I’ve read Pet Sematary before. I don’t know how many times, exactly — probably a lot.
So why does it still scare me?
To be fair, the supernatural parts of Pet Sematary don’t scare me as much these days — though I still find Church intensely unsettling post-resurrection. But the things that cause the actual fear — including physical symptoms, like rapid heartbeat and respiration — are the real fears. The adult fears. The parent fears. From Gage choking on vomit to Gage getting too close to the road. I know these things are going to happen, so all I can tell you is that Gage seems so much like a real baby to me, and the events seem so real, that I’m gripped and horrified by the thought of harm coming to him every time I re-read it, even though I know what’s going to happen.
And it’s not like that parent fear detracts from the rest of the story. I fully believe that Louis brings Gage’s body to the Pet Sematary. Because he’s devastated over losing his son. I can’t claim I know what it feels like to lose a child. But I have children and I know the fear of losing a child. If I lost a child, and I had access to a magic graveyard that would bring them back, I don’t think it would matter to me anymore if I knew that using it was a bad idea. I don’t think it would even matter if I’d done it with a cat and ended up with one that wasn’t fully himself anymore. I’d want my baby back. I’d want any piece of my baby back that I could get. I don’t think I’d care if bringing them back brought about the zombie apocalypse. Just as long as I could hold my child again.
I suppose that ultimately, Pet Sematary is a book about coming to terms with death. “Sometimes dead is better,” is the line that people remember, and I generally believe that to be true. I used to work in nursing homes. Dead may be better when you’re covered with bedsores, don’t remember who you are, let alone where you are, and you’ll never be able to come back from that. Dead may be better when you can’t walk or communicate or even roll over in bed under your own power and you never will again. Dead may be better when it’s inevitable but slow — when you’re dying by inches every day. Dead may be better when you’ve outlived everyone you ever cared about.
But is dead better when the dead person is a toddler? Even if the alternative to dead is some sort of zombie? I don’t know, I think that’s a hard sell. Especially to parents. Even if it’s objectively better, I don’t think that matters to a grieving parent.
King writes Rachel as if her phobia about death is extreme. She tells Louis that there’s nothing natural about death, which is clearly untrue — it’s about the most natural thing there is. Certainly the circumstances leading to Rachel’s phobia are extreme, but I don’t think the phobia itself is so unusual. People are terrified of death, any death, even death that is better. Finding someone with a death phobia isn’t difficult at all. As a society, we’re obsessed with staving off death, and we think we can do it if we eat all the right foods and develop all the right habits and avoid all the right vices. But we can’t.
King himself says that when he finished and re-read Pet Sematary, he decided he’d finally gone too far. He put the novel in a drawer and intended to leave it there at first. I don’t think he went too far, but he did manage to write something that I feel is pretty horrifying. And depressing. Even at this point, downer endings aren’t exactly something King is unfamiliar with, but I think this one is pretty far down there, especially since his work more commonly retains some sense of optimism, even at the end. I think of Cujo as a downer ending too, but he was frankly more optimistic about his characters than I was.
Of course, Pet Sematary is set in Maine — it’s not in one of his signature Spooky Little Towns, but it’s familiar and contains some references that we’ll get. And Church will not be his last interesting cat. But something that I never noticed before stood out to me this time. When Ellie and Rachel are discussing their sense of unease with their situation, with Ellie’s dream, with what Louis might have wanted them gone for, Rachel describes their mutual feeling of electricity running through them as “something like a wind”. Which made me think of a later character who describes “Ka like a wind.” Which makes me wonder if what happened to the Creed family was a function of Ka — something unstoppable once it gets going, like a wheel rolling downhill.
Of course there are Pet Sematary movies. The older one is another that I simply don’t remember, though I have a general impression that it was a good movie, at least for its time. The newer one is crap. Sorry, but it is. It’s not even that they changed the story to have Ellie die instead of Gage. I think that would have detracted from the book — Ellie’s thoughts and feelings are as central to the story’s as anyone’s, and Gage wouldn’t have been old enough to understand