Pet Sematary by Stephen King

Pet Sematary was apparently my lady's first run in with Stephen King at the age of twelve. It scared her so badly, she woke her friend with a terrified 2 am phone call! She was also so captivated, she then proceeded to read every Stephen King she could for the next few years. I on the other hand read Pet Sematary at about fourteen (my own introduction to King had been The Gunslinger, a year or so earlier), and oddly enough found it rather slow, albeit I do still remember some fantastically creepy sections.

So, looking around for something to read together, on a whim, we both decided to take a trip back in time and see if our respective younger selves actually knew what they were talking about. In my lady's case, she absolutely did! In my case, not so much, since whether it's due to greater literary or life experience, or just a bit more patience, this time around I found Pet Sematary nothing short of amazing!

When Louis Creed and his wife Rachel move from Chicago to the small Maine town of Ludlow, he worries about the busy highway beside their house. After all, with his daughter Elly only five, and his son Gage not even two, not to mention Elly's beloved cat Church, aka Winston Churchill, Louis has a lot to lose. But here in Ludlow, death seems far closer, and not just because of those huge Orinco trucks thumping past, or an unexpectedly bloody accident which greets Louis on his first day of work. For right behind Louis' safe and pleasant house is the pet cemetery (sematary, according to the sign), where the children of Ludlow have been burying their pets for generations, and behind the pet Sematary is a far older burial ground, a place of dark promise and unknown hunger, a place that reaches into dreams and minds and whispers of forbidden secrets, and a place which has plans for Louis and his family. Since when death comes for the ones you love, no price might be too great and terrible to pay.

One of the most frequent criticisms I've seen of King, and indeed something I believed myself prior to seriously rereading his books as an adult, is that King suffers occasional bouts of verbosity, digressions (often on the seamier side), and a general lack of focus. Oddly enough, while a couple of his books could've been trimmed a bit, none I've tried so far have been quite the slogs I was expecting. Pet Sematary is likely the tightest and most absolutely focused of King's books I've seen. One where even the seemingly insignificant details or small moments are always associated with themes, motifs or events to be picked up later, from aspects of Louis's environment, to little descriptive touches or bits of phrasing, with less relevant details, such as Elly's travails at starting school for the first time, barely touched on at all.

King has always had a knack of giving each of his books its own language and set of images, Like Edgar Freemantle repeated "it was red!" in Duma Key, or seeing how freaky things that float could get in It. Yet, only with Paul Sheldon's scream of "Africa!" In Misery does King come close to the way Pet Sematary establishes an internal dialogue and set of symbols so profound, that when they start to cross over into the world of the characters from the world of the narrative, it feels absolutely natural. Or to put it a little less loquaciously myself, even by King's rather high standards, the prose here is exceptional, bridging that line between narrative voice and inner perception to create something truly special.

This focus is entirely justified, since Louis Creed is very much the central character, and Louis' feelings for his wife, his children, and even his fatherly old neighbour Jud Crandall make up a huge part of the plot. This is because Pet Sematary is first and foremost a book about death, and the fear of death; not even your own death, but the (in some ways far worse), fear of the death of the ones you love. Leah of the Nerd Girl power blog mentioned that one of Stephen King's great strengths as a writer is that even if you take away the supernatural from King's stories, there is still an interesting, and often frightening subject underneath. Rose Madder and The Shining got personal with domestic abuse, It gave us a close up view of bullying, and even The Dark Tower, King's most fantastical series, featured drug addiction, schizophrenia and racism. Not of course that the fantasy elements were in any sense less critical to the books' appeal than the real world ones, or that King was (as unfortunately some literary critics would have it), "really!" talking about issues of abuse or racism in guise of otherworldly monsters, (sometimes a story is just a story).

Nevertheless, King's gift for combining mundane horror with supernatural horror is one of his most compelling tools as an author, and it's one he employs to its full effect here. This, I suspect is also why I didn't appreciate Pet Sematary as much at fourteen, since its central ideas about grief and loss were probably something I just wasn't quite old enough to get my head around, and indeed (despite not being a parent myself), are ideas that resonate far more as an adult.

It is in this sense of the purely mundane that Pet Sematary often hits hardest. One scene which many cite as the worst in the book involves nothing paranormal at all, just an incredibly ugly boiling over of family hatred at a time of major stress.

Even in terms of more conventional horror, though Pet Sematary undoubtedly has some good scares, and moments of pure visceral terror (often aided by Stephen King's uniquely morbid sense of humour), much of the horror here (as with The Shining), involves the books characters and a subtle psychic influence working on their existing feelings, causing them to make decisions they know to be wrong, even as they make them; rationalising their choices away.

Indeed, in some ways the influence of the burial ground is even more terrifying than that of The Overlook, since where it was quite possible that Jack Torrance would have gone wrong anyway, Louis begins as a fundamentally good man (albeit one with a slightly snarky streak), who loves his children and is very much his wife's lover as well as her husband, someone fundamentally with the best motives, who is put in the most terrible of circumstances, then given a prod in the wrong direction.

