Stephen King’s 1983 classic (?). I read a well-loved (and slightly molding) first edition that’s been in the family for the last thirty-odd years.
4.5 out of 5 stars.
Times Read: At least 3.
Seen the Movie: Many times. It was my first horror movie and, Lord, did it give me some complexes…
Doctor Louis Creed and his young family move from Chicago to Maine. After the death of the family cat, an older local shows Louis a secret burial ground where the dead come back. But what’s buried here comes back changed.
Pet Sematary is a modern “Monkey’s Paw” with touches of Lovecraftian mythos. It succeeds but is a hard book to read. It doesn’t sit in the normal comfort zone of horror. That may sound contradictory (How does horror have a comfort zone?).
In horror, we usually look in from the edge of a frightening situation. It couldn’t happen to us; we would make the right decisions. There’s a thrill in looking into the darkness while knowing we are in our home, safe. Escapism.
Pet Sematary doesn’t give any edges to escape into. The horror is not in unknown or unlikely but in the absolutely certain: We all die. The only way to avoid the death of loved ones is to go first.
Compared to the bulk of Stephen King’s work, Pet Sematary is a short book with a small cast and an anomalous lead. King leans toward morally binary characters without much room for gray. Louis Creed is disturbingly gray. He drinks too much, he takes his wife and children for granted, he holds grudges, he’s selfish.
It’s not villainous or a sign of an impending breakdown. This isn’t Jack Torrance in The Shining. Creed is a successful doctor with a successful marriage and King, instead of glorifying him and making each action and thought pure and perfect, allows very human flaws to slip in.
We don’t dislike Louis – we see ourselves in him. Selfish with love for our families, we would make the same decisions if given the chance.
Rachel glanced at Louis, who was sitting in the window-seat with Gage on his lap. The baby was almost asleep. There was something sad in Rachel’s glance and although she looked away quickly, Louis felt a moment of terrible panic. We’re really going to get old, he thought. It’s really true. No one’s going to make an exception for us. She’s on her way… and so are we.
He more than half suspected that one of the things which had kept their marriage together when it seemed as if each year brought the news that two or three of their friend’s marriages had collapsed was their respect of the mystery – the half-grasped but never spoken idea that maybe, when you got right down to the place where the cheese binds, there was no such thing as marriage, no such thing as union, that each soul stood along and ultimately defied rationality. That was the mystery. And no matter how well you thought you knew your partner, you occasionally ran into blank walls or fell into pits. And sometimes (rarely, thank God) you ran into a full-fledged pocket of alien strangeness, something like the clear-air turbulence that can buffet an airliner for no reason at all. An attitude or belief which you had never suspected, one so peculiar (at least to you) that it seemed nearly psychotic. And then you trod lightly, if you valued your marriage and your peace of mind; you tried to remember that anger at such a discovery was the province of fools who really believed it was possible for one mind to know another.
A couple of interesting things here (other than this simply being a good passage): It begins with “he/their” and ends with universal “you/yours” statements; the rolling-train feeling is increased by starting several sentences with “and” near the end.
“What happened to him?” he asked Steve, aware that it was, under the circumstances, a stupid and pointless question.
 The King-iest bit of the book (I say that as a compliment):
He did not look down or search for footholds. It came to him with a strange but total surety that the deadfall could not harm him unless he allowed it to. It was a piece of utter assholery of course, like the stupid confidence of a man who believes it’s safe to drive when totally shitfaced as long as he’s wearing his St. Christopher’s medallion.
But it worked.
It had also occurred to him that the whole adventure had been dangerous – not in any melodramatic Wilkie Collins sense but in a very real one.
Wilkie Collins (1824 – 1889) was an English novelist, playwright and short story writer. His book The Woman in White (1859) is considered among the first mystery novels; The Moonstone (1868) the first modern English detective novel. Was a close friend of Charles Dickens.
 The standby Stephen King foreshadowing is used several times in Pet Sematary, to good effect:
She had recovered nicely from her heart attack, and on that evening less than ten weeks before a cerebral accident would kill her, he thought that she looked less haggard and actually younger.
“Wearin his bib overalls and his pillow-tick cap.”
Ticking is a cotton or linen textile that is tightly woven for durability and to prevent down feathers from poking through the fabric, and used to cover mattresses and bed pillows.
Image searching “pillow tick cap” shows hats that look like my childhood idea of train conductors.
“I certainly hope so,” Ellie said in a comical dowager’s voice.
noun – a widow with a title or property derived from her late husband.
(informal) a dignified elderly woman.
 Q: Does Mount Hope Cemetery actually exist in Bangor?
A: Yes. It’s the second oldest garden cemetery (landscaping in a park-like setting) in the United States. The film version of Pet Sematary used Mount Hope for its graveyard scenes.
“Like what happened to Audrey Rose in that movie on TV.”
