Sometimes, dead is better, especially when you read Stephen King’s classic novel, Pet Sematary. The book King himself claims is his scariest is really one helluva story, certainly one of his best, and still relevant today. This marks the third time I’ve read this book, and damn if it just keeps getting better every time. My first encounter with the book was a dog-eared paperback in late 1986. I read it instead of studying, failed college Trig in the process, and got a very long lecture from my Dad about how he worked too hard to put me through college just to fail a class. I remember being mad about that lecture, but hey, who needs math, right? I read a damn good book, so it wasn’t all that bad.
Louis Creed picks up his family and moves to the country, rural Maine specifically. His wife Rachel, their daughter Ellie, infant son Gage, and their curmudgeonly cat, Church. It’s a tough move, hard on everyone, but it’s a move Louis feels will eventually be good for his family. It helps that his neighbors, the elderly Jud and Norma Crandall, reach out the to the Creeds, and Louis becomes quick friends with Jud. There’s a little pet cemetery behind the Creed house, where families have been burying their dead pets for nearly a hundred years. Jud tells Ellie about the cemetery, even promises to take her there, with Louis and Rachel coming along as well. It is this small conversation that forms the spark that ignites the rest of the story, which grows darker by the page.
Children are naturally curious, and Ellie is no exception. She is thoroughly convinced her cat Church is going to die soon, most likely from knowing of his upcoming visit to the local vet to be neutered. Rachel isn’t much help with these matters, having come away traumatized by the death of her sister when she was very young. Louis knows talking of death is a serious trigger for Rachel, but still must explain the subject to his daughter in way that makes sense. The touchy subject is further incensed knowing Rachel’s parents aren’t exactly warm to Louis. Again, King’s pacing here is strong, and masterfully deals with these subject by making us care about these characters. These are people we can all relate with. The feelings of not belonging, the trauma of watching someone die right before your eyes. All seriously heavy stuff, but in King’s hands, he makes it compelling, fitting the narrative like a glove. Ellie’s questions about death, especially concerning her cat Church, are the catalyst that sets this tale in motion. These scenes are poignant and emotional, especially the argument between Louis’ need to explain things to his daughter and Rachel’s steadfast vigilance in shielding Ellie from the realities of life.
On his first day on the job at the University of Maine campus medical department, there is a terrible accident. Students rush in the body of Victor Pascow, a victim of a nasty car accident. Nearly dead with a massive head wound, and no chance for survival, Pascow has a moment of clarity and addresses Louis by name with a strange message. King’s mastery of scene and pacing create one of most memorable scenes in the book, setting up Pascow’s later visit to Louis in a nightmare. But in the morning, Louis isn’t completely convinced it was a dream at all. Pascow warned Louis not to go beyond the pet cemetery in the dream. Chalking it up to nothing more than nervous sleepwalking, King still manages to plant a seed of doubt with the reader. We’re not convinced Louis sleepwalked either, and of course our worst assumptions come true in ways we never see coming.
Soon after Norma Crandall collapses and is assisted by Louis—she would have probably died if he wasn’t nearby—Rachel, Ellie, and Gage fly over to Rachel’s parents to visit. Ellie is worried about Church, but after seeing the pet cemetery first hand, her fears of death are on the backburner. Of course, death is never far in a King story, and Church is the first of the Creed family to go. This begins the middle section of the book, and King’s style is on full here. There’s another burial ground beyond the ‘Pet Sematary’ behind the Creed house, and Jud takes Louis there. It’s interesting to note that little details of the Micmac Indians and their customs take center stage, but King ties it into character so well it never feels like an information dump. The scene is long and beautifully executed, done so well we feel every step Louis makes following Jud. King places us directly in the woods, and we experience it all; the haunting loons, the scrape of the branches against their clothes, the weight of the plastic bag Louis is carrying, holding his daughter’s dead cat. King gives his readers just enough background for us to know the Indian burial ground is powerful, and probably very evil. There are tons of little details woven in the narrative without ever overloading, making it compelling while forcing the reader to turn the pages faster just to find out what happens next. Louis loves Ellie, and Ellie loves Church, and it would break her heart to find out when she came back home that her beloved cat had been run over by an eighteen wheeler. Jud makes Louis bury his own there at the burial ground, refusing to answer most of Louis’ questions until things take their course.
