Revisiting Pet Sematary by Richard Chizmar
THAT WAS THEN…
I can’t remember when I first read Pet Sematary or where I was when I first read it (unusual for me). All I really remember is the story, and my intense reaction to it.
I was a freshman in college when Pet Sematary was published in November 1983. My best guess is that I read it within a year of publication. I do recall devouring a hardcover edition that I believe my sister, Mary, gave to me as a gift (she blessed me with several of King’s books during those early years).
So…I was young. That much I know. Brand shiny new to the perils of adulthood. Wide-eyed, unmarried, and childless.
And still Pet Sematary destroyed me.
‘Salem’s Lot and Carrie and The Shining had thrilled me and scared me – but Pet Sematary was different. Once things went bad (and this happened quickly by King standards; only about a third of the way into the book), they not only stayed bad, they kept getting worse. Much worse. The rest of the book was a dark spiral and there were no reprieves to be found anywhere. The story was grim and unrelenting and profoundly unpleasant…yet I couldn’t stop reading.
King spends the first third of Pet Sematary introducing and establishing a fairly small (for him) cast of characters and a wonderful sense of place. Ludlow, Maine is the kind of small, picturesque New England town so many of us wish we had grown up in, and the Creeds and the Crandalls are the kind of folks we wish we had grown up across the street from: kind, big-hearted, interesting, companionable folks with a real sense of friendship and loyalty.
That first third of the book is sweet and homey and ripe with the fascinating characterization and backstory King so excels at providing his readers. We learn all about the history of the town and its inhabitants, the nearby college where Louis will soon be working, Norma’s homemade cookies and horrible arthritis, Rachel’s dark family history and fear of death, Louis’s stormy relationship with his father-in-law and his burgeoning father-son relationship with Jud, and yes we learn all about the mysterious Pet Sematary located just down the winding path that borders the Creed’s back yard.
But even the Pet Sematary is portrayed as a place of love and remembrance. A hidden away place the children of Ludlow built long ago and still tend to today; their own shrine and their own secret way of coping and remembering. Initially, only Rachel feels an aversion to the Pet Sematary, and once we learn her backstory, we understand why. For the others, especially Louis, it’s more a place of wonder and fascination.
Not even the gory accidental death of college student Victor Pascow can spoil the warm glow of the novel’s opening act. Sure, it made for a tough first day at the office for Louis, and there were those unsettling words that Pascow somehow managed to speak to Louis before expiring…but hey shit happens, right? Louis is a doctor after all. Not the first person he has witnessed dying and certainly won’t be the last.
Oh boy, does that turn out to be an understatement for our poor Doctor Creed.
I remember with great clarity and affection this first third of Pet Sematary. As so often happens when reading a King novel, I found myself falling in love with the Creeds and the Crandalls. They became people I not only identified with but folks I grew to deeply care about.
Just in time to witness their tragic downfall.
And that, Constant Readers, is Stephen King’s ultimate gift.
I think I’ll save many of Pet Sematary’s most popular moments to discuss in the “Revisited” section of this essay and will focus here on my strongest personal memories from that long-ago initial reading. As you will soon discover, there are significant differences to be found in each experience.
Perhaps more than any other Stephen King novel, the fact that I was two very different people at the time of each reading really shone through in my reactions to the book. Considering the central storyline, that makes a great deal of sense.
Regardless of the fact that I may have been young and dumb and not yet a father of my own children, the death of Gage Creed still floored me. Of course it did. Not because I could place myself in Louis’s shoes and imagine what it felt like to lose a child in such a sorrowful manner, but simply because I couldn’t believe that King did it. Even after the Glick brothers in ‘Salem’s Lot and Tad Trenton in Cujo, I couldn’t believe he did it!
In fact, I was so stunned by Gage’s death and the emotions it stirred, it didn’t even occur to me what was going to happen next. Not until the night before the funeral when Louis got drunk and his mind started wandering to places it shouldn’t have wandered. Another prime example of King’s magic: Louis and I somehow made that dark journey inside our consciences together…
Jud was speaking in his mind:
You do it because it gets hold of you. You do it because that burial place is a secret place, and you want to share the secret…you make up reasons…they seem like good reasons…mostly you do it because you want to. Or because you have to.
