By Stephen King
Can Stephen King scare even himself? So asks the dust jacket on the first edition of King’s 1983 best seller, Pet Sematary. Perhaps Mr. King scared himself, perhaps not. I know he scared a lot of readers because this was the darkest, most macabre of his novels and is a horror novel in its truest form.
The novel opens and develops slowly. The Creed family moves into a new home in rural Maine. Dr. Louis Creed has brought his family east from Chicago to Ludlow, Maine where he will become the new physician at a student clinic at a nearby university. With him is his wife, Rachel, and their children, five year old Elle and two year old Gage.
As soon as they move in, they make the acquaintance of their only neighbors Jud and Norma Crandall who live directly across the state route on which their homes are situated. In their first meeting, Jud warns Louis about the road. Big tankers and log trucks move on it day and night and it uses up a lot of animals. It’s also dangerous for children. Louis tells Jud that his daughter has a cat named Winston Churchill – or Church for short – that she dearly loves. Jud tells him to get the cat fixed. A fixed cat is less apt to roam.
Despite their age differences, (the Creeds are in their mid thirties and the Crandalls in their eighties), the families become close friends quickly. Jud and Louis are walking the property and Louis notices a path leading off into the woods. Jud promises to take Louis and his family down that path some time and show them what’s there.
A few days later, Jud and the Creeds take a walk down that long and well tended path through the woods on their property. It ends in a clearing filled with crude grave markers. A sign at the entrance reads, Pet Sematary.
Jud explains that for generations, children in Ludlow have come to bury their dead pets and honor them. The road gets most of them, Jud tells the Creeds. Jud shows them where, back in 1917 he buried his own dog who died of a blood infection. More than a hundred graves spiral out from the center. Pets such as dogs, cats, birds, fish, and hamsters have been buried there through the years.
As they look around, Louis notices a deadfall at the back of the cemetery which makes traveling beyond the clearing impossible. Jud tells him the land once belonged the Micmac Indians and they are suing in federal court to get it back. That barrier marks the edge of the property. While it appears to be a pile of randomly fallen trees, Louis can’t help but feel it was deliberately placed there.
That evening, Rachel and Louis have a fight about what they’ve just seen. Louis thinks the cemetery a little odd, but is not concerned about it. Rachel thinks its twisted and appalling that children would construct something like this. Rachel has an irrational fear of death, stemming from when she helped care for her older sister, Zelda, who died of spinal meningitis. Rachel was a little girl and was alone when Zelda eventually choked to death, her body misshapen and twisted by the disease.
The Creed family settles in and Louis has his first day of work at the student clinic. It does not go well. Shortly after he arrives for work, a young man is brought in with massive head trauma after being hit by a car. He clings to life but Louis assesses the head trauma and knows the boy is going to die. Louis does what he can for the boy, but he slips away.
Louis returns home, tired and discouraged. He and Rachel retire early. That night, Louis is awakened when the spirit of the young man who died earlier that day, Victor Pascow, shows up in his bedroom. He tells Louis he has something to show him. Louis, convinced that it’s all a nightmare, follows. Pascow leads him to Pet Sematary and points to the deadfall at the back. He tells him he must never cross the barrier, no matter how much he may feel the need to. The ground beyond has gone sour.
Louis awakens in the morning with a start. He’s trying to recover his wits from the nightmare. When he remove the covers, he finds his feet muddy and covered with mud and pine needles.
The Creeds take Jud’s advice and have Church neutered. Louis notes that Church hasn’t changed all that much, but something is missing from his personality that he’ll never get back.
For Thanksgiving, Rachel takes Elle and Gage to Chicago to spend the holiday with her parents. Louis does not get along well with his in-laws and decides to stay home and spend Thanksgiving with the Crandalls. Thanksgiving night, Louis is working on an academic paper when Jud calls him and tells him he has a problem.
Louis walks across the street to Jud’s yard and finds Church lying on the Crandall front lawn, clearly dead. Jud gets him a garbage bag and Louis peels the dead body from the frozen ground. The cat’s head swivels on its obviously broken neck. Jud tells Louis that maybe Elle doesn’t have to lose her favorite pet just yet. He gets some tools and tells Louis to follow him.
They make their way to Pet Sematary and to the deadfall. There, Jud tells Louis to step quickly as he climbs the deadfall and not to look down. Somehow, they make it across the deadfall, carrying the tools and the dead cat. The continue through the woods. Jud tells Louis he may hear what sounds voices in the woods, but their just loons. He also tells him if he sees something that disturbs him, he should just look away and it will disappear.
