I need a recalibration because I haven’t been keeping up with these reviews as much as I’d like. Whenever I need a recalibration, I go back to the thing that brings me comfort: the horror genre. I like spoopy stuff. So today, let’s explore the first Stephen King book I ever read, which will now also be the first Stephen King book I’ve ever reviewed.
Like everyone and their mother, I suppose I’ve always been aware of Stephen King’s works in some way or another. Film adaptations of them are so common that I think a lot of people forget that The Running Man, The Shawshank Redemption, and The Shining are all based on Stephen King novels and short stories, along with dozens of other films and television series. The guy’s a juggernaut in the literary industry, and like him or not, allusions to his works are everywhere. I probably knew about the idea of the Pet Sematary from The Simpsons long before I realized it was the creation of a particular person.
The book itself is pretty much what you would imagine on its surface — it’s about a cemetery for pets that brings them back as creepy zombies. It goes a bit further than that, sometimes venturing in fascinating directions, sometimes in less fascinating ones, but what you see is largely what you get. That’s not necessarily a problem, though.
Audience Assumptions: None
Content Warnings: Disturbing description, mention of death, animal death, child death, insects.
Part One: The Cat, the Kid, and the Speeding Cars
Pet Sematary, perhaps more than any other Stephen King novel, is based on the author’s real experiences. King takes the mantra “write what you know” to sometimes comical lengths (for instance, the BINGO free space in any Stephen King novel is “It’s set in Maine, where Stephen King lives”). It’s not surprising then, that the locations in the book, including the titular “sematary,” are real places, and the events of the book were inspired by the real-life loss of his daughter’s cat and a narrowly-avoided car accident. I can’t say much about the guy himself as I don’t know him, but I’m not that enthusiastic about how formulaic a lot of his works are. If it works for him (which it clearly does), great. Good for him. I don’t think you should take his advice too seriously if you’re a writer, though. Success is not equivalent to raw talent, and has a lot more to do with luck and being good enough than actually being great. A lot of his books feel uninspired and generic, or else unnecessarily derivative, and yes, I know they’re all connected into some big universe, but I genuinely could not care less about that. They make money and they garner a lot of attention, but then again so does The Bachelor.
So what of Pet Semetary?
Despite my lukewarm feelings toward most Stephen King works, I think Pet Sematary gets it mostly right. It’s not one of King’s earliest works, but it’s definitely earlier. It came out right around that sweet spot you like to see in the career of prolific writers when they’ve worked out some of the kinks in their writing style, but aren’t just phoning it in for a paycheck. The story is simple, but not basic. The real-life connections aren’t petty, but grounded; it doesn’t feel like the author is inserting himself into the story, but instead it’s like he’s recanting the history of a haunted house. He’s said that this is the book he’s written that scares him the most, and you can see why. It’s pretty potent. The supernatural elements are a natural expansion of the creeping “what-if” that can itch at the back of your mind following a harrowing experience.
The story follows Louis Creed, a doctor who has just moved with his family to a small town in Maine where Louis is starting work at the local university’s student health center. Louis soon meets and befriends his nextdoor neighbor, a local named Jud who tells him a bit about the town. One day, Jud takes Louis and his family on a walk to the pet cemetery in the woods near their house. Called “Pet Sematary” by the children who tend to it, it’s the place where the children of the town go to bury their dead animals, many of whom have been claimed by the dangerous highway that runs next to the Creeds’ house. Louis’ wife, Rachel, is upset by the cemetery and worries that it will traumatize their two young kids, Ellie and Gage. Rachel is triggered by the subject of death due to a traumatic experience she had as a child and doesn’t want her kids to learn about it when they’re too young. She lost her sister to an illness when she was a teenager and was the only one in the house when her sister died.
The subject of death lingers over the household over the next few months. Louis witnesses the violent death of a student in the health clinic, and the family’s pet cat, Church, is killed by a truck while Rachel and the kids are away. On the night the cat dies, Jud takes him to a place beyond the Pet Sematary where they bury Church, and the next day, the cat returns alive, but not well. Jud explains that the place beyond the Sematary is an old Mi’kmaq burial ground with supernatural properties. It will bring back dead animals as long as they aren’t too far gone, though they’ll be a little different when they return. Louis notices the difference in Church, who before was a sweet cat, and is now aggressive, distant, and smells faintly rotten. When he mentions this to Jud, Jud tells Louis that he buried his dog there when he was younger, and saw the same sorts of problems. Jud isn’t sure he’s done the right thing in showing Louis the burial ground, but he tells him that the dog lived otherwise like a normal dog until it died of natural causes, and he buried it in the normal Pet Sematary.