There are secret things, Louis…the soil of a man’s heart is stonier…like the soil up in the old Micmac burying ground. A man grows what he can…and he tends it.
What do you want to buy next, Louis, when the wind blows hard at night and the moon lays a white path through the woods to that place? Want to climb those stairs again? When they’re watching a horror movie, everyone in the audience knows the hero or the heroine is stupid to go up those stairs, but in real life they always do—they smoke, they don’t wear seat belts, they move their family in beside a busy highway where the big rigs drone back and forth all day and all night. So, Louis, what do you say? Want to climb the stairs? Would you like to keep your dead son or go for what’s behind Door Number One, Door Number Two, or Door Number Three?
But strangely—or perhaps not so strangely considering where I was in my own life’s timeline—there were other scenes that disturbed me to a far greater degree. Subtle, real life scenes (as opposed to all the supernatural hijinks going on) that I have a feeling many other readers flipped past without a lingering thought.
For instance, Norma Crandall’s funeral…
When Jud stood beside the pallbearers and watched them slide the coffin into the hearse, he said, “Goodbye, Norma. I’ll see you in a while, old girl” – and my heart ached. A page later, when King writes about fading family ties and the inevitability of the present swallowing up the past, my heart broke all the way, and I found myself fearing for my own family ties and promising myself that this would never happen to me:
The burly nephews (or second cousins, or whatever they were) had already done a fade, the simple job of lifting and carrying done. They had grown distant from this part of the family; they had known the woman’s face from photographs and a few duty visits—long afternoons in the parlor eating Norma’s cookies and drinking Jud’s beer, perhaps not really minding the old stories of times they had not lived through and people they had not known, but aware of things they could have been doing all the same (a car that could have been washed and Turtle-waxed, a league bowling practice, maybe just sitting around the TV and watching a boxing match with some friends), and glad to be away when the duty was done.
Jud’s part of the family was in the past now, as far as they were concerned; it was like an eroded planetoid drifting away from the main mass, dwindling, little more than a speck. The past. Pictures in an album. Old stories told in rooms that perhaps seemed too hot to them—they were not old; there was no arthritis in their joints; their blood had not thinned. The past was runners to be gripped and hefted and later let go. After all, if the human body was an envelope to hold the human soul—God’s letters to the universe—as most churches taught, then the American Eternal coffin was an envelope to hold the human body, and to those husky young cousins or nephews or whatever they were, the past was just a dead letter to be filed away.
I remember reading this passage several times, as the ache slowly strangled my heart. Norma and Jud deserved better. We all deserved better. I swore this would never happen to me and the people I cared about.
Of course, as a much older man now, I know better.
There were many other similar moments of reality-based distress for me in Pet Sematary. I recall feeling a profound sadness and disappointment when Jud admitted to his occasional whoring during his telling of the Timmy Baterman story. The “small, white coffin” they buried Gage inside and little Ellie standing at the cemetery, clutching the photo of her pulling her brother in a sled in the snow, stuck in my memory for days after I finished the novel.
And then there was, for me, the most shattering scene of them all. Here are just a handful of excerpts from an excruciatingly lengthy passage:
He held his breath, listening over the papery rustle of his heart.
Here was a sound—not the same one that had awakened him, but something. The faint creak of hinges.
“Louis?” he called but with no real hope. That wasn’t Louis out there. Whatever was out there had been sent to punish an old man for his pride and vanity.
Footsteps moved slowly up the hall toward the living room.
“Louis?” he tried to call again, but only a faint croak emerged because now he could smell the thing which had come into the house here at the end of the night. It was a dirty, low smell—the smell of poisoned tidal flats.
Gage Creed came in, dressed in his burial suit. Moss was growing on the suit’s shoulders and lapels. Moss had fouled his white shirt. His fine blond hair was caked with dirt. One eye had gone to the wall; it stared off into space with terrible concentration. The other was fixed on Jud.
