I read very little Stephen King growing up, partly because Douglas Adams was more my kind of thing, and partly because my brother read King and we took care not to infringe on each other’s pop culture obsessions (e.g. I loved Metallica, he loved Megadeth, and never the twain shall meet). But when I moved to King’s home state of Maine in June, I had the frightfully clichéd idea that now was the time for me to catch up on all the stories I’d heard so much about and/or seen in movie form. The first one I picked up might be the Maine-iest of all – 1983’s Pet Sematary.
“…Gage was still in his crib, sleeping in typical Gage fashion, spread-eagled on his back, a bottle within easy reach. Louis paused there looking in at his son, his heart abruptly filling with a love for the boy so strong that it seemed almost dangerous.”
–Stephen King, Pet Sematary
As somebody who doesn’t have kids, I’ve been told many times that everything changes once they enter your life, and not just your sleep patterns; your love for this small and helpless thing you helped create becomes so intense, it does something to the fiber of your being. Call me naive or unfeeling, but that scares the shit out of me. Which goes a long way towards explaining why Pet Sematary really got me good.
The plot is standard horror fare – Doctor Louis Creed moves his wife Rachel and two children (Ellie and Gage) from Chicago to a big old farmhouse in Ludlow, Maine, where he was recruited to run a college infirmary. He immediately befriends Jud Crandall, the 83-year-old man who lives across the highway (and regular trucker route), when Jud plucks a bee stinger out of Gage with unexpected dexterity. Jud proves to be a well of knowledge about the woods abutting the Creed property, eventually leading the whole family on a hike up to an old, seemingly harmless pet cemetery. Yet the trip really bothers both Rachel and Ellie, the specter of death not something they’re comfortable thinking about (especially Rachel, whose gruesome, bone-chilling memories of her late sister Zelda make for some of the book’s most visceral moments). Soon after, with the wife and kids away visiting the in-laws, the family cat Winston Churchill is run over by a passing semi, and Louis’ heart breaks at the thought of having to tell his daughter. Jud, who feels he owes Louis for saving his wife Norma when she had a heart attack, tells him there’s a special place they can bury it …
You probably have a good idea where the story goes from there. Suffice it to say that it’s not the last we see of the Creed family cat, and after a gut-wrenchingly tragic human death, things get a whole lot worse. But – and this is something I never really expected to think about King’s writing – the storytelling isn’t what makes Pet Sematary truly horrifying. It’s that the thing driving Louis to drag corpse after corpse into the woods is the same thing that parents always use as a selling point – a love so strong, it changes everything. In the blink of an eye, those unfathomably intense feelings for your fragile creation can transform into crippling fear, or worse – the kind of grief that forever warps the mind.
So while King’s writing is as satisfyingly pulpy as ever, gleefully regaling the sluggish movements of a reanimated house cat in sickening detail – right down to its un-Febreze-able grave-stench – his creation claws at something deeper within our hearts. Yes, this is the kind of scary story you could tell around a campfire. But it’s also one that confronts people who say they’d do anything for their child, and asks them, “Anything?”
On our next trip through King country, we’ll talk about The Shining, a King book that has the rare task of living up to its movie adaptation. I suspect I’ll agree with Stanley Kubrick’s decision to trim the hedge animals (from the script).