In the introduction to Pet Sematary Stephen King says it’s the most frightening book he’s ever written. When he read it back, he was horrified. He put it in a drawer like an old letter you never want to see again but can’t part with and carried on writing stories.
If not for an expiring publishing contract requiring just one more book it might have stayed there, and any one of the people who read it would have led a duller, blissful, and more ignorant life.
You see, Pet Sematary is not like other horror stories.
What sets it apart from almost any other horror is not the fate of the characters or how much empathise (or don’t) with them.
It’s what it makes you ask of yourself.
It’s how it forces you to question your own relationships with family, friends, pets, and ultimately death.
I have only one reference point for this novel, and if you’ve seen it, you’ll understand why.
The TV Series, Six Feet Under, despite the obvious connotations in the name is not a horror. It’s a brilliantly dark comedy-drama revolving around a family of undertakers dealing with their mortality and its effect on their relationships.
Over the course of 63 episodes it made me question my own mortality, my relationship with death and the role it plays in living. Not many shows have had that profound an effect on me and I finished the five seasons feeling more at ease and with a better understanding of subjects I thought I knew, but in reality, still only understood at a superficial level.
Pet Sematary also made me ask questions of myself.
The kind of questions that prey on your mind and even as I’m typing this sentence, I’m not sure I can answer them.
There will be spoilers from here on in, so if you think this might be something you want to read.
No, read it.
Don’t watch the film(s).
I’ll be waiting here when you’ve finished
Read it? Good. Let’s continue.
Pet Sematary is focused on a two-child family moving to a quiet part of America, along a not so quiet road. Their house happens to have two wholesome features, some love neighbours and a not so welcoming pet cemetary.
It will come as little surprise to those familiar with King that there is a burial ground involved or that this particular resting place is for our beloved pets. But behind this pet sematary, over a towering deadfall, there is a further ‘burial ground’ that we come to learn can bring back the deceased from the beyond.
This is a horror after all so we know things aren’t entirely right with the burial ground and we’ve had enough foreshadowing to warn us what will happen when our protagonist finds his daughters pet cat deceased by the side of the road.
This was the first time I found myself thinking ‘Stephen King, you horrible bastard’.
Not because I think he’s killed cats and left them by the side of the road. Not because I’ve killed cats and left them by the side of the road.
I’m certain King has, or has had, pets* and loves them very much. In the book, it is not the protagonist Louis whose relationship to the cat Church is the focus to King’s torment, it’s his daughter Ellie.
The bond between Church and Ellie is expertly brought to life by someone who very clearly knows how entwined we become with our pets, how we seem them as more than just a pet, and how they become part of the family.
Ellie is introduced to the concept of death (thanks to a lovely playtime trip to the pet cemeterywith the friendly senior neighbour Jud) and has what I’d describe as a perfectly normal reaction for a kid, a meltdown over the thought of Church passing.
So when her father finds Church’s body on the side of the road and is offered a way to bring a bit of bounce back to the deceased moggie, he follows Jud off to the pet cemetary, ignoring all the warning signs.
It’s arguable that Louis doesn’t know it’ll bring Church back and hasn’t considered the changes that could occur when said cat crosses the mortal boundary, but to that argument I say tish and pish. I read this chapter, turned down the bedroom light and didn’t sleep for half the night, debating whether I’d do the same in Louis’s situation.
Horrible question No.1:
How much horror would you ignore to have your beloved pet back?
I swiftly moved past the should he, shouldn’t he and decided it wasn’t a fair comparison. Louis is trying to spare Ellie the loss of Church rather than acting for himself. Having had pets in my family since I was a kid and seeing them as family members I still miss dearly I would have been over that deadfall resurrecting Tabby, Buster, Ruby, Honey, Whiskey, Tiger, and Megan quicker than you can say unholy undead horde.
That pull of loss we feel with our pets is something horror films have played upon for years.
As Ed and I discussed on the Halloween podcast, you know Michael Myers is truly evil not because of the people he kills, but because he strangles the pet dog. Likewise, in Alien the biggest sigh of relief in the whole film undoubtedly comes at the end when we realise the cat has survived, never mind the rest of the crew. Jones survived. And Jones is a good cat.
King knows that (how could he not?) and still he poses that question: What would you do to bring your pet, your friend and family, back to you?
Would you stop to consider how or what might return?
Would you even stop to think?
Even if you’re not familiar with King’s work or any of the countless cautionary tales that the world of horror has to offer about raising the dead, it’s hard to argue that there aren’t big hints that the Reanimation agent burial ground will bring back something different.
So we are then treated to the spectacle of the returned Church competing for the title of the most sinister feline in horror by stalking Louis, stinking the house out, appearing as if from nowhere, and taking the traditional cat speciality of bringing in dead things to a whole new level.
If you lose a wife, you become a widow. If you lose a husband, you become a widower. If you lose a child, well there isn’t a word for it because what word could capture the destruction of your world like that?
And so, King ups the bastard-ante once more by revisiting that not so quiet road and asking us to watch as the Creed family lose their son. King could have stopped the book there and the damage would have been done.
Instead, he takes us through Louis and Rachel’s fog-like trauma, all the time leading us to the inevitable question that we as readers have already asked: If you lost someone that meant everything to you, how far would you go to bring them back? How much would you be willing to ignore for another chance to be with them?
There are lots of horror tropes which I’ve watched from the lofty position of my high horse and cast aspersions on the idiots below who ignored the warning signs. The characters who run to the very top of the house where there is no escape from the killer, the characters who convince themselves that the abandoned shack in the woods is clearly the ideal holiday home.
All the warning signs are there for Louis. He has a monster-cat stalking the house, but still he goes ahead and brings back his son. And this time I didn’t feel like sitting up on my high horse. Even now, I’m not sure I wouldn’t have done the same.
King knows what the reader is going through, so to then tell us the story of Rachel’s sister Zelda, who gradually went insane from the pain of her degenerative disease and let us draw parallels with her cruelty and the cruelty of the Creed boy is the final nail in the proverbial coffin.
There is no aloof position to be had reading this story, it drags you off your high horse and forces you into the cold realisation that you would do the awful things Louis does if you were in his position.
And when you really think about it, you can’t imagine a worse fate than Louis’s.
The night I finished this book I slept very badly.
Stephen King…dream weaver, author, and one horrible bastard.
*he has a lovely looking dog called Molly (aka the thing of evil)- Ed