Gage was grinning at him.
“Hello, Jud,” Gage piped in a babyish but perfectly understandable voice. “I’ve come to send your rotten, stinking old soul straight to hell.”
“Norma’s dead, and there’ll be no one to mourn you,” Gage said. “What a cheap slut she was. She fucked every one of your friends, Jud. She let them put it up her ass. That’s how she liked it best. She’s burning down in hell, arthritis and all. I saw her there, Jud. I saw her there.”
“Listen, Jud,” it whispered—and then its mouth hung open, baring small milk teeth, and although the lips did not move, Norma’s voice issued forth.
“I laughed at you! We all laughed at you! How we laaaaaaauuughed—”
“Stop it!” The cleaver jittered in his hand.
“We did it in our bed, Herk and I did it, I did with George, I did it with all of them. I knew about your whores but you never knew you married a whore and how we laughed, Jud! We rutted together and we laaaaaauuughed at—”
I was absolutely devastated.
Dammit, Steve. Kill Church if you have to. Splatter cute little Gage in the middle of the highway if that gives you a good chuckle behind the keyboard. But, for Godsake, don’t mess with sweet old, cookie-baking Norma Crandall.
Norma…a filthy, lying whore? For me, that was a whole lot more disturbing than a moss-covered, evil grinning Gage slicing Jud to death with Louis’s scalpel. I kept turning the pages and praying it was a trick—not my sweet Norma!—but I knew in my heart that it wasn’t. It was the cold, hard truth—and we were stuck with it. Just as in real life, there are some truths even the past can’t erase.
One final note before you all start thinking I’m just a sappy, sentimental fool all but helpless to stop King from yanking at my heartstrings. There’s one other short passage in Pet Sematary I clearly remember being enamored with enough to read aloud to my college friends. This one evokes a completely different type of emotion.
He grabbed Church’s tail, spread the mouth of the bag, and lifted the cat. He pulled a disgusted, unhappy face at the sound the cat’s body made coming up—rrrriiippp as he pulled it out of the frost it had set into.
That right there, folks, is just too cool for school.
* * *
THIS IS NOW…
Chapter 35 of Pet Sematary opens with Louis declaring (after a joyous afternoon of kite flying with his son) that he thinks this is the last happy day of his life—but I think that day comes much earlier, and he just doesn’t know it.
Because nothing is the same after Church dies.
When the Creed family cat is run down out on Route 15, it starts a spiraling chain of events, a dark descent, not unlike what we witness happening to the Torrance family in The Shining. But, unlike the events at the Overlook, this time there is no escape—for anyone.
Follow me on this:
* Church gets run over while Rachel and the kids are away for Thanksgiving.
* Instead of phoning Ellie with the bad news, Louis allows Jud to take him to the Micmac burial ground where they bury Church.
A not-so-quick aside, as this is my absolute favorite section of the entire book. Here are just a few of the passages that held me spellbound from that journey:
The bobbing light of Jud’s flash was part of it. He felt the pervasive, undeniable, magnetic presence of some secret. Some dark secret.
“You know,” Louis said. “I feel better than I have in maybe six years. I know that’s a crazy thing to say when you’re burying your daughter’s cat, but it’s the flat truth, Jud. I feel good.”
“This place can be like that, Louis, and don’t you ever forget it. I hope to God I’m doing right.”
He turned his face up into the wind and felt it sweep past him in an endless current, lifting his hair. It was so cold, so clean…so constant.
“There’s a lot of funny things down this way, Louis. The air’s heavier…more electrical…or something.”
Now the thing out there seemed to be so close that Louis expected to see its shape at any moment, rising up on two legs, perhaps, blotting out the stars with some unthought-of, immense and shaggy body.
Louis opened his mouth again, the words What was that? already on his tongue. Then a shrill, maniacal laugh came out of the darkness, rising and falling in hysterical cycles, loud, piercing, chilling.
The laughter rose, split into dry cackles like some rottenly friable chunk of rock along many fault lines; it reached the pitch of a scream, then sank into a guttural chuckling that might have become sobs before it faded out altogether.