Since the book is so focused on Louis, King is also careful with how much we focus on other characters. From the moment when we first meet a stressed out Louis, moving in with two upset children and a tired wife at the end of a long car journey, Elly, Gage and Rachel all show enough of a sense of endearing reality to engage our sympathy without straying into the cloying. Jud Crandall is another of those tough, backwoods, fatherly old codgers which King so often includes in his books, albeit one of the most likable, and one who also unwittingly falls prey to the burial grounds' bad mojo.

Pet Sematary in fact, is a study in how quickly and easily King could depict some incredibly nice people, without having to resort to those standard American family tv archetypes, people we would be pleased to have as next door neighbours, and then just show how wrong things can go for them.

Even my one minor character issue, that Rachel Creed, despite several important details we do learn of her history, almost dips a bit too far into being simply a stay at home housewife and mother, and yet, with how focused the book is, I could honestly believe that Rachel had friends, interests and a life outside the home which King just didn't need to tell us about, since the focus is so clearly on Louis. Even the viewpoint doesn't change from Louis until very close to the end of the book, and that mainly to show that King, (and the evil force behind events), is placing all of the pieces where he wants them. I have noticed a trend in some reviews to completely ignore the fact that King (through the mouth of Jud Crandall), tells us of the burial grounds' influence, and condemn Louis for everything that goes wrong in the book. While I entirely disagree with this assessment of Louis' character, at the same time Louis' horrific rationalisations, and the very subtlety of the influence at work, insidious as an addiction, explains why some people have come to this conclusion, albeit for me, the idea of seeing where a good man (and indeed several other good people), finish up by the book’s end, makes the book far more tragically terrifying than merely dismissing Louis as another villain in the making.

Another reason why Pet Sematary appeals much more on a reread, is that being one of King's most tightly focused books, it absolutely rewards; or punishes, those with knowledge of where things are going. Every step, every decision, even during its sweeter moments, the book’s final destination is always in view, and having seen where the road of good intentions leads, my lady and I constantly found ourselves on tenterhooks, wishing things could be different, desperate for choices and events to come out otherwise, and yet all the more captivated by the fact that they don't. Indeed, Pet Sematary is one of those books which (despite its several adaptations), was always intended to be read, since it is not just what happens, but the tortuous way King tells it, tantalising with false hope, occasionally giving nods of what is to come, sometimes speeding through inconsequential events, sometimes slowing down to show things in exquisite detail which makes the plot so compelling.

Apparently, neither King's wife and fellow novelist Tabitha King, nor King's friend Peter Straub liked the novel. Given the fact that King himself moved with young children to a house beside a busy road, and that there was actually a local pet cemetery near him, Tabitha King’s feelings are understandable. This unfortunately meant that Pet Sematary got buried in a draw for several years, and only pulled out to fulfil a departing publishing contract. While this means that Pet Sematary likely is closer to King's own vision than most of his more edited books, it also means the book has an unusually high number of editorial gaffs and inconsistencies, for example, the owner of one plot significant bull whose story Jud Crandall relates changes name within a few paragraphs, while Louis and Rachel change their bedroom furniture from one double bed to two twin beds between scenes.

These do not "spoil" the novel, but it is a shame, in a book whose other elements, even down to phrases and motifs are so tightly woven together, to find such very obvious errors. Indeed, I knocked a mark off my review score just for these inconsistencies, which should show how good the rest of the book is.

The ending is absolutely perfect, dark, ambiguous, and most artfully built up to. In some ways, I am a little sorry that neither the Creeds nor details of the burial ground and its occupant have made it into King's wider cosmology, even as aside mentions in other of his books. At the same time, the ending, despite not exactly being conclusive, strikes just such a fantastic note, any attempt to mess with it or offer some sort of explanation would risk lessening its effectiveness.

All in all, while I completely understand Mr. Straub and Mrs. King's reluctance about the book, at the same time, this might be one of those rare instances where the evil influence of a publishing company which caused the unearthing of a long buried novel actually had a good result. Pet Sematary is, editorial gaffs notwithstanding, King absolutely at the top of his game.

It is not a comfortable horror novel, it does not give pleasurable shivers down the spine, does not rely on marauding monsters, gorgeous gore or redshirt murder, since while it undoubtedly has its gory or murderous moments, the brand of horror pet cemetery offers is something both far nastier, and far closer to home.

This is not the almost familiar, campfire horror Stephen King that fascinates us with tales of shape changing spectral clowns, vengeful ghosts or things that go tak in the night but if you want horror that really will take you off the path, out into the dark wilds where familiar things such as love and family become as uncertain as quicksand, Pet Sematary will certainly not disappoint.

10/10 And the cat came back, the very next day

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