Audrey Rose is a 1977 psychological horror/drama film. It was based on the novel of the same name by Frank De Felitta (1975). The plot deals with a young girl who is believed by a man to be the reincarnation of his dead daughter.
 King foreshadows Gage’s fate but, thankfully, doesn’t draw it out. We are given details about the accident in flashback form instead of a grisly real-time play-by-play of the toddler’s death (which would have pushed this book into realm of absolutely inaccessible).
And Gage, who now had less than two months to live, laughed shrilly and joyously. “Kite flyne! Kite flyne, Daddy!”
Not knowing that marbles were really not the problem, and chills were really not the problem, that a large Orinco truck was going to be the problem, that the road was going to be the problem…
“Louis,” Steve said, “you’ve got to get hold of yourself.”
Louis looked at Steve, politely questioning. Not much of what Steve had said had gotten through – he had been thinking that if he had been a little quicker he could have saved his son’s life – but a little of this last registered.
“I don’t think you’ve noticed,” Steve said, “but Ellie isn’t vocalizing. And Rachel has had such a bad shock that her very conception of time seems to have been twisted out of shape.”
“Right!” Louis said. More force in reply seemed to be indicated here. He wasn’t sure why.
 King captures the absurdity of maintaining social conventions while grieving; how everything takes on a nightmare strangeness. I first read Pet Sematary when I was eleven (I don’t recommend it) and it forever skewed my opinion of funerals.
Feeling like a creature in a dream, he said, “I’m going to pay for everything with my MasterCard.”
“Fine,” the mortician said.
The friends and relatives were supposed to sign the book with their names and addresses. Louis had never had the slightest idea what the purpose of this mad custom might be, and he did not ask now. He supposed that when the funeral was over, he and Rachel would get to keep the book. That seemed the maddest thing of all.
“Poor Louis and poor Rachel.” And suddenly Louis knew what she was going to say next, and for some reason he dreaded it; yet it was coming, unavoidable, like a black bullet of a large caliber from a killer’s gun, and he knew that he would be struck over and over by this bullet in the next interminable ninety minutes, and then again in the afternoon, while the wounds of the morning were still trickling blood:
“Thank God he didn’t suffer, Louis. At least it was quick.”
Louis was told how merciful it was that Gage hadn’t suffered thirty-two times by his own inner count. He was told that God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform twenty-five times. Bringing up the rear was he’s with the angels now, a total of twelve times.
She signed for herself and her husband (…) in round Palmer-method script.
The Palmer Method of penmanship instruction was developed by Austin Palmer (1860 – 1927) in the late 19th century.
He looked almost absurdly like Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin with his bald head and Coke-bottle glasses.
Menachem Begin (1913 – 1992) was (yes, obviously) the Prime Minister of Israel from 1977 – 1983. He signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, for which he and Anwar Sadat shared the Nobel Prize for Peace. He left office by resignation and spent the rest of his life in seclusion.
Louis thought of the science fiction novels he had read as a teenage – novels by Robert A. Heinlein, Murray Leinster, Gordon R. Dickson.
Murray Leinster (1896 – 1975) was the penname of William Fitzgerald Jenkins, an American writer. He is credited with the invention of parallel universe stories. His novella “First Contact” is credited as one of the first (possible the first) instances of a universal translator. Also, in 1946’s “A Logic Named Joe,” he gave one of the first descriptions of a computer (called a “logic”) in fiction. He imagined logics in every home, linked through a distributed system of servers (called “tanks”) to provide communications, entertainment, data access, and commerce. (Why haven’t I heard of this guy?!)
Gordon R. Dickson (1923 – 2001) was a Canadian-American science fiction writer. He is probably most famous for his Childe Cycle and the Dragon Knight series.
He heard the tired old question Are you all right? rising to his lips and pushed it back. It wasn’t a true question; it wasn’t what he really wanted to know.
“How bad are you?” he asked finally.
 Again, like in The Magus (Post 1, note ), we have someone calling something old after less than twenty years. Pet Sematary takes place in 1984, and we get this:
What was that old song by the Animals? Baby please don’t go, baby PLEASE don’t go.
(Pedantic aside: I don’t think The Animals released a studio version of “Baby, Please Don’t Go”; it was something they’d do live. King/Louis is likely thinking of the version released by Them in 1964.)
I feel like we’ve increased our time before we call something “old.” At least, I think we have…
Maybe I’m just getting old.
“I’m kind of like the preacher in Clesiastes – I don’t believe that there’s anything new under the sun.”
This is Jud’s Maine-ism for the Bible book Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes 1:9 : “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
“So far as anyone knew she could have been single or divorced or grass-widowed.”
A grass-widow is a woman whose husband is away often or for a prolonged period (I’ve heard this called a “farmer’s widow”).
A fine and private place, he thought, but none, I think, do there embrace. Who? Andrew Marvel?
