A Man’s Heart Is Stonier by Bev Vincent
In 1978, Stephen King was invited to be writer in residence at the English department of his alma mater, the University of Maine at Orono. He moved his family into a rented house on a major highway in Orrington. The heavy traffic included transports heading to and from a nearby chemical plant. A new neighbor warned the Kings to keep their pets and children away from this road, which had “used up a lot of animals.” In support of this claim, the Kings discovered a burial ground not far from the house, with “Pets Sematary” written on a sign in a childish hand. Among its residents: dogs, cats, birds, and a goat.
Shortly after they moved in, daughter Naomi’s cat, Smucky, was found dead on the side of the road when they returned from a trip to town. King’s first impulse was to tell her that the cat had wandered away. Tabitha, however, believed this was an opportunity to teach a life lesson. They broke the news to their daughter and conducted a feline funeral, committing Smucky’s mortal remains to the pet cemetery. A few nights later, King discovered Naomi in the garage, jumping up and down on sheets of bubble wrap, indignant over the loss of her pet. “Let God have His own cat. I want my cat. I want my cat,” she was repeating.
The road almost “used up” the Kings’ youngest son, too. Owen was about eighteen months old when he wandered dangerously close to the highway. To this day, King isn’t sure whether he knocked Owen down before he reached the highway as a tanker approached or if the boy tripped over his own feet. Owen had been born with an unusually large head, and the Kings had already agonized over the possibility of losing him to hydrocephalus. This near miss was an unwelcome reminder of the fragility of their children.
Working in a room in the store across the street from their house, King decided to explore the alternate scenarios these incidents provided. He incorporated a dream he had shortly after the roadside incident, about a reanimated corpse walking up and down the road outside the house.
The book provided King with the chance to explore burial practices and customs. He scrutinizes some of the rituals—why people drive with their headlights on during the funeral procession, for example. He learned many behind-the-scenes details by interviewing mortuary workers and graveyard attendants. However, as he told Doug Winter, “The book ceased being a novel to me, and became instead a gloomy exercise, like an endless marathon run. It never left my mind; it never ceased to trouble me.”
Winter notes, “King’s difficulties also seem apparent in the narrative structure of Pet Sematary, whose point of view, initially exclusive to Louis Creed, disperses with the return of Gage Creed from the dead.”
Among the books influences are cautionary tales such as “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs story and Frankenstein (Louis calls Church “Frankencat” at one point). He also makes use of the native tradition of the Wendigo, making use of legends from the book Where the Chill Came From: Cree Windigo Tales and Journeys, compiled by Howard Norman.
He finished the first draft of Pet Sematary and put it in a drawer. When he reread it six weeks later, he deemed it too gruesome and disturbing to be published. His wife found the scene where Gage Creed dies hard to deal with. Taking her advice, and that of Peter Straub, he put the manuscript back in a drawer, where he intended it to stay forever, and moved on to The Dead Zone. He told Doug Winter, “The book started off as a lark, but it didn’t finish up that way. It stopped being a lark when I realized that the kid would have to die—and that I had never had to deal with the consequences of death on a rational level.” The death of Tad Trenton in Cujo had been bad enough, but there he had been able to avoid the aftermath.
King mentioned the book in passing during an interview on Good Morning America in response to a question about whether he had ever written anything so frightening that he’d never publish it. A mythos arose around the novel. Pet Sematary would have remained unpublished, though, if not for an ongoing struggle with Doubleday. The original contract he had signed with them allowed them to mete out his accrued royalties at a rate of only $50,000 per year, while investing the rest, a practice that allowed authors to defer taxes on the money. By the early 1980s, Doubleday had millions of dollars in reserve, and it would have taken the rest of his life to dole it out at the specified rate.
Doubleday was reluctant to simply dissolve that part of the contract, arguing it might cause the IRS to scrutinize these accounts. They asked for two novels—King countered by offering one. However, the only manuscript available was Pet Sematary. After making sure his wife didn’t object, he gave it to them, but refused to promote it. In a 1985 interview, he said, “If I had had my way about it, I still would not have published Pet Sematary. I don’t like it. It’s a terrible book—not in terms of the writing, but it just spirals down into darkness. It seems to be saying nothing works and nothing is worth it, and I don’t really believe that.”
Referring to the Creeds, one of the most well-adjusted families in King’s novels, he says, “That’s what’s so awful about Pet Sematary, why it’s such a dreadful book, because you’re welcomed into this family. It’s a domestic drama. It’s Mommy and Daddy and the little daughter and the baby son. The reason you grow to love them is that I loved them. And then it all falls down. And people say, ‘Well, how could you do that?’”
“Pet Sematary…is supposed to be a reflection on what happens when people in a materialistic society, people who live only for materialistic reasons, come into contact with questions of faith and death and outside forces.” As he told Doug Winter, “The book is very Christian in that sense, because it is a book about what happens when you attempt miracles without informing them with any sense of real soul. When you attempt mechanistic miracles—abracadabra, pigeon and pie, the monkey’s paw—you destroy everything.”
Despite the fact that the book came out the same year as Christine and without any promotion from King, it sold well over 600,000 copies in hardcover, which represented a huge jump for him. He had thought no one would want to read it, but they did. “It just goes to show: you should never underestimate the taste of the reading public,” King told author John Connolly.
 Introduction, Pet Sematary (Pocket Books, 2001), ix-xiii.
 Interview with Douglas E. Winter, The Art of Darkness, 1984.
 “The Return of Timmy Baterman,” an excerpt from Pet Sematary, was published in the Satyricon II program book.
 “Topic, Horror!” by Craig Madderno. USA Today, May 10. 1985.
 Interview with Mike Farren, Interview XVI, no. 2 (1986), 68-70.
 “King of the Road” by Darrell Ewing and Dennis Myers. American Film. June 1986.