REVIEW: Pet Sematary (1983)

King has often been asked about the seed of the idea that would eventually become his fourteenth novel Pet Sematary.

Over the years, the seed has migrated: According to some accounts, the book is based upon King’s decision to accept a residency at a university resulting in his uprooting his family and moving to a house that turned out to be next to a busy road. According to other accounts, this road was so lethal to the local pet population that the local kids had all taken to burying their pets in the same bit of untended scrubland. While the exact degree of overlap between reality and fiction is known only to King and his family, you can tell that Pet Sematary is a novel rooted in lived experience and this explains why it hits harder than almost any other work of horror fiction.

Pet Sematary is first and foremost a novel about confronting death.

The story revolves around a young family who move to a small Maine town after dad Louis lands a job running a clinic for the local university. Things start badly for Louis as his first morning on the job finds him having to deal with a student getting his head crushed in a car accident.

King is an author who moves between two sets of registers:

On the one-hand, you have a kind of detached, wide-angle social realism that gives you the texture of everyday life augmented by a steady stream of commentary by the main protagonist. This is the register that gave King his reputation for social realism as he lavishes attention on the minutiae of New England Life as well as the somewhat wry and heavily-accented humour that the locals use to engage with the world. While a lot can be said about the way in which King has captured the fine-grained detail of a particular geo-cultural niche, I have always been struck by the glibness of this register; the regional accents, the fatuous banter, and the all the little jokes. Sure this is social realism but it’s the kind of polite, conversational realism that binds communities together while allowing them to gloss over the harsher realities, and this is where that second register kicks in.

There are times when King steps away from the jokes and the accents and kind of hunkers down into a tone that is all about emotional impact. This second register segues smoothly from direct to indirect, internal to external, slowly building up a patchwork of feelings and observations that really bring home the awful horror of the thing being described. This register appears in all of King’s horror fiction and if you want a glimpse of what can be done with that style of writing then look no further than the description of the road traffic accident in Duma Key as that is not only technically astonishing, it is also rooted in King’s lived experience as it was based on an accident he happened to live through.

These intensity interludes are all over King’s back catalogue but some are more memorable than others. A lot of the power of Pet Sematary comes from the fact that King seems to drop into this register every other chapter and every single interlude hits the power of a truck running over a beloved family pet.

King doesn’t just describe a kid dying on the examination table of his college clinic, he writes about the doctor’s feeling of impotence as he realises that the kid’s wounds are not only beyond the scope of the clinic’s equipment but also the scope of his personal skill. He then goes on to write about the inexperienced student nurses who are forced to bear witness to someone with massive head injuries babbling incoherently as his blood pools on the floor. He also follows the doctor home and describes how he tries to keep the ugliness at bay while interacting with his kids and navigating the emotional currents of a home where he recently had a massive argument with his wife. King writes about Louis’ argument with his wife Rachel in the same way as he writes about the student dying on the examination table: He switches between external description of the characters’ faces and body language to internal descriptions of the emotions they stir up in each other as the row progresses. He shows us Louis trying to remain calm while Rachel rages and doubles back on herself, gleefully hurling accusations and contradicting herself in an effort to win the argument, get her own way, and impose the collective narrative.

One of the more surprising things about being in a long-term relationship is becoming aware of those times when your partner is running close to the emotional metal. What I mean is that while we all have weird fears, uncharacteristic beliefs and unresolved trauma, we only really become aware of those issues when we’re right on top of them and are trying to integrate our beliefs with the weird emotional currents caused by those little pockets of un-processed nastiness. When we step on one of these landmines, our minds try to smooth out the differences between the two levels and so we’ll sometimes wind up adopting weird ideas that make little sense beyond their capacity to strike a balance between our chosen persona and emotional reactions born of half-buried trauma. We might think we’re doing a pretty good job of hiding our insanity but anyone who knows us will immediately know when we’re out of our fucking minds. King absolutely nails this state of affairs in a scene where Rachel goes absolutely bananas after Louis happens to mention death to his little girl Ellie.

King has these two scenes happen almost on top of each other but he brilliantly chooses to have the argument happen before the accident. In other words, the novel skips along in that wide-angled glib register until Louis makes a passing reference to death at which point King drops us straight into the more emotionally-intense register for the confrontation between Rachel and Louis. As a reader, this leaves you reeling. Faced with such an onslaught, it is not unreasonable to conclude that Rachel is out of her mind and King uses that as a bread crumb, luring us deeper into the emotional core of the novel.

The second bread crumb is the scene in the clinic, it establishes quite how traumatic it can be to experience someone’s death and, when combined with the couple’s argument, it goes some way towards explaining Louis’ decision to try and resurrect his pet cat Church.

Louis learns of the Pet Sematary from his neighbour, an ancient elder who seems to spend all of his time mulling over old memories and local history. Having made friends with Louis and noted how worried he is by the death of Church and Rachel’s reaction to a passing mention of death, he reveals the truth about the piece of scrubland where the local kids all bury their pets. King writes about Louis’ first encounter with the Pet Sematary in the same way as he writes about the argument and the car accident; he presents the burial place as an almost impossible eerie and maudlin aberration born from generation after generation of childhood grief. Again, King absolutely nails the emotional kernel of the scene as he stresses not only the vibrancy of children’s emotions but also the amount of time and effort that must have gone into creating and maintaining an informal pet burial ground. How much misery and sadness does it take to dig a grave for a beloved pet? How much misery and sadness to dig dozens of graves? How much misery and sadness to maintain those graves for generation after generation? The Pet Sematary is not just some weird local tradition; it’s a raw nerve, a pit of misery, and an unending line of pure uncut sadness. Kids shouldn’t have to deal with the loss of a beloved pet and they certainly shouldn’t have to tend to dozens of graves stretching back as far as colonial times. The fact that the local children have been tending to these graves for hundreds of years speaks to the profound unloveliness of that place and everyone who goes near it.