He looked up and saw a billion stars, cold lights in the darkness. Never in his life had the stars made him feel so completely small, infinitesimal, without meaning. He asked himself the question—is there anything intelligent out there?—and instead of wonder, the thought brought a horrid cold feeling…
The wind blew hard up here, but it felt clean. Louis saw a number of shapes just under the gloom cast by the trees—trees which were the oldest, tallest firs he had ever seen. The whole effect of this high, lonely place was emptiness—but an emptiness which vibrated.
The dark shapes were cairns of stones.
And so much more, folks. Hidden pools of quicksand. Forty-five rough steps carved into ancient rock. Swirling ground mist. Things moving out there in the brush…big things…getting closer.
* The next day Church comes back to life—only he’s not quite Church anymore.
There was dried blood caked on Church’s muzzle, and caught in his long whiskers were two tiny shreds of green plastic. Bits of Hefty Bag.
Church purred unevenly and rubbed back and forth along Louis’s ankles. The feel of the cat caused Louis to break out in gooseflesh, and he had to clench his teeth grimly to keep from kicking him away. His furry sides felt somehow too slick, too thick—in a word, loathsome.
Church streaked past him to get it, and Louis could have sworn he smelled sour earth—as if it had been ground into the cat’s fur.
* Soon after, Rachel and the kids arrive home. But things are subtly different. There is a foreboding sense of dread in the air now, and it’s gaining momentum. The kids have new wardrobes, bought and paid for by Louis’s in-laws. Gage is sick and nearly chokes on his vomit. Church continues to smell and act funny and has gone from being an affectionate “he” to an “it.” Soon after, Norma Crandall passes away, and in the aftermath, we learn the story of Rachel’s long deceased sister, Zelda, and the scars she has left on Rachel’s soul. As a result, Louis’s dislike for Rachel’s parents deepens even further. Then, not long after (and keep in mind, we are barely past the halfway mark of the book at this point)…
* …the worst of the worst occurs—as Gage is killed by a speeding truck out on Route 15.
I’ve already written about the deep shock I experienced the first time around when Gage was killed. There wasn’t any shock or surprise this time around. I knew it was coming, I knew I would get to the scene eventually if I kept turning the pages, which probably goes a long way to explaining why it took me so damn long to reread Pet Sematary and sit down and write this essay.
As the father of two young boys, it was just too much—a profound and suffocating emotional numbness.
I put the book down each night, and my head imagined all kinds of real-life possibilities. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t stop myself.
In my own personal life, I had lived the scene where Louis says goodnight to Gage after a wonder-filled afternoon of kite-flying a hundred times over. I knew with great intimacy what that end-of-the-day-snuggle felt like. How amazing it was—and also how scary it was.
True to form, King has Church make an appearance in this scene. The cat is hiding in Gage’s dark closet, perhaps symbolic of the boogeyman hiding in every child’s bedroom closet (or under the bed!) at one time or another. Louis takes control and shoos the cat away, like any responsible parent, and we enjoy the temporary sense that all is okay in the world. All is safe. After all, that’s what any good father or mother does; they protect their child from the boogeymen of the world. They keep them safe.
Only sometimes even the best of fathers are too late to save their children. Sometimes they fail. Sometimes this happens…
Louis had thrown himself forward in a flying tackle, his shadow tracking the ground beneath him…and he believed that the tips of his fingers had actually brushed the back of the light jacket Gage had been wearing, and then Gage’s forward motion had carried him out into the road, and the truck had been thunder, the truck had been sunlight on high chrome, the truck had been the deep-throated, shrieking bellow of an air horn…
Sometimes, folks, the boogeyman wins.
* Okay, deep breath, you know the rest…
Louis’s have-to-see-it-to-believe-it fight with his father-in-law at Gage’s viewing. Gage’s funeral (and that tiny, white coffin) and Louis’s solo drive back to the cemetery later that evening where his fractured mind hatches an impossible plan (I still shiver when I picture him tracing a spiral in the graveyard dirt without even realizing that he’s doing it). Louis reconciling with father-in-law Irwin Goldman and sending Rachel and Ellie back to Chicago with her parents…clearing the way for his hideous plot. The almost unbearable scenes at the cemetery…
The smell hit him first, and Louis recoiled, gagging.
