Pet Sematary (1983)

After the slightly unsatisfying experience presented by my recent reading of Christine, we move on to an enduring favourite King novel of mine, Pet Sematary. An exploration of death and our attitudes towards this most certain of states, King's ninth novel burrowed into my mind during my teenage years and lodged there - enabling me to clearly recall, in the years between then and now, the chill which certain scenes provoked at the time of reading.

The plot opens on a family arriving at their new home on the outskirts of Ludlow, Maine. Dr Louis Creed, due to start work at the small university medical centre, is accompanied by his wife, Rachel, and their two young children, Ellie and Gage. They are welcomed by their elderly neighbour, Jud Crandall - one of a number of wise, lovable old men who populate King's works. Jud's warning about the busy country road which separates their properties is slipped into their initial conversation with little fanfare, although it is only the first of various portents of what is to follow.

One Saturday, Jud takes the family up the track which runs into the woods at the top of their property, and which leads to the Pet Sematary. This is a place sacred to Ludlow's children, where generations of kids have buried their animals. The Pet Sematary is comprised of concentric circles of grave markers, most faded with age, filling a natural clearing in the forest (for example, "IN MEMORY OF MARTA OUR PET RABIT DYED MARCH 1 1965")*. This backs onto a deadfall - a tumbled down stack of old branches and tree trunks - which marks its boundary; beyond lie deeper woods. During this afternoon ramble, King throws out little hints that things may not be quite what they seem: a turn of phrase from Jud, a distracted query in Louis's mind. But the trip to the Pet Sematary serves another purpose as well: to introduce the topic of death. Having been confronted with the evidence of the grave markers, five-year-old Ellie begins to contemplate the potential loss of the family cat, Church, and death in general. This leads to a furious row between Louis and Rachel, essentially highlighting their respective attitudes towards death: Louis rationally accepts that death is a part of life, but Rachel becomes hysterical whenever the subject is brought up (we later discover that this is the result of her childhood guilt over the agonised, protracted death of her sister Zelda from spinal meningitis).

However, Louis is swiftly forced to deal with a death of his own, when - on the first day of term - a student is hit by a car on campus. Victor Pascow's injuries are horrific (his head half crushed, a collarbone jutting from the flesh of his shoulder), but King also uses him to foreshadow what is to follow. The dying student addresses Louis by name, whispering cryptic statements about the Pet Sematary, which is sinister enough - but, that night, Pascow visits Louis in his dreams, leading him up the path into the woods and delivering a stern warning that the deadfall must not be crossed. Louis wakes up from this nightmare, only to find that his feet are covered in dirt and fir needles. It's a jolting moment, coming as it does during the first minutes of consciousness, but the implications are more disturbing still. Was he sleepwalking? Was he even asleep? King refuses to answer this directly, but one thing is clear: Pascow is a harbinger of doom.

Spoilers ahead! There follows a sequence of events which draw Louis and his family inexorably into danger. Louis takes Church to the vet to be neutered, thinking that he will be less likely to roam into the road. Jud's wife, Norma, suffers a minor heart attack, and Louis is on hand to provide an immediate response. Rachel takes the children away to her parents' house in Chicago for Thanksgiving, leaving Louis behind in Ludlow. King artfully brings these circumstances together when Church is killed on the road, and the scene is set for one of the key passages in the novel. Thinking to reward Louis for his earlier medical help, Jud takes him out to the ‘real’ cemetery, which lies in the deep woods beyond the deadfall: a shunned Indian burial ground. The journey is fraught with eerie mystery, and King creates a genuine sense of tension as they proceed past unseen entities in the fog and finally bury Church on the sinister Micmac plateau. Jud is evasive throughout this strange night, refusing to explain the purpose of their exhausting trek until later. By the time Church reappears miraculously resurrected the next morning, King has the reader in the palm of his hand. We are invested in his characters to such an extent that we simply accept the resurrection and its consequences: Church has come back wrong, stinking of soil and death and exhibiting signs of being a much more predatory creature than he was before.

