Classic Books: Pet Sematary

petsematary1And then the house stood empty in the May sunshine, as it had stood empty on that August day the year before, waiting for the new people to arrive… as it would wait for other new people to arrive at some future date, a young married couple, perhaps, with no children (but hopes and plans). Bright young marrieds with a taste for Mondavi wine and Lowenbrau beer; he would be in charge of the Northeast Bank’s credit department, perhaps, she with a dental hygienist’s credential or maybe three years’ experience an optometrist’s assistant… They would congratulate themselves on their lack of superstition, on their hardheadness in snaring the house in spite of its history – they would tell their friends that it had been fire-sale priced and joke about the ghost in the attic and all of them would have another Lowenbrau or another glass of Mondavi and perhaps they would play backgammon or Mille Bourne.

And perhaps they would have a dog.

In the introduction to the 1999 Coronet edition to this book, Stephen King tells us that Pet Sematary was the novel that scared him the most, the one that went too far. He describes the autobiographical parallels between himself and Louis Creed: like him, King moved into an old house next to a busy road with a forest in the background. The family cat was killed on the highway, forcing King to tell his daughter about the facts of death. He describes his daughter screaming: ‘He was my cat! Let God have his own cat!’ It came to him that losing a pet is a person’s first encounter with mortality and that such anger is probably the healthiest reaction.

Then King’s youngest son was almost killed by a truck on the main road. The child was running towards the highway and King managed to pull him back at the last moment, but the incident haunted him and he began to write about the consequences of ‘that gruesome what-if’. The result was so disturbing that he locked the manuscript in his desk for six months, and Pet Sematary was only published because of a complex contractual obligation to King’s then publishers, Doubleday.

Dr Louis Creed has just taken a job at the University of Maine. He and his family move into a quiet, secluded house in the town of Ludlow and Louis quickly makes friends with Jud Crandall, an old Yankee neighbour who lives on the other side of the road. In both the fiction and King’s life, there was a makeshift cemetery in the back field where generations of children buried their pets. (In a tribute to the author’s own dead animal, one of the headstones in this cemetery reads: ‘OUR CAT SMUCKY HE WAS OBEDIANT’. This was the epitaph that King’s daughter wrote when she buried her pet. King adds in his introduction, ‘Smucky wasn’t in the least obedient, of course; he was a cat, for heaven’s sake.’)

But the Pet Sematary is just the warm-up act: beyond it lies an old burial ground in the middle of the forest that has the power to resurrect the dead. When Louis’s wife Rachel and their children are away visiting in-laws, his daughter’s cat is killed on the road and Jud introduces him to the dark secret that has been passed down from generation to generation for centuries. Jud tells him that many people have buried animals in the Micmac ground, and that most of them ‘went bad’; later we learn that a World War Two casualty was interred up there by his father and returned as a creature from hell. Sure enough, a weird, ungainly version of the cat strolls into Louis’s house just before his family come home. Then Louis’s son Gage is killed, and he is locked into a horrible dilemma.

For all the darkness of its subject matter, Pet Sematary has a great deal of light and happy moments. King’s work has at its heart an essentially American optimism. The characters endure hardship, terror and sacrifice, but everything ends happily – if at a cost. And while in no way a reactionary, King has always stressed the importance of monogamy and the work ethic and long-term love. Montaigne said that happiness writes white: King proves him wrong.

What grips and shakes the reader is not just King’s story but his use of language and metaphor; more literary and informed that his critics will admit, King is adept at weaving his themes into the story and letting throwaway comments become potent symbols. The use of ‘Oz the Gweat and Tewwible’, a imaginary demon of Rachel’s long-dead sister, is built up into a haunting catchword for the influence of evil. Loose proverbs and prophecies echo through the book: what you buy is what you own; hey-ho, let’s go; a man grows what he can… and tends it.

King has said that ‘I have always been more of the moment than I have wanted to be,’ and throughout the novel you’re always aware that this is 1983; it is littered with brand names and radio songs and glimpses of the wider political world. Writers sometimes seek to give their work a timeless quality by studiously avoiding dates and events, but this approach almost always ends up in a watery, half-real book. King dates his story and thus gives it resonance.

The real horror is in shadows and details, and for over two hundred pages there is no real action. The reader is lulled by King’s remarkable ability to draw the texture of Maine life. Louis’s dream-warning from a car crash victim, Jud’s tales of animals buried in the Micmac ground, the death and return of the cat Church: somehow we accept these inexplicables. We’re always aware of the power of the place beyond the Pet Sematary but it is very much in the background. Darkness intrudes, but it’s largely ignored.

There are lovely scenes here: Louis and Rachel wrapping the Christmas presents in the middle of the night before going upstairs to make love; Louis and Jud having a weeknight beer on the porch; Louis flying a kite with his son on what he later comes to think of as the last happy day of his life. When Jud’s wife dies of a heart attack, the death and funeral is handled with sensitivity and compassion – a good natural death that contrasts with the twisted resurrection that follows. There’s a sense that, as Iain Banks has said, death is not all loss. Even the zombie cat is tolerated by the Creeds although in their hearts they know that Church isn’t really a cat any more. When one of Louis’s colleagues comes round for a dinner party, Church jumps on her and she quickly pushes him away, her face momentarily disgusted: ‘Charlton had felt what the cat wasn’t.’ Still, as Louis says, cats are weird anyway.