Andrew Marvell (Pet Sematary misspells his name) (1621 – 1678) was an English metaphysical poet, satirist and politician. The lines quoted here are from “To His Coy Mistress,” written ~1649 – 1660.
The voice of Tom Rush echoed dreamily in his head: O death your hands are clammy… I can feel them on my knees… you came and took my mother… won’t you come back after me?
Tom Rush (b. 1941) is an American folk and blues singer. The lyrics are from “Wasn’t That a Mighty Storm,” about the 1900 Galveston, Texas hurricane. The song originated as a spiritual and was popularized by Rush in the 1960s.
 After spending most of the book in Louis’s third person POV, we get scenes from Rachel and Jud’s perspectives as Louis is working to retrieve Gage’s body from the graveyard. It winds the tension up and sets the stage for the climax.
Knowing which characters to use (and when) to tell is a story is a tricky, subtle thing. King is very good at it, using as many or as few characters as necessary and not painting himself into corners of convention. I need to work on this in my own writing.
 We get almost no information about Louis and Rachel’s physical appearances (no hair style, no eye color, etc.). Ellie and Gage and Jud, yes, but not our main characters, so it’s a little odd for King to now tell us:
Louis Creed was a fairly tall man, standing a bit over six-two.
That sounds like a Chapter One detail, you know?
Climb a tree, shinny along a branch, drop into a graveyard, watch lovers…
verb – (North American) – another term for shin (which, as a verb, means to climb quickly up or down by gripping with one’s arms and legs).
I’ve always thought the word for this was “shimmy.” I must have heard it wrong as a kid. (That’s an annoying thirty-year mistake…)
Shimmy can mean:
dance the shimmy; shake or sway the body; move effortlessly; glide with a swaying motion; shake or vibrate abnormally.
But it doesn’t mean to climb up or down. So, note to self: One SHINNYs up a tree.
So they sat and drank about the potbellied Defiant, watching the red glow of the coals shift and change behind the cloudy isinglass.
noun – a kind of gelatin obtained from fish, especially sturgeon, and used in making jellies, glue, etc., and for clarifying ale.
(United States) – mica or a similar material in thin transparent sheets.
 King gives a nod to the Lovecraftian influence with his word choice here:
He became aware that the wet, damp air had taken on an eldritch, sickening smell like warm, spoiled pork.
…and W. W. Jacobs’s “Monkey’s Paw” by quoting it leading into Part Three (p.342).
Roller skates that shot nurdy little kids into busy intersections.
Alternate spelling of “nerdy.” And for today’s edition of Did You Know? Dr. Seuss is credited with the first known occurrence of the word nerd.
 One of the few missteps in this book (which the movie smartly avoids) is having resurrected-Gage speak:
“Hello, Jud,” Gage piped in a babyish but perfectly understandable voice. “I’ve come to send your rotten, stinking old soul straight to hell. You fucked with me once. Did you think I wouldn’t come back sooner or later and fuck with you? (…) Norma’s dead and they’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.”
This is an Exorcist gimmick: how horrific! a child is saying foul things!
Also straight from The Exorcist, Gage speaks with the voices of the dead:
“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 laaaaaauuughed-”
Imagining a toddler spewing this stuff is more schlocky than frightening. The film gets a point for having Gage chitter like an animal, giving no clear words except actual childish ones, in a proper child’s voice (“No fair… no fair…”) as he’s dying. Again.
 After Church (the family cat) is neutered, Louis goes from thinking of the cat as a “he” to “it.” Gage is also referred to as “it” in Jud’s section after he is resurrected.
Rachel does the same to the cat:
Church was there, sitting in the hallway with its tail coiled neatly around its feet.
But then switches a page later:
Church opened his mouth, exposing his sharp teeth.
Intentional? Oversight? Mistake?
It seemed to him that he turned over and over, looped the loop, did a dipsy doodle or two, slipped an Immelmann.
The Immelmann turn can refer to two different aircraft maneuvers. The name comes from Max Immelmann (1890 – 1916), the first German World War I flying ace.
They would play backgammon or Mille Bourne.
Mille Bornes (spelled incorrectly in Pet Sematary, but the pronunciation is “Born,” so it’s possible that the spelling “Bourne” was/is used in the United States) is a French card game, created in 1954. The term is French for “a thousand milestones.”
The ending is a chilling, haunting, in-your-thoughts-for-days achievement. Louis is done for, that much we can agree on. But what then? What does zombie-Rachel do next? What does the town think when they find Jud’s body in his burned house along with a week-dead, supposed-to-be-buried toddler?
Make sure you’re in a good emotional place if you plan to read Pet Sematary. It’s going to bring up things you’re probably trying to avoid by sitting down with a book.
If you haven’t read any King and you’re curious, start with his first short story collection Night Shift (1978). If you don’t like anything in it, you can walk away from King not having missed out on anything. If you do like it, you now have about seventy books to put on your to-read list.
Let’s go lighter next week. How’s The Neverending Story sound to everyone?