Major spoilers ahead! There is something horribly inevitable about the death of Gage on the road several months later. The shock of the incident itself (he is run over by a truck) and the Creeds’ natural responses to it immediately suggest to the reader some of what will follow. Rachel’s stunned grief isolates Louis, pushing him to consider the unthinkable in an effort to save their combined sanity. King uses an awful funeral scene between Louis and his father-in-law to build the pressure on Louis’s fragile mental state. Jud’s warnings about the history of the Micmac burial ground fall on deaf ears, despite their hints of abomination, cannibalism and the supernatural evil of the wendigo spirit. From this point on, King repeatedly stresses that Louis feels himself to be on the edge of madness, but he is powerless to resist the dread temptation to bring his young son back to life.

While we are never completely sure about Jud’s motivations in exposing Louis to the burial ground in the first instance, it gradually becomes clear that the place exerts a tremendous force over them both (and indeed over numerous people in the past). Although Jud only ever wanted to help Louis, he comes to realise that he has been used to feed the demonic hunger of the place, and has allowed himself to be co-opted at least partly willingly. The compulsion of the burial ground plays on the natural instinct to deny death and the pain it brings.

And so we come to one of my favourite scenes in the book, as Louis sets out to retrieve his son’s body. In his examination of the genre, Danse Macabre, King discusses the archetype of the ghoul, and it is interesting to see how he deals with the subject in Pet Sematary. Grave-robbing is one of the most powerful taboos in human society – which, of course, has not prevented its occurrence throughout history – and this section is necessarily harrowing. King expertly draws it out to almost unbearable lengths as Louis breaks into the graveyard, digs up his son and attempts to get him back to his car, all the while threatened with discovery and exposure. That we are torn between hope on Louis’s behalf and horror at what he is doing is a testament to the breathless quality of the writing. His subsequent nightmarish trip up to the burial ground with Gage’s body develops this tension in the reader. After all, we know what the results of Louis’s actions will be – and yet he remains a heart-rending study in human fallibility. Gage’s return as a murderous revenant is tragic in its inevitability, and his actions fulfil our worst fears, leading to the deaths of both Jud and Rachel. And yet King refuses to let us off the hook even at this late stage, producing possibly the most terrible, sinister ending to any of his works.

Without wishing to labour the point, King’s focus on death differentiates this book from the majority of his novels. It is so steeped in the trappings of doom and despair with which we surround death that there seems to be no escape, no hope. And yet it is not depressing (as it could very easily have been), but invigorating. My rereading of the novel concluded at around 2am on a cold, windy night, and I experienced the same horrified (and yet delighted) shudder when I read its closing lines as I had when I was a teenager. On that basis, I think Pet Sematary is destined to remain one of my favourites for the foreseeable future.

Notes for the obssesive factfan: Jud refers to the events of Cujo, and Rachel drives past the turning to Jerusalem’s Lot shortly before she falls victim to Gage’s scalpel. Also, at the end of his awful first proper day at work, Louis receives the (infamous?) handjob in the bath which various people discussed in the comments to an earlier post. Just letting you know…

* The misspelling of 'cemetery' on the sign marking the entrance to this sacred ground is likewise the work of a child from times past.

Next: Cycle of the Werewolf.


Sasha said...

You have tempted me with this one. The idea of how far someone might go in their grief is horribly compelling, although quite why there has to be so much misery and despair in what you've described begs a lot questions. Some writers you feel really love their characters and either can barely let them go or at least have to let them off a hook, but it seems that King can't help but put them through every conceivable ring of Hell. And are the revanants technically zombies, or is that too conventional a description?

Dan said...

I think one of King's real strengths is his characterisation. He genuinely does seem fond of his main characters - and this fondness is then transferred to the reader. Which makes the horrific things which subsequently happen to them all the worse for us: the horror we experience is proportionate to our involvement with the characters. I'll be writing about this is greater detail when I review It, which I'm currently reading. And loving, once again.

And the revenants in Pet Sematary aren't zombies as such. It's more that they're animated by the evil lurking up in the burial ground.

Stephen Thorne said...

From the first chapter onwards Louis Creed was really annoying. Why didn't he just do as Jud said? I suppose that would make for a rubbish story but I couldn't sympathise with most of his thinking.

Melanie said...

I had never read any of his novels. Very recently a good friend of mine, an avid King fan encouraged me to read Pet Sematary. I love, love, love this story! What I love about Stephen is he makes me think, "What would I do?"
I'm a King fan now and went on to read, Full Dark No Stars. I'll be reading more in the future. Gunslinger for sure.