going to do it, do it right.
My Rating: 3/5