Some time later, Louis’ toddler Gage is killed in the same way as Church, running out into the highway during a family party. Louis tries to catch him but is a moment too late. As the family mourns, Louis soon starts to consider burying Gage in the burial ground beyond the Pet Sematary, but Jud, realizing that’s where he’s thinking, warns him against it. He tells Louis that “Sometimes, dead is better,” and warns him that when a man was buried there in the 1940s by his father, he came back so twisted that his father ended up killing his son and himself shortly thereafter. Louis ignores the advice, and takes his son’s body from the cemetery downtown to bring him back.
Gage does come back, but as a demon more than a boy. He murders Jud and his own family, save Louis. Louis realizes the horror he’s unleashed and euthanizes Gage, then also kills the undead cat in a fit of rage. Despite everything, with his life ruined, he desperately grabs his recently deceased wife and decides to bury her in the place beyond the Sematary as well, thinking if he’s quick enough, she won’t come back twisted like Gage.
Part Two: Just One Step Further
As you can probably guess, the ending of the story gets away from it a bit. The last few dozen pages are a bit of a mess, and the story actually goes even further than I implied, with Louis’ wife coming back and murdering him at the very end. However, most of what happens before Gage comes back is pretty effective storytelling. It accomplishes what a good horror one-off needs to: it features a reasonably complex plot and characters, ramps up the tension at a brisk but restrained pace, focuses on anticipation of the horror elements to set the mood, and when the horror hits, it doesn’t hold back.
But most importantly, the story isn’t really concerned about genuinely shocking or upsetting the audience. It does that, but most of the time spent in the story revolves around Louis and his family. It wants you to empathize with the characters before bad things happen to them, or it at least wants you to understand them.
I think empathy is the major failure point of a lot of horror stories. You can make a reasonably scary film, game, or book with atmosphere and monsters alone, but people don’t come to horror just for the scares — at least, most people don’t. There are certainly horror fans who are happy with a zombie popping out and screaming in their face because it gives a thrill, but that’s exactly the thing that puts a lot of people off the genre in the first place. I despise jump scares, less because they’re actually frightening and more because they’re accompanied by ear-bleeding noises. No thank you. Hearing damage and horror aren’t the same thing.
Unsettling imagery and a creepy atmosphere, though — that’s what I’m here for. People disagree on what makes good horror fiction, but for me it’s the conceptual equivalent of an earworm, something that sneaks under your skin and squirms because you just can’t get it out of your head. Of course, that feeling needs to be managed carefully. No one wants to be living with a literary botfly in their head for the rest of their lives, so it’s not enough just to make someone uncomfortable; the real art to horror is in the catharsis that comes from removing it. We go to horror films so we can see the monster and live to tell the tale. It’s hard to beat the sensation of watching characters go through Hell and come out the other end, even if the victory is short-lived or one minor high on a long journey downward. Moments of calm where characters can just be themselves or take a moment to look around and catch their breath are essential if you want the audience to be there with them.
A lot of horror productions make their characters wholly unlikable or unempathetic, because in their mind the audience is just there for the monster anyway. Sometimes those productions make a bit of a splash, like Mirror or Saw or I Know What You Did Last Summer, but their success is often short-lived and they’re remembered more negatively than anything else. Often, when a story figures out how to get the audience to care about its characters, it transcends the genre in the eyes of the audience. Jaws, Alien, Jurassic Park, The Thing, The Silence of the Lambs, The Shining, Get Out, Annihilation, and Hereditary can all be classified as horror films to greater or lesser degrees, but most get the preferential descriptors of “action sci-fi,” “psychological thriller,” or “blockbuster” to distinguish them from the likes of Paranormal Activity, Child’s Play, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween, etc. There are no cut-and-dry rules for how to describe a film that fits multiple genres, but I find it poignant that people tend to prioritize the dramatic elements of films over their scares when describing them. Your friend recommends you The Ring because it’s a famous horror film, but they recommend you Psycho because it’s a famous film.
Pet Sematary lives in the interesting in-between space where it’s well-regarded and a classic, even though it is firmly a horror novel. It’s the book that’s most closely tied to Stephen King’s name, next to Carrie and It. Back when I was just a toque, I remember walking through the bookstore or library and seeing the big “Stephen King” title on books all over the place, but the only book I could ever remember was that one. Creepy cat, misspelled cemetery — the idea kind of writes itself. I was aware of the concept for the book long before I knew the story, but the thing is, the story goes well beyond its simple premise. It would be nothing to write a horror story about a demon cat that comes back from the grave and spooks or kills people. I’m sure it’s been done before. But that’s not really what Pet Sematary is about.