Gently he used his handkerchief to wipe away the damp moss that was growing on Gage’s skin—moss so dark that he had been momentarily fooled into thinking Gage’s whole head was gone.
Looking at his son was like looking at a badly made doll. Gage’s head bulged in strange directions. His eyes had sunken deep behind closed lids. Something white protruded from his mouth like an albino tongue…
“Gage,” he said, and began to rock the boy in his arms. “I love you, Daddy loves you.”
…and Louis’s late night return trip to the Micmac burial ground (can’t you still picture Louis disappearing down the path carrying a bundled-up Gage, as seen over a sleeping Jud’s shoulder from just inside his front window? I certainly can!), where the spirits of the “burying ground” are working at the height of their powers now, not only calling out to Louis but also preventing Jud and Rachel from reaching him in time to stop him. The dark spiral swirling on and on and on…and all the while the clock is ticking, faster and faster, winding us down to our inexorable destination.
But I digress.
Like I said, you all know the rest. No need to go over that horrid final act in any greater detail.
It’s etched in all our memories.
“Darling,” she says, her mouth full of graveyard dirt…and we don’t need to imagine what comes next. We know, in our hearts, it’s not a happy ending.
We don’t need to imagine what comes next—but we do it anyway.
We can’t stop ourselves.
Just as, ultimately, Louis couldn’t stop himself.
* * *
How about the entire freaking last act?
Or the Zelda flashback?
Or Jud’s bloody confrontation with a back-from-the-grave Gage?
Or Rachel’s late night arrival at Jud’s house in the final pages?
Or try this one on for size:
Just before the first signs of dawn touched the sky in the east, there were footsteps on the stairs. They were slow and clumsy but purposeful. A shadow moved in the shadows of the hall. A smell came with it—a stench. Louis, even in his thick sleep, muttered and turned away from that smell. There was the steady pull and release of respiration.
The shape stood outside the master bedroom door for some little time, not moving. Then it came inside. Louis’s face was buried in his pillow. White hands reached out, and there was a click as the black doctor’s bag by the bed was opened.
A low clink and shift as the things inside were moved.
The hands explored, pushing aside drugs and ampules and syringes with no interest at all. Now they found something and held it up. In the first dim light there was a gleam of silver.
The shadowy thing left the room.
Chilling. Understated. Terrifying. And any chance of a happy ending is gone.
I discussed this in great detail up above: Louis and Jud’s first journey to the Micmac burial ground to bury Ellie’s cat, Church.
The scene spans twenty pages or so in my paperback edition and reads like a fever dream of some distant memory. Not merely a scene from a book, but something I once lived and breathed.
It’s scary. Suspenseful. Dreamlike. Nightmarish. Brilliant. Mysterious.
And you can’t turn the pages fast enough.
I think it’s King’s finest writing in Pet Sematary.
A cold hand fell on Louis’s shoulder. Rachel’s voice was grating, full of dirt.
“Darling,” it said.
More than one line, but I don’t care. Still chills me today.
SCENE THAT STILL MAKES ME CRINGE…
So many cringe-worthy scenes to pick from (maybe more than any other King novel). I think I’ll cheat a little and settle on two:
My first choice is the scene where Louis and his father-in-law Irwin Goldman get into a fight at Gage’s viewing. Beginning as a scotch-induced verbal confrontation before quickly escalating to physical, the scene runs nearly six-and-a-half pages in the Pocket Books paperback edition. In other words, just as with the rest of Pet Sematary, King doesn’t let us readers off easily. He doesn’t flinch. Not only is it a brutally uncomfortable scene, it’s a lengthy one, too. It finally ends with Louis sitting on the floor, his face in his hands, and Irwin Goldman sprawled amidst the funeral service flowers, both of them weeping, while a hysterical Rachel is led away by her mother.
