Pet Sematary is a 1983 horror novel by Stephen King. The story follows the Creed family—husband and wife Louis and Rachel, their five-year-old daughter Ellie, two-year-old son Gage, and Ellie’s cat named Church—who have just moved from Chicago to an idyllic country house near the small town of Ludlow, Maine, with Louis starting a new job as a physician at the University of Maine. It takes some adjusting to at first, but the family finds themselves very taken with the property and their new neighbors.
The nearby woods hide an unearthly secret, however, something altogether more strange than the macabre yet innocent “pet sematary” that has been maintained by the children of the town for several decades. Some say the ground in this hidden place has gone sour but nevertheless contains a terrible power that people cannot help being drawn in by. As tragedy strikes the Creed family thanks to the dangerous traffic that plagues their road, Louis struggles with the cold, hard truth that sometimes…dead is better.
For me, a book like this is almost always an interesting read simply because it offers a unique type of reading experience. Namely, the story of this book is so ubiquitous in popular culture, thanks in large part to adaptations, that it’s hard to start reading it without feeling like you already know everything that’s about to unfold. Even before I had seen the recent film adaptation, I knew of the fate of the family’s cat as an ill portents of things to come, as well as that of their youngest. In his grief, Louis buries his recently deceased son in this strange, eldritch ground, and he comes back the very next day, only wrong—altogether unlike the sweet child he used to be. This indeed is what happens, but I did not in fact know how the story unfolds, and I have come to appreciate just how much talk and adaptation of this story have come up short in capturing what it is really all about.
The early sections of the book are predominantly concerned with getting the reader familiar with the Creed family, the horror looming more on the horizon and making veiled promises of anguish to come. Though this is mostly told through the perspective of Louis specifically, I think King did a good job about making me care about all of them, due in large part to the fact that they don’t feel too idealized. The love Louis and his wife Rachel share for each other and their children is very apparent, but they still bristle against each other every so often, especially in the opening scene with the stresses of moving. As I often find with King, we are given an honest portrayal of people’s thoughts and feelings, even if they sometimes come across as bitter. We are all prone to such moods.
I was especially fond of the relationship that grows between Louis and their elderly neighbor Jud, whom the story declares as “the man who should have been Louis’s father.” This is such a bold sentiment, a more positive angle of this earnestness we get from King’s writing, and I love the way it sets the tone for their relationship in the opening pages without dwelling too much on it. This relationship has something of a tragic edge to it as well, since this closeness with Jud is what leads to him teaching Louis about the burial ground, which ties in well with the motif of fatherly intentions to protect others from hardship doing more harm than good.
Tragedy abounds in this novel more than I expected, particularly in the classical sense. I was surprised with just how much the inevitable outcome of this story is plainly telegraphed to the reader pretty early on, for example, with the spectre of Victor Pascow warning Louis of the evil nature of the burial ground beyond the deadfall, long before Gage’s untimely passing. It gave me a profound sense of classical Tragedy, where the outcome seems a foregone conclusion from the start, yet a fatal flaw in our well-intentioned hero compels him down a destructive path from which there is no return, no matter the signs that can be read plain as day.
This is further enhanced by the fact that Gage’s eventual return from the dead is actually such a minuscule part of the story, happening close to the very end, which I found especially unexpected and is connected to what I think a lot of things get wrong when adapting this story. The dead returning—Church the cat, and then Gage—is not the true horror of this story. The true horror (or perhaps I should say terror) lies in the atmosphere of grief that permeates the narrative and the ways in which we can utterly succumb to such feelings. This was captured well with how we are told of Gage’s passing, but never experience it as it happens in the narrative. Louis is constantly trying to process what exactly happened, so much so that you get a clear picture of it all as time goes on, but always in retrospect. Further, like many stressful or traumatic events, it takes on a disassociated quality, as if Louis is trying to recall something that happened to somebody else.
The despair that ensues makes Louis’s hope that Gage will return just as he was all the more believable, even though it is a fool’s hope, and we spend so much time with Louis in the process of retrieving his son’s body precisely because of how compelling this hope is. The dread is effectively palpable by this point in the story, but you know he cannot stop. What’s more, this is another stand-out novel from King where a place of profound evil is the true agent of horror, not ghouls or ghosts. Its influence is subtle yet apparent, and I really enjoyed the otherworldly quality of it, especially as characters must traverse to the burial ground itself, where things can be heard moving in the dark and the sky is lit by unfamiliar stars. You never fully understand completely what it is, what resides there, or what their motives are, only that it’s an awful place full of awesome power.
This review was a long time coming; I regret that I wasn’t able get this up closer to when I finished reading the novel, when it was fresher in my mind, but it was also one of my favourite reads from last year, so I did not want to leave this unfinished. Pet Sematary is definitely one of King’s best works; if you only read a handful of his novels in your lifetime, this is a pretty safe bet, though your mileage may vary with the subject matter, as dealing with the death of a child can be a difficult subject to consider so closely. Some of the tropes are perhaps archaic or overused now too, especially with some of the connections the novel attempts to make with Native American beliefs, but I can forgive it for never feeling outright tasteless in its use of such ideas, crafting a tale that is deserving of its place as a seminal work in the horror genre.
My Rating: 4 out of 5