When Church miraculously returns from the dead, Louis definitely has questions. King has a knack for writing characters who ask questions when they really don’t want to know the answers. It’s absolutely chilling when Louis asks Jud if anyone had ever buried a person at the burial site, not because Jud lies to Louis, but why he lies to Louis. The foreshadowing here is effortless, and thrilling to read because the dramatic irony flows so well.
There is a rift between Louis and Rachel that King dives into that resonates through the rest of the book, and it’s more than Rachel’s parents, especially her father, not liking Louis. Rachel fears death, is uncomfortable even talking about it, because she watched her terminally ill sister Zelda die right in front of her, and there was nothing she could do about it. Zelda was dying, and was such a wreck before she died, that Rachel felt Zelda’s eventual death would be more than just the end of her pain and suffering, it would be the end of her own pain as well. She secretly wanted her sister to die. With that comes guilt, which haunts Rachel for the rest of her life. King skillfully weaves her backstory into the narrative with a flashback, which turns out to be a very effective way to round out her character without ever changing perspective.
Gage’s death begins the end of Louis Creed. King handles these scenes particularly well, and even on this read, I couldn’t help feel the oppressive heaviness and dread again. It’s terrible to lose a child, just devastating, and King writes these scenes from the heart, digging deep into the pain. He gives us time to grieve with an incredible sense of pacing, knowing the more we feel for these people, the more we feel for Louis, the harder it’ll be for us to accept what he’s about to do. This is exactly what King wants here. He wants our worst nightmare to come true, and then make our darkest wish happen with consequences we never see coming. It’s amazing how we start to connect the dots well before Louis sets his plan in motion. Jud tries to warn Louis, coming clean with his lie. Yet, even after Louis hears the sad tale of the only man ever buried in the land beyond the pet cemetery, the lure of the Micmac burial ground is too much to bear. Driven mad by the prospects, Louis tries to make everything quit hurting the only way he knows how, with catastrophic and fatal results.
It’s easy to just say Pet Sematary is nothing more than an updated version of ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ by W.W. Jacobs, but the reality is that King pushes the boundary of that classic story to its bitter end. He shakes us awake from the nightmare to show us the reality that sometimes, dead is better. He goes beyond the implications, casting a bright light on the side of death we don’t want to see. Fans often say Pet Sematary is one of the scariest books they’ve ever read, and even now, with my third read, I would have to agree. It’s not my favorite King book, but it sure knows how to deliver the chills. If you picked apart the book to see what makes it tick, you’d find the workings of a very simple clock inside. It’s scary because we all fear death. It’s scary because we miss our loved ones long after they’ve left us. It’s scary because death is the one thing we all have in common. It’s scary because there’s not a day that goes by that we don’t wish we could spend a little more time with those we’ve lost. It’s scary because we care about Louis Creed, and we know that if faced with the same decisions, we’d take that chance and bury our dead beyond the pet cemetery in the backyard. We’d take our chances because it could be worth it for just a few moments.
But deep down inside, it’s scary because we know it’s never worth it.
The problem with reading books that are later adapted into pretty good films is that your image of the character shifts to that of the portrayal in the film, a condition King himself once famously lamented, exclaiming how Jack Nicholson ruined One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for him. It certainly doesn’t help that I grew up watching Fred Gwynne of Herman Munster fame. Here, Gwynne expertly portrays Jud Crandall. I’m glad that when I reread it the character’s dialogue and manners gently shifted over to Fred’s craggy face and familiar voice. Even with his rural Maine accent, I just can’t picture anyone else playing the character. The film is a decent adaptation, but in the end, you just can’t beat the book.
If you haven’t read Pet Sematary before, or just need to knock the dust off your old copy, this is a novel well worth revisiting. December marks the last Tattered Tomes column of the year, and the last time I will probably revisit a Stephen King novel. The Dark Half, my personal all-time favorite King novel, is up next, and if you’re like me, you probably just can’t wait to read it again, or for the first time. Until then, keep reading.
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