But not before this little slice of joy:
The coffin did not actually open and spill Gage’s sad, hurt remains out onto the floor for all of them to gawp at, but Louis was sickly aware that they had only been spared that by the way the coffin had fallen—on its bottom instead of on its side. It easily could have fallen that other way. Nonetheless in that split instant before the lid slammed shut on its broken latch again, he saw a flash of gray—the suit they had bought to put in the ground around Gage’s body. And a bit of pink. Gage’s hand, maybe.
In my mind, it was Gage’s hand we caught a glimpse of—and the image still haunts me today.
Next up is another scene already covered in some detail up above, so I’ll just stick to the basics here: my second choice for most cringe-inducing scene is the final confrontation between a returned-from-the-grave Gage and Jud Crandall. When Gage appears, wearing his moss-covered burial suit and that evil smile of his and starts spewing the darkest of dark truths about Jud’s late wife, Norma, I wanted to simultaneously throw up and hurl the book across the room. It bothered me that much.
Of course, I did neither.
Instead, I turned to the next page.
Damn you, Stephen King!
CHARACTER I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO…
My God, was there anyone left?
I think we all know—despite our best wishes—that good things were not in the cards for Louis’s future…regardless of what that cold hand on his shoulder and that dirt-clogged “Darling” signified.
So, that leaves Ellie. Sweet Ellie with her night terrors and hands clutching her baby brother’s photograph. Ellie’s the Danny Torrance of this story, and lacking any other sensible choices, I guess I would like to know what happens to her.
But only if it’s a happy ending. Okay, Steve? Steve…?
START DATE – March 19, 2016
FINISH DATE – April 23, 2016
The complete list of the books we’ll be reading 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.
Easily King’s creepiest book. The moment when Louis pulls the cotton from Gage’s mouth and his lips make a little plip! sound totally freaks me out!
I would love to know what happened after the ending. What happened to the reanimated Rachel? Did she wander into the woods? Did the cops shoot her down? Did her parents bring Ellie back and find her sitting there, eating Louis’ body? So many questions!
Some of my favorite passages in the book are about Louis and Gage at Disneyland. They really stick in my mind. This is King at the height of his prose powers.
You know, for some reason I was so traumatized by reading the book as a kid that I never did wonder what happened to Rachel afterwards… just great, another dark thing to worry about!
Maybe she’s still out there… somewhere…
I always thought – hoped? – that the things Gage said in Norma’s voice were not truths, but an attempt by the evil thing that used to be Gage to torture Jud before killing him. At least, that’s what I’m going to keep telling myself….
Same here. What f****d up book. I will not be rereading this one. Just reading this essay gave me chills. Cheers!
King is just fearless. I love it. He writes agonizing and heart-wrenching scenes without blinking. His fiction simply put, when he is at his best, is “real” to the reader.
This book just has a feel to it. A feeling that King transcended fiction and is telling us something from his own life.
Another great essay, Richard! One of your best so far! I love this book, but unfortunately I discovered the movie when I was a kid long before I read my first King book, so my original reading of it was spoiled because I already knew what happened. The movie has always stuck with me as the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. Zelda used to haunt me in my nightmares when I was a kid. I would suddenly see this skin and bones, gaunt woman with long red hair running at me screaming that she would twist my back like hers so I could never get out of bed again. Scarred me for life, that movie. LOL
But I originally read the book much later when I was in my late 20’s and I really enjoyed it even though I already knew what was going to happen. Still some of King’s scariest and disturbing writing to this day. After reading it again for SK Revisited this time around, it still never ceases to send a chill up my back and it’s a book you can relate to more and be terrified of more once you get older and get kids of your own in your life. I don’t have any personally, but I have a niece and nephew and I couldn’t stop thinking about them during the scenes of Gage’s death, funeral, and when Louis digs him up. If I had kids of my own, I would think this book would be nearly impossible to read. Either way, it’s an amazing book and one of King’s scariest novels of all time.
I think Gage’s death shattered all of our sheltered existences. Bad things don’t happen to good people, especially babies. I could say so many things I’ve said before, but I love your conversational style. Much like King, I could read you all night.