The lasting impression I get from the book is not fear, but grief. The most poignant feelings of fear in the story come form characters expressing a genuine fear of death and loss, not just of demons or cats or the walking dead. At its core, the book is more tragic than anything else. It’s about a family that moves to a creepy cursed place and suffer needlessly. Their lovely pet cat dies, when Louis brings him back to life he returns in an unpleasant way, then one of the kids dies, and worse happens when he comes back. The phrase that gets played over in the story is, “Sometimes dead is better,” but the thing is, Louis’ obsession with bringing his family back isn’t unreasonable, at least initially. He isn’t a mad scientist who obsesses over someone who’s gone peacefully; he’s lost his child. When the cat dies, he’s sad and worried about how his daughter will react, but he accepts it until Jud offers a way to bring him back. The sudden and upsetting death of a child is an incalculable loss for a parent, and most people in that situation are desperate, especially in the immediate aftermath of such a tragedy. Louis’ decision isn’t twisted or foolhardy, but in the moment extremely understandable. Most people would do anything to get back a loved one immediately after they die horribly, consequences be damned. Emotions don’t care about curses.
Louis’ slide, up until it becomes absurd at the very end there, is entropic. Everything seems to collapse around him leaving only one possible path. We understand his actions, and even though we can see they’re going no place good, there’s a sort of inevitability that pulls us in. We know that staying in this house, this town, is a bad idea, but we know that Louis and his family are going to remain there too long. Reviving Church is a terrible idea, but we know Louis is going to do it anyway and regret it later. Even after he’s seen what it does to the cat, and even with Louis holding out for a while, we know he’s going to revive Gage the same way, and we know it’s going to be even worse. Everything escalates beyond our or Louis’ control. The characters are helpless. But, crucially, they’re not cruel or incompetent or airheaded. The thing that makes this book so unsettling is that as you read it, you come to realize that if you were in these people’s shoes, the story wouldn’t change.
Part Three: The Moral of the Story is Keep Your Cat Indoors
Pet Sematary isn’t my favorite horror novel. I honestly don’t know what is at this point because I haven’t read half as many as I’d like. There’s just something about the genre that tends to lend itself better to films and video games, or television shows on occasion. I know that there are plenty of horror novels out there, but oddly, aside from Stephen King’s works, many of which fall more into the fantasy genre if we’re being honest, horror novels are pretty niche. The elements are tucked everywhere, to the point where it’s actively difficult to find a novel with any sort of darker themes that doesn’t lean at least a little horror-wards, but outside of graphic novels, it’s often actively difficult to stumble upon straight-up horror novels by accident. I have a few on my shelf that I need to get through, and I’ve come across some excellent ones like The Haunting of Hill House, The Memory Police, and The Marrow Thieves. Coraline, Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Down Among the Sticks and Bones have their charms as well despite other issues. Pet Sematary is in the upper echelons of that latter grouping.
It’s not the sort of book you go to expecting it to be your favorite. I’m sure it is for some people, but it’s going to be far too simple for most people. I’ve honestly had a bit of a hard time figuring out what to say about it, because I like it and want to make it sound good, but at the end of the day, it’s like a lot of one-off horror films: you get curious, you read it, you have an interesting experience, and then it’s over and you move on with your life. There isn’t really anything groundbreaking about the book, it’s just a solid little read. It’s pretty much the perfect thing if you need something for a road trip. It’s decently-written, and it’ll keep you hooked, and you won’t forget it immediately, so it’s not just a time waster. It’s a meal, but it’s only one meal. It’s like a good hamburger or something.
I genuinely dislike the ending. That’s where the Stephen King-isms start to overtake the delicate balance of the rest of the piece. It’s also just… silly, in a bad way. And gratuitous. I understand the need for escalation, and I don’t begrudge an otherwise fine book for not really knowing where or how to end. It’s not the worst I’ve come across. I don’t know that it deserves a pass all the same, but the rest is fine, so I’ll give it one.
Not everything has to be a masterpiece. You can’t just eat perfectly-seared steaks and lobster pierogis all the time or you’ll lose your grounding for what constitutes something impressive. Some people are content with having a mediocre palate cleanser, just dropping into a reality show that requires at most 14% of your brain power to follow. I can’t say that I’m any different — I’ve watched far more Let’s Play hours than I’ll ever admit publicly. But when you can’t find something brilliant, or at least want to space out the things you’re genuinely looking forward too, it’s nice to have something small but good to fill your time, as opposed to an endless stream of content available at our fingertips. I won’t say Pet Sematary is life-changing or anything, but there’s a reason it’s stuck around for so long. It’s not great, but it is good. And sometimes good is better.
Overall Plot: 5