But then Gage dies and events quickly spiral out of control. The fistfight with Louis’s father-in-law at Gage’s funeral is just the initial manifestation of the chaos to come. The doctor is faced with a stark choice: he can either grieve for his son or take him up to the Micmac burial ground on the million-to-one chance that the place will return him as a human being and not as some kind of monster or demon. And Louis makes exactly the wrong decision. We watch with fingers over eyes as Creed rationalises each step into the darkness.

‘He was a neat and methodical man, Louis Creed,’ King tells us early in the book. A little later the man who died in his surgery, Victor Pascow, comes to Louis in a dream and warns him not to go near the Pet Sematary. Pascow walks through the wall of Louis’s house with ease, but Louis just walks straight into it: ‘apparently he was a hard-headed realist, even in his dreams’. Dr Louis Creed is the embodiment of sensible pragmatism, and in the book he is constantly rationalising away the inexplicable things that happen to him, from Pascow’s warning to the strange plants in the burial ground and the unknown constellations above it.

A doctor, that most rational of all professions – he ‘had pronounced two dozen people dead in his career and never once felt the passage of a soul’ – Louis approaches the idea the way he would a medical exam: he puts together a business case, weighs up the pros and cons. However, his grief causes him to betray his rationality by lying to himself; he ignores Jud’s anecdotal evidence and the example of Church and Victor Pascow’s words to him in the dream: ‘The door must not be opened… Don’t go beyond, no matter how much you feel you need to.’

It is Louis’s very rationality that makes him susceptible to the burial ground’s evil influence.  He cannot deal with the Micmac ground because it’s completely outside his frame of reference. Throughout King’s work runs a critique of what Mia, in the Dark Tower books, calls ‘the false god rationality’; an Enlightenment creed that won’t accept anything outside its powers of explanation: and while I don’t always agree with King on this, his argument is at its most powerful in Pet Sematary. Louis damns himself because he ignores his instincts and tries to wrestle the horror into terms of narrow empiricism. Pet Sematary is the story of a rational man taking on an inexplicable evil… and losing. Badly.

Louis Creed is a likeable man, and there is something heroic in his doomed quest to bring his son back to life. It’s not just the powers of the burial ground that Louis cannot deal with: death itself is also outside his frame of reference because the human mind simply cannot admit its own mortality. ‘There was his chair,’ Louis reflects, ‘where he had done his best to explain the facts of death to Ellie…. facts he had found ultimately unacceptable to himself.’ Louis’s recurring escape fantasy about running away to be a doctor at Disney World is his own denial of these basic facts:

We cruise, my son and I…. because the essence of it isn’t war or sex but only that noble, sickening, hopeless struggle against Oz the Gweat and Tewwible.

In the end, everything that can possibly go wrong does and pretty much everyone is doomed apart from Louis Creed’s daughter. Pet Sematary is the only Stephen King novel in which evil triumphs. There is a force for good (the White, as Roland Deschain might call it) represented by Victor Pascow, a student from out of town who has no connection with the Creeds but is sent to warn them because he was near Louis when his soul was discorporated. But these efforts fail. At the end of the book, Louis’s colleague Steve finds him dragging the body of his wife up to the burial ground. His hair has gone bright white and he has the face of a mad, tired old man.

‘I waited too long with Gage,’ Louis said. ‘Something got into him because I waited too long. But it will be different with Rachel, Steve. I know it will.’

They say that the definition of insanity is repeating the same action and expecting different results. But we don’t have to know this to see that Louis Creed has rationalised himself into oblivion.

There is hope in the book, in its clear implication that death is not all pain: as Jud says, it is where the pain stops and the good memories begin. But readers with a nervous disposition should be warned that Pet Sematary is a dark and chaotic journey, like walking through the forest in the middle of the night. You may hear sounds like voices, but they are just the loons down Prospect. The sound carries. It’s funny…

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4 Responses to “Classic Books: Pet Sematary”

  1. Kathy Charles Says:

    Fantastic analysis of my favorite novel and an absolute pleasure to read. I’ve long been of the opinion that Pet Sematary is THE great American novel, and it pains me how the critical community pass over it in favour of King’s other works (or pass over King entirely). The power of PS is the fact that even though we know Louis Creed is making all the wrong decisions, we can’t deny that if faced with the same situation, we wouldn’t do the same thing. It is a similar debate to cloning – will our need to conquer and control mortality make us satisfied with copies that appear to be the same, but are by their very nature ‘different’ or ‘other’? For this reason the future terrifies me.

  2. April Says:

    Great job, Max… I am teaching a class on writing and will be using an exerpt from Pet Sematary. Hail to Stephen King; my hat is off to you – I will be reading more your analysis!

  3. Andrew Says:

    Again, excellent analysis of one of my favorite novels. Somehow I think that opening quote and the ending line; “And perhaps they would have a dog”, is the most haunting line in the story, and maybe the saddest, considering.

    And it breaks my heart to think of what will become of poor Ellie. (Or what has become, seeing as this all took place a quarter-century ago.)

  4. maxdunbar Says:

    Thanks for all these comments. Kathy is right – the book is so compulsive because we empathise with Louis even while being aware of the tragic folly of what he’s doing.

    Yes, Ellie is the only one spared. I think that she would be okay as an adult, but would have very bad dreams…

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