One of the greatest–and bleakest–passages in all of horror fiction–and maybe the greatest of the 20th century:
The sound of a pantry door being opened. The sound of a cupboard being opened, then slammed shut. The busy whine of the can opener. Last the sound of the garage door opening and closing. And then the house stood empty in the May sunshine, as it had stood empty on that August day the year before, waiting for the new people to arrive… as it would wait for other new people to arrive at some future date, a young married couple, perhaps, with no children (but hopes and plans). Bright young marrieds with a taste for Mondavi wine and Lowenbrau beer–he would be in charge of the Northeast Bank’s credit department, perhaps, she with a dental hygienist’s credential or maybe three years’ experience an optometrist’s assistant. They would congratulate themselves on their lack of superstition, on their hardheadness in snaring the house in spite of its history – they would tell their friends that it had been fire-sale priced and joke about the ghost in the attic and all of them would have another Lowenbrau or another glass of Mondavi and perhaps they would play backgammon or Mille Bourne.
And perhaps they would have a dog.
Missing words from the above for some reason. Here it is complete:
One of the greatest–and bleakest–passages in all of horror fiction–and maybe the greatest of the 20th century:
The sound of a pantry door being opened. The sound of a cupboard being opened, then slammed shut. The busy whine of the can opener. Last the sound of the garage door opening and closing. And then the house stood empty in the May sunshine, as it had stood empty on that August day the year before, waiting for the new people to arrive… as it would wait for other new people to arrive at some future date, a young married couple, perhaps, with no children (but hopes and plans). Bright young marrieds with a taste for Mondavi wine and Lowenbrau beer–he would be in charge of the Northeast Bank’s credit department, perhaps, she with a dental hygienist’s credential or maybe three years’ experience an optometrist’s assistant. He would split half a cord of wood for the fireplace, she would wear high-waisted corduroy pants and walk in Mrs. Vinton’s field, collecting November’s fall grasses for a table centerpiece, her hair in a ponytail, the brightest thing under the gray skies, totally unaware that an invisible vulture rode the air currents overhead.They would congratulate themselves on their lack of superstition, on their hardheadness in snaring the house in spite of its history – they would tell their friends that it had been fire-sale priced and joke about the ghost in the attic and all of them would have another Lowenbrau or another glass of Mondavi and perhaps they would play backgammon or Mille Bourne.
And perhaps they would have a dog.
Excellent essay, on what is still King’s most difficult book–difficult for him the writer, difficult for us the readers. (In his introduction to NIGHT SHIFT he talks about how the imagination is a blade that can sometimes turn on its owner–this must have been perilously closed to being one of those times.) For years it was my least favorite King book, but even as a childless adult I came to realize just how close to the bone this story must have cut. (And I agree with Blu Gilliland–the Gage-thing’s Norma-voice was not telling any truths, it was indulging rather in inhuman cruelty in speaking things that in another reality *might* have been true but were not.) I wrote a lengthy review of PET SEMATARY shortly after it came out, mostly favorable, I like to think, but concluding that the climax–Rachel’s recrudescence–was a cop-out. It reminded me then, and to a lesser extent still does, of the punch-line to an EC horror comic. But over the intervening years I’ve read the book several times–the scenes on the trail to and in the Micmac burying ground remain absolutely stunning–and it has migrated from being my least-favorite King book to being on my shelf of all-time favorite books. Again, excellent, thoughtful essay.
I think most of us wanted to know, in the back of our minds, what happened to Rachel? Another great essay, Richard.
Rich, you hit the nail on the head when you wrote that Steve makes us care about the characters he creates before throwing them into a deep tub of poo with us wondering how they’re ever going to get out of it in one piece. Of course, Steve scares us. But, beyond that, he’s simply the best storyteller out there today. He lulls us into his intricate web and doesn’t allow us to escape until the last page is finally turned. He is the Maestro!
