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It feels redundant for me to start this brief piece by saying that Pet Sematary is a novel about death. It’s not through a high body count that Stephen King’s 1983 horror classic achieves this reputation (though there is one – you have been warned), but in how it spotlights different ways that those left behind react to it. Grief is as much a process of death as dying is, and King remembers this. What follows is a novel with all the potency, cruelty and sorrow needed to explain its long-lasting legacy.
For those unaware of the plot: a young married couple, Louis and Rachel Creed, alongside their two young children, relocate to an idyllic Maine home. They soon adjust to their new lives and bond with a friendly elderly neighbour, Jud Crandall. However, after the family cat is hit by a truck on the nearby highway, Crandall reveals to Louis a sinister secret; in the nearby woods, an ancient burial ground lies – one which for generations the locals have used to bring their pets back from the dead – though not as they once were.
Let’s hope the Creed’s young toddler stays away from that busy road…
King relates his small cast to the central theme, making each one display a different perspective throughout the novel. Rachel lives in fear of even mentioning death due to childhood trauma. Louis’ job as a doctor has desensitized him to the prospect. Their oldest child, Ellie, displays curiosity, whereas the elderly Jud awaits for it like an old friend. A universality is gained as we ask ourselves which point of view is closest to our own and whether any are correct, though they are all proven insufficient by the novel’s bloody conclusion.
What gives readers such a guttural response to the narrative is its sense of intimacy. Compared to King’s other famous works, which can reach over a thousand pages with a cast of characters in the hundreds, Pet Sematary feels like a chamber piece. The story is a scant 460 pages, rarely straying from the Creed household. Most of the novel is time spent with the family as they live, argue, reconcile, love, and grieve. Until the harrowing final act, the supernatural elements linger in the background; by then, we are so invested that when death truly enters the picture it hits us like a sledgehammer.
These elements intertwine, giving the text a simple but excruciating quandary: what would we do if, like Louis Creed, we could bring a loved one back from the grave? As King follows this premise to its cruelest, most inevitable conclusion, I found myself shivering with dread as tears rolled down my cheeks – a visceral emotional reaction, unlike any other.
Of all King’s novels, few are as nasty as this. Salem’s Lot and The Shining have the feeling of a classic ghost story, and It, for all its Lovecraftian clown action, is about good vanquishing evil, but Pet Sematary is bleak, really bleak. Through forces beyond their control, and an inability to move on, the Creed family is brought to a point where even death proves no respite.
This bleakness for me is where Pet Sematary inspires; if anything can be learned from this story, it’s that no one escapes death. It can strike us at any time. It is important that we treasure every moment of life we have and never let the dead take precedence over the living. Either that, or we should just never visit Maine; spooky stuff happens there.