Pet Sematary could easily have been a non-fantastical novel about a family’s attempts to come to terms with death. However, King decides to open a second front by presenting us with the emotional obscenity of both the Pet Sematary itself and fact that it brings back subtly altered versions of the dead things people have buried there. King opens a second front by presenting us with the emotional obscenity that is the Pet Sematary itself. A mundane novel would have presented us with the death of the cat and the trauma-laced irrationality of Rachel’s attitude to death and forced Louis to resolve the tension but the Sematary complicates the book’s emotional topography by presenting us with another path, a means for Louis to resolve the emotional needs of his family without either traumatising his daughter or forcing his wife to deal with her shit. The only problem is that while this secondary set of bread crumbs might define a path away from the impossible task of breaking the news of the dead cat without mentioning death, the path it defines leads Louis into a much deeper and darker set of woods.

When Church returns, he is sadistic, ill-tempered and smells like shit. While Ellie is initially perplexed by the changes in her beloved pet’s demeanour, she soon accepts them and moves on. Effectively abandoning the cat to a father who loathes the ugly thing for the undead brute it undoubtedly is. Having kicked the emotional can down the road, Louis helps Rachel to unwind just enough to share the source of her trauma (an absolutely nightmarish situation wherein a small child is forced to act as primary carer to a dying and increasingly insane sister). Having let some puss out of the psychological wound, Louis is able to help Ellie navigate the emotional complexities of death when the neighbour’s wife dies of a heart-attack. This section of the book is poisonously funny as it suggests that Louis didn’t need to resurrect Church, he could have just talked to his wife and then helped talk his daughter through the death of a beloved pet in the same way as he talked her through the death of a much-loved neighbour.

Late in the book, the neighbour suggests that the Sematary is not only a force that acts on the world but a force that grows with the passage of time. In other words, the Sematary is a manifestation of the Freudian vision of trauma: It is a source of de-regulation that increases the pressure of the hydraulic system until the whole system explodes. Louis’ marriage is a system under tension because Louis’ education allows him to hide from his emotions and Rachel uses a combination of sex and emotional battery to get her own way. These issues surface when Louis makes a causal mention of death and Rachel loses her shit but Louis pointedly refuses to deal with any of this. In fact, he would rather bring back the dead than have a proper conversation with his wife and so resurrecting Church only serves to kick the can down the lane. The peace that follows is illusory and serves only to mask the growth of deeper tension.

Things come to a head when one of those intense moments devoted to Louis playing with his son Gage is immediately followed by a scene in which Gage is run over by a truck. This brings all of the old problems screaming back as Rachel (understandably) goes to pieces and Rachel’s parents turn up to cause trouble with a grieving Louis who is absolutely refusing to deal with his own grief. Again, King sheds the home-spun niceness and hunkers down into that emotionally precise register as Louis and his father in law come to blows over Gage’s casket resulting in the coffin falling to the ground. Despite the absolute horror of this scene, Rachel recovers because she is willing to actually own and process her feelings. Meanwhile, Louis is so reluctant to either talk to his wife or deal with his feelings that he retreats first into a weird fantasy of Gage living and becoming an Olympic swimmer and then an even darker fantasy that the Pet Sematary might be able to bring back his beloved son.

King writes Louis as a reasonable guy but step back from the little jokes and the Ramones references and you’ll find a man who has lost it in far more impressive a manner than Rachel screaming and offering up soapy hand-jobs. There follows another horrific hunkered down scene in which Louis’ neighbour warns him about what happens when people try to bury people in the Sematary but Louis refuses to listen and sends his entire family back to Chicago with the in-laws.

Louis is very much a man of his generation. He is so invested in the idea of being calm and reasonable that he would commit any number of obscenities rather than recognise his own emotional limits. The man who would rather resurrect a cat than have a grown-up conversation with his wife turns out to be the man who would desecrate his own son’s grave rather than live with the grief caused by his death. This section of the book is almost unbearable; King drops into that low, evil register and stays there for chapter after chapter as Louis breaks into a graveyard, digs up the body of his son, drives the body across town, drags the body up a massive hill and then buries it in a haunted piece of scrubland. This spiralling insanity is beautifully counter-posed by a sad but with-it Rachel who realises that her husband has gone nuts and decides to race home to stop him from doing whatever it is he had planned. King handles the tension of this race home in absolutely majestic fashion right up until the end where we learn about something horrible happening long before Louis becomes aware of the consequences of his own actions.

There simply aren’t enough words to express how powerfully fucked-up this novel is. Pet Sematary is a novel that delivers on every possible level from the thematic and the psychological all the way down to the sentence-by-sentence technical. While a lot of contemporary horror novels like to flirt with the idea of trauma, Pet Sematary shows you multiple sites of trauma and forces you to watch as they all slide into alignment to produce something truly horrific.

King readers will often wax rhapsodic about stuff like The Shining and Salem’s Lot but this here? This is the absolute real shit.

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