I so agree. People ask me what it is about the stories that draw me in. To me, they quickly become an alternate reality….. I am sooooo drawn in to what these people are experiencing. Plus, Steve is fuckin’ funny as shit. They aren’t stories to me when I’m immersed in them. I really do expect to see these vivid characters at the local Piggly Wiggly!!! Hey, Steve – you hang out in DeFuniak Springs very often – on your way to Duma Key?!!! Call me, free lodging and a hot meal!
I love this site. I tend to re-read my absolute favorites…… rarely do I go back to the tales that got lost to me. These essays bring me back to the ones I may have put aside and not thought about reading again. Thank you for nudging me to re-evaluate where my hand falls on my King library & fall into the stories I enjoyed so long ago!
To me, Pet Sematary is more a Bachman book than a King novel. King’s self-titled novels may not have always had a happy ending but they met his formula set out in Danse Macabre — the disturbance is confronted and vanquished. In Pet Sematary and the first five Bachman books, once things start gong bad they just get worse.
For me, like one of the other posts above, I had watched the movie version (one of my favourite horror/King movies) countless times before finally reading the book. I was, as a kid/teen, always a movie person, and not much of a reader at all (damn the regrets I have about this – I even worked in a book store for 5 years from about 1990-95). A lot of book was spoiled because of this. Zelda terrified me – probably the scariest part of the movie – when I was younger. Today, as a parent, the whole thought of losing a child, and the entire funeral fight scene are just devastating. I think it is in our nature to fear death. Getting old scares me in some ways too ( doesn’t it for everyone? ).
Pet Sematary is such a devastatingly sad story when you look at it as a whole. You see the dark seep out of “normal” appearing people. You witness dread, sadness, loss, and hopelessness. For such a disturbing tale, it is still so engrossing and great. You can also really see how it effects you depending on when you read it, and how long you are, and what you have experienced in your lift at that time.
….”Before you start thinking I’m just a sappy, sentimental fool all but helpless to stop King from yanking at my heartstrings.”
Amen! I get so emotional when reading & trying to explain Kings’ stories. He makes me laugh, He makes me cry. Ive felt love, wonderment & inspiration and Ive felt despair, hatred & madness. He is a Master of Puppets pulling our strings 😉
Pet Semetary made me feel all of the above. My 1st read of it, when I was a teenager was like nothing I’d ever read before. It took my mind hostage and wouldn’t let go. I can remember having day(mares) of the Micmac burial grounds for months afterwards. To this day, If I see deadfall in the woods, Im instantly transported back to the story. As far as horror goes, Pet Semetary tops my list
This time around my heart broke. While I will always love the story, the downward, never ending spiral into madness & incredible sadness was a bit too much to bare. It hurt and at the ending..I told myself that I’d never read it again.
But already…I can hear the whispers of the Wendigo calling me back
This has to be my favorite King book. I know it’s crazy but you have to take that in context. I had a small toddler and was a stay at home Mom when Pet Sementary came out. The parts I loved were the family life before the terror. I still remember King has a line about the magnetic field under the sofa that somehow just sucked in toys (specifically legos in my house) Then there was a slow build to the most terrifying thing imaginable. How would you react?? To this day I don’t know. The temptation to do what Louis does is strong… The whole book is terrifying on so many levelsand its such a slow, brilliant build up. I always avoided rereading this because it was just the perfect book at the perfect time. Now I’m tempted… ..
I met you, Richard, after seeing your picture in the newspaper with a stack of Stephen King books behind you, many of which I had read. Pet Sematary was one of them. I’ve read a number of your essays and find them as compelling as the author you write about. Your critique of this book was thoughtful and spot on. I love your perspective. Gary from Baltimore.
I read this book when I was 17, a mixed up teenager with zero plans or even thoughts to have a child, and good God it destroyed me. Louis’ reaction to Gage’s demise and the ensuing maelstrom were too much to bear. Now with a baby of my own, I can’t even fathom re-reading this, no way. For me, King is at his absolute best when describing not the monsters, clowns, evil cars, demons etc, but when describing the terrible, dark and twisted things that reach up from the pits of our own hearts, close around our throats, and don’t let go. That is his true talent.