A Stony Heart by Stewart O’Nan
Of all Stephen King’s early novels, Pet Sematary is the simplest and direst. A sustained riff on W.W. Jacobs’ classic “The Monkey’s Paw,” it cleaves to its twisted source. From the very beginning the reader knows the story: someone is going to die, and someone who can’t bear to let that loved one go will make a desperate bargain to raise him from the dead. What happens then—the awful complications—is what the reader wants to see.
The opening is TV-movie stuff. Dr. Louis Creed and his young family move to Maine for his new job as medical director at a university infirmary and buy a house in the country by a busy two-lane highway. “You just want to watch em around the road, Missus Creed,” wise old neighbor Jud Crandall warns. “Lots of big trucks on that road.”
Was there ever a balder promise? And by 1983, King’s constant readers didn’t have to wonder if he’d balk at killing a child. Just two years before, the author who’d spared Mark Petrie in ‘Salem’s Lot and Danny Torrance in The Shining had already crossed that line in Cujo.
Set-up, build-up, payoff. Basic storytelling. In this case, we think we know the set-up and build-up. The author can throw variations at us, and delay, which he does, introducing a dying student who warns Louis to steer clear of the Pet Sematary, later using the family cat, Church, as a test case for its powers, but ultimately a child must die. Early on it feels as if King is running a subtle shell game, making us guess which one it will be, with both Gage, the adorable toddler, and Ellie, the needy kindergartener, slipping away unnoticed from their distracted parents. When the accident inevitably happens, it’s a shock, mainly because of how it’s presented.
After so much set-up, the death of Gage Creed on Highway 15 takes place just past the halfway mark of the book, in the blank space between Parts One and Two. Part Two opens with his funeral, the stunned Louis providing us with snatches of the accident in flashback. It’s an unusual tactic, the reader might think, given King’s penchant for delivering live, bloodily operatic death scenes, but fits with his treatment of innocents. In Cujo, Tad Trenton’s death takes place off-stage as well, discovered only after the fact. The elision here is perfect, in that what haunts Louis isn’t the moment of his son’s death or even his detailed memories of it but his unrelenting grief, a grief which drives him to do what he and we both know he shouldn’t.
The Cat Came Back is a joke. The kid coming back isn’t. Much of Part Two is given over to Louis wrestling with the decision to disinter Gage from his coffin—made, interestingly, in Storyville, Ohio. In case we’re still not aware that we’re caught in a web of fictions, at an unexpected knock on the door the author has Dr. Creed flash on the original story of the monkey’s paw.
Suspense is the reader sensing something coming. Dread is knowing what’s coming is bad and being unable to stop it. In the rising action of Parts Two and Three of Pet Sematary, everyone—author, reader and characters—shares the dread of Gage returning from beyond the deadfall. To ratchet up the tension and goose the pacing, instead of sticking with Louis, who’s been our point-of-view character through the first three-quarters of the book, King abruptly shifts into Rachel as well as Jud to exteriorize the drama, setting up a three-way crosscut race-against-time much like that between Dick Hallorann and the Torrances near the end of The Shining. Instead of being stuck in Louis’s haunted, claustrophobic thoughts, we’re now focusing on whether Rachel will arrive in time to prevent whatever’s going to happen when Gage comes back.
She doesn’t. Like Donna Trenton, she’s just too late. Gage has already killed Jud, after delivering the news that his beloved late wife Norma cheated on him and laughed about it with his friends. Gage kills Rachel. Louis kills Gage and burns down the Crandalls’ house. In the end, Louis can’t bear to lose Rachel, and once again tempts fate by using the power of the Pet Sematary. The last line of the book is a promise, another complication: “Darling,” it said.
The author’s wife famously didn’t like the novel, while her husband considered it his scariest, for good reason. Besides the usual brimstone, there’s a whiff of scorched earth to Pet Sematary, like the horrible secrets the returned know about the living. At the beginning, Louis Creed daydreams of being rid of his family. By the end, he’s nearly achieved that dream. Several times he compares himself to a murderer disposing of evidence, and the reader has to agree. Operating in secret, he ignores the many prophets sent to warn him and makes terrible, selfish decisions, unleashing forces that eventually kill most of the people closest to him. And the fears on parade here aren’t really supernatural. Fear of dying. Fear for (and of) one’s children. Fear of crippling disease. Fear of aging. Fear of madness. The accidents that kill Victor Pascow and Gage are most likely random, but we’re all going to die, we’re all going to grow old and feeble (if we’re lucky), we’re all going to lose the people closest to us. The materials King is working with seem homely and typical, the stuff of life, but the outcome, unlike most of his earlier (and subsequent) books, is far from comforting. There’s no selfless sacrifice, no cavalry, no improbable last-minute heroics. In the end, Louis Creed learns nothing, or is unable to put that knowledge to any positive use. He’s trapped by his own mistakes, his own guilt and weakness, unable to let go of a wife whose family hates him and who regularly cowed him with her tantrums even before she was one of the undead. For the Reagan era whose Moral Majority smarmily touted family values, it’s a decidedly EC ending, unapproved by the Comics Code Authority. Love doesn’t save us–in fact it damns us, yokes us to unending pain. “Darling,” it said, and they lived unhappily ever after. Pretty scary, kids.
The complete list of the books to be read can be found on the Stephen King Books In Chronological Order For Stephen King Revisited Reading Lists page. To be notified of new posts and updates via email, please sign-up using the box on the right side or the bottom of this site.
Stewart O’Nan’s award-winning fiction includes Snow Angels, A Prayer for the Dying, Last Night at the Lobster, and Emily, Alone. Granta named him one of America’s Best Young Novelists. He lives in Pittsburgh.
Just rewatched the movie this past weekend. Haven’t seen it since it was in the theater 25+ years ago…. Once again, I’ll hear that laugh in my dreams followed by, “Daddy, I want to play with you…” As per usual, the novel is much deeper, scarier, and more intense, but one can definitely tell that SK wrote the screenplay for this one and didn’t leave it to someone else to really screw it up like some of his other work.
Great essay. Even though it has been a while since I have seen the movie or read the book, PET SEMATARY, still effects me. It is still scary!
Wonderful essay. I still recall the “in-your-face” abruptness of Gage’s death.
Great post Stewart, Darling!
This covers a lot of the same ground as his more recent book, Revival but plays better.
Arguably King’s best book.