After a long walk, they finally arrive at a mesa that has its own set of spiraling cairns. This, Jud tells him, is the Micmac burial ground and that the Micmacs believed the ground to be magical. He tells Louis to start digging. The ground is thin and stony and it will take him awhile. Jud sets off to gather rocks for a cairn. Louis buries his cat and they return home. As they prepare to part company, Louis asks Jud what they just did. Jud just tells him that Elle’s not ready to lose her favorite pet.
That night, Church returns home, apparently very much alive. Bits of the garbage bag are caught in his claws and teeth. He’s alive, but not the same cat. He’s slower, mentally and physically, and he smells funny. Louis believes the cat must have just been stunned.
Louis goes to Jud’s house for an explanation. Jud tells him that generations of Ludlow residents, children and adults, have known the secret of the Micmac burial ground that restores life to dead pets. Jud buried his own dog there many years before and the dog returned. Like Church, Jud’s dog was not the same. He was alive, but slow and stupid and smelled bad no matter how many times he was bathed. Jud tells Louis about others who buried pets up there, including one man who buried a prize bull. The bull turned mean upon its return and had to be put down. Curious, Louis asks if anybody has ever buried a person in the Micmac burial ground. Jud is startled and appalled by the question. He says, “No! Who would?” He tells Louis he must never think about that.
Rachel returns with the kids a few days later and Elle immediately notices the change in Church. She’s not so fond of the cat anymore and doesn’t like Church to sleep in her bed. Church stinks.
Life goes on and Louis tries to make his peace with what he’s done, but the changes keep showing up in Church. He’s now developed into a killer and stalker and leaves for Louis several “prizes” in the form of dead birds and mice. He may have been Elle’s cat once upon a time, but he’s Louis’s cat now.
Tragedy strikes that winter when Norma Crandall is stricken dead by a cerebral incident. Jud is devastated. Louis and Rachel help with the funeral arrangements and Louis tries to explain life and death to Elle, all while Church looks on. Louis, a lapsed Methodist, tells her that he isn’t sure where the soul goes after death, but that he believes in continues on somewhere.
As winter turns to spring, tragedy strikes in its most horrific form. The narrative shifts here and the story is doled out in bits through the next few chapters. The family is playing in the front yard. Gage, now three and discovering the joys of running, takes off running toward the road. Rachel and Louis immediately see the danger and Louis gives chase. He almost tackles his son at road’s edge but misses. A tanker truck, going at full speed, hits Gage and kills him.
The Creed family is devastated to its core. Rachel can’t function and must be tranquilized. Jud is there to help make the funeral arrangements. At the afternoon viewing, Louis’s in-laws show up and Louis’s father in law blames the death on Louis. An argument ensues and the two eventually fight. Before bystanders can separate the pair, the casket is knocked off its runners.
After the funeral, Louis goes over to Jud’s house after his family goes to bed. Jud has guessed what Louis is thinking and tries to dissuade him. He admits he lied to Louis when he asked if anyone had ever buried a person in pet cemetery. Jud recounts the story of Timmy Baterman, who died in World War II. His grief stricken father buried him in the Micmac burial ground. The boy came back, but he was like a zombie. His arrival in town frightened everyone who saw him. Finally, a group of men, including Jud, decided to confront Timmy’s father. The man won’t hear them. Timmy comes into the room and starts talking, telling each man the deepest, darkest secret. A few days later, the Baterman house burns to the ground with Timmy and his father in it.
Jud wraps up by telling Louis that he might be responsible for killing Louis’s son. He says the place has power and compels people to share its secrets. He says its growing in power now and may be able to kill.
Louis is indeed considering it, but only in hypothetical terms, he tells himself. Yet, the next day, he urges Rachel to take Elle and return to Chicago to get away from all of the heartache for awhile. Louis will stay behind to see to some details at work, and then follow them. Rachel is reluctant, but agrees.
Louis, now alone, decides to take matters into his own hands. He buys a pick and shovel and prepares to dig up his son’s dead body.
He goes to the cemetery late at night and digs up the grave. He is able to get through the grave liner to the casket and opens it. He can see the sutures the mortician used to reattach Gage’s decapitated head. He takes his son’s body, puts it in the car, and drives home.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, Ellie starts having horrible nightmares. A person named Paxcow visits her and tells her that her daddy is in danger. She is hysterical with fright. Rachel tries to reach Louis, but he’s not home. He calls Jud who promises to watch for Louis’s return.
