Pet Sematary is only the second book I’ve read by Stephen King, and despite being only a few books into his extensive career, it’s easy to see that he has already managed to solidify a writing style and add layers of shellac to his auteurial themes.
It’s easy to get lost in King’s Maine, where the world is raw and the supernatural manages to bleed in when you look at things out of the corner of your eyes, and history casts a deep and ominous shadow on the present. Ludlow of Pet Sematary is no different. Louis Creed moves his family to a house on a busy country highway – a road that “uses up” pets, small critters and children more than most. He quickly makes friends with his aging neighbour Jud, and his wife Norma, a friendship that become his undoing when Jud tells Louis more about the area than he had a right to.When his daughter’s favourite cat, Church, dies, Jud can’t resist telling Louis about the secret of the Pet Sematary, which in only a front for the ancient and powerful, accessible if you know the trick of it. Louis buries the cat in the hidden graveyard, and the cat comes back alive… mostly. It’s accompanied by a sense of wrongness, an otherly intelligence, and an inescapable stench of a grave dirt. Louis is put off by the cat, and agrees that sometimes dead is better, but when his son dies tragically on the road, suddenly all his reason to not use the power of the graveyard once more fall away, and Louis brings back something he shouldn’t.
The thing a first-time reader should understand about King’s writing is there a reason he is so lauded. He has writing style that lends itself to classic contemporary novels and then skillfully weaves in the horror elements until you have a piece of art. His old covers may look like pulp-fiction, but there is nothing pulpy about his work.
One thing I didn’t expect when I picked up Pet Sematary: most of the book, a good 4/5ths, takes place before Louis raises his son from the dead. That was shocking. I can understand on some level why King made that decision. He gives you a long time to sink into Louis’s mindset, to let you full experience his thought-process, as he eventually justifies bringing his son back, even if he’s changed.
In the time it take to make it to the final 1/5 of the book, I forgot I was reading a horror novel. It’s easy to be drawn in by the Creed family’s daily life: their precious moments with their son Gage, the wife Rachel’s phobia of death, the daughter Elllie’s dawning understanding of death and irrevocable loss, and Louis’s wrestling the mysteries of life and death through the lens of a logical doctor and an emotion father. I enjoyed the first 4/5ths of the book lot more than I think I was supposed to, and it felt like I was reading a creepy magical realism story about grief.
Consequently, the final 1/5ths felt like a short story King wrote for fun with the same characters of his other novel. It flowed logically, the pieces for the end were laid out and assembled in the right order, but it didn’t flow emotionally. The story makes sense if you accept that there is a dark force waiting to seize on your grief and twist it to it’s own dark means. I had a hard time accepting it. By the time Gage was resurrected, I just wanted him to get on with it. I missed my magical realism novel.
Gage, himself, was a bit of a let down as the penultimate evil avatar of the dark cemetery. While he did have Church as a sidekick, I honestly can’t imagine a toddler getting the drop on adults who are fully aware know he’s coming, and he indeed proves easy to overpower in the end. It’s interesting to see, in the movie, that they changed the child who dies to Ellie, who might have more of a sinister edge to her, and a plotting intelligence. I believe it’s a needed change to the story, especially for a screen adaptation.
But, I suppose, the creeping horror is supposed to come from Louis in the end, anyway.
Overall, I enjoyed Pet Sematary. I loved it’s imagery, it’s creeping sense of wrongness, the symbolism deep enough that it’s whispering ‘there is an essay in here somewhere’ in the back of your mind. I love to fact that it still has me thinking about it, even a few days after I’ve finished it. It just so happened to be that, for me, the strongest part of Pet Sematary is the middle, and there aren’t a lot of books that you can say that about.
One thought that occurred to me after I finished this book: despite having two small children and living in a house sandwiched between a road that oil tankers thunder down and a large forest it’s possible to get lost in, it doesn’t even occur to Louis to put up a fence.