Stephen King has been writing books for over 30 years, and like any prolific genre writer, some of those books have been better than others. Not too long ago, I read Needful Things, a doorstop of a book published in 1992. While I liked it, there were several factors that weighed it down and kept it from being great. There were several times when the action was herky-jerky, going from breathless to a standstill and back again, causing it to lose flow. And there was a large cast of characters, which severely limited any real character development. Pet Sematary has none of these issues; it’s a book written by someone at the top of his game.
In the introduction to the 2003 edition, King explicitly states that when he finished Pet Sematary, he thought he may have gone too far with this one and there was no way it would ever be published. Looking at those words after the emergence of the “torture porn” film industry and the works of writers like Clive Barker, they seem laughable. But in some ways he may have been right. Of all the wildly age-inappropriate movies my parents let my siblings and I watch as kids, the one based on this book was the one my dad put his foot down on. No, absolutely not. We could watch The Crow, and get the living bejeezus scared out of us by Nightmare on Elm Street, but Pet Sematary was forbidden (so, obviously, we watched it as soon as dad wasn’t home). Apparently, he thought it would give my highly impressionable brother bad ideas. And in case you’re worried, my brother didn’t go on a murderous rampage, but I can see now why my dad may have been concerned about the influence of a tiny, homicidal toddler. But that really isn’t the focus of the book; it actually only occupies less than 1/20th of the 400+ pages.
The real crux of the story is the pain of loss, and what that pain can do to ordinary people. I don’t have children, so I probably can’t imagine what it must be like to lose a child, and a very young one at that, but Stephen King actually used a lot of autobiographical events to shape this story, and I think his portrayal of grief and its attendant desperation is dead-on. The Creeds, an ordinary and happy little family, move to Ludlow, Maine (a setting that occurs frequently in King’s works) to start a new life in their lovely old house surrounded by bucolic splendor and charming neighbors. Dr. Louis Creed is relatively young, liberal minded man who loves his wife and children and has no objections to the routine of ordinary life. Unfortunately, the Creeds have taken a house bordering on a strange little plot of land, a place that has served the community for over 100 years as the final resting place of innumerable beloved pets. The “pet sematary,” while not strange beyond the ordinary creepiness of cemeteries, borders on a much darker, weirder place that will be disastrous for the young family. It all starts with the death of the family cat, after which things take a decided turn for the worst.
Indian burial grounds (in this case, the disputed property of the Micmac tribe) are common horror tropes, as is the set-up of a happy young family discovering something terrible in their seemingly-perfect new home. In fact, I think that sentence just summed up the plot of Poltergeist, minus the Micmacs. What makes this story effective (and affecting) is the effort put into the characters and the expertly slow buildup of tension and surprise. There are some common King “moments” in here, like precognitive dreams and a supernatural force influencing human behavior, but they are only secondary. Some of the behavioral motivations are attributed to the influence of the burial ground, but I don’t think it is necessary. Grief is an overwhelming, sometimes maddening thing that takes you over if you don’t master it and I think the burial ground reflects and enhances this tendency rather than strictly causes it. The “wendigo” thing was perhaps a bit much, but it never got so overt as to be a “real” monster, but rather the embodiment of some primeval force, which King tends to favor in a lot of his works.
My only real complaint with this book really isn’t much of a complaint. After the horrible events at the end of the book, particularly the madness of Louis and the death/resurrection of Rachel what can the resolution of that situation possibly be? What happens to Ellie? Her grandparents? The community in general? Her father is either insane and attempting to live with the monster he has created, or the monster has killed him and is now free in the world and probably gunning to murder the rest of her family. Now that everyone that knew anything about the events is out of the picture, what now? I am a huge fan of the open-ended conclusion, particularly in horror stories, but this one bugs me. I really want to know what happens to Ellie, because King made me genuinely care about her, just like I cared about the rest of the Creeds, as well as the neighbors Jud and Norma (another minor complaint: did Jud have to die? Really? I guess to keep things rolling he did, but I hated it nonetheless).
Re-reading this book 10 years after my initial experience has reminded me why I like Stephen King so much. He may use some well-worn tropes, and he may also have patterns that occasionally repeat in some ways (I think all writers do), but his treatment of horror as a manifestation of human nature rather than just the influence of the weird or macabre is nearly always brilliant. I also love his style; there is a simple matter-of-factness to his prose that often clashes (in a good way) with what is actually happening.
This book is a standout, one of a handful of truly excellent works from an oeuvre of 50+, most of which are good even when they're weak.