Jud sets up on his front porch to wait. He knows Where Louis is and what he’s doing. He’s determined to stop Louis before he can get to the Micmac burial ground. But no matter how hard he tries, he can’t stay awake. He dozes off and is sound asleep when Louis arrives at home with his dead son.
Meanwhile, Rachel decides to return to Maine now. She books flights from Chicago to Boston to Bangor, but misses her connection in Boston. She decides to drive the last 250 miles.
Louis walks with his son through the woods. He will examine his son upon his return. If he’s “spoiled” like Timmy Baterman, he’ll kill him and return him to the ground. As he walks, he’s nearly frightened out of his plan by the appearance of a Wendigo. He continues forward and arrives at the burial ground. There, he buries Gage. He returns home and passes out on his bed.
Gage returns. He quietly slips into Louis’s room and steals a scalpel from Louis’s medical bag. He then goes across the street to the Crandall home.
Jud awakes with a start. He’s heard something. He looks around and immediately spots Church on his porch. He kicks the cat out, then hears giggling coming from the house. He follows those giggles upstairs where he encounters Gage. But it’s not Gage’s spirit that haunts his body. It is the evil of the Micmac burial ground. Gage taunts him with foul statements about how Norma was unfaithful to him with all his friends before attacking him and killing him with the scalpel.
Rachel arrives at home and seeing lights on at Jud’s house, goes there first. Gage attacks her and kills her.
Louis awakes. He notices a foul odor in the room and sees that someone has gone through his medical bag. He notices the scalpel missing and knows that Gage has been there. He fills three syringes with lethal doses of drugs and heads across the street.
There, he finds Jud and Rachel dead. Gage is waiting for him. He struggles with Gage and easily overpowers him. He kills Gage with the morphine. He then goes out, finds Church, and injects him as well. Louis Creed is now totally insane.
He returns to his wife’s disfigured corpse. He reasons that he waited too long with Gage. If he can get Rachel back to the burial ground quickly, it will all turn out well for her. He takes her body and off he goes, setting fire to the Crandall house as he leaves.
Later the next evening, Louis sits at his kitchen table. His hair has gone completely white. He’s playing solitaire when he hears the door open and footsteps approach from behind. Then, whispered into his ear is the word, “darling. . .”
Pet Sematary may or may not be the “scariest” book Stephen King has ever written, but it is certainly the darkest. While the question posed at the opening of this review may have been written by a copy editor in the marketing department at Doubleday, it is a valid question. Stephen King is a father. What frightens a father more than the death of his own children?
The book is more than a story about a darkly magical ground that raises the dead. The book is a story and a study of death. In the book, King examines death in American culture – its rites, rituals, and our reactions. Pascow dies and Louis reacts with the detachment of a physician. Norma Crandall dies and Louis reacts with the melancholy of a friend. When his son dies, he comes apart.
Also explored are death's rituals. Open casket versus closed casket. The embalming process. The burial process. The grieving process. As King says in the opening, death is a mystery and burial is its secret.
Novice readers of horror might complain that the book takes too long to get going. Pet Sematary was my introduction to Stephen King and I felt that way about it when I first read it. Having reread it several times since, I now marvel at how King builds this masterpiece to give the climax maximum impact.
King dedicates more than half the novel building the relationships between the Creed family and between Jud and Louis. At home, he has a daughter who is incredibly attached to her cat that eventually dies while she is away. While we know that Louis loves his family dearly, King lets us know that Gage holds a special place in his heart. Gage is torn away from him. Louis is a detached person by nature, but immediately bonds with Jud. It is that close bond that leads Louis’s family to tragedy.
All of that is developed meticulously in the first half of the book. King foreshadows the coming events well. We know Gage is going to die and we can guess that he’s going to be mowed down on that road. Before we learn of Gage’s death, we experience the last happy day of Louis Creed’s life when he spends an afternoon glorying in Gage’s delight in flying a kite for the first time. This scene is incredibly touching and makes what we know is coming all the more painful.
Pet Sematary ranks as one of King’s finest works. Nothing he wrote before or after was as dark. The novel chills the reader with the long, dark, climax. The reader knows it’s not going to end well. Yet the reader is compelled to turn the page to ascertain what happens next.
I recommend this book to all readers new to King. While The Stand may be his most prolific work, and The Shining his most famous, Pet Sematary is the most accessible of his great works. It’s just a little longer than 300 pages, making it an easy read, and copies are easily found.
Anyone who considers themselves a serious fan of Stephen King has already read this because it is a must read in his collection of published works. For those new to horror or are just casual fans of the genre, this book is a must read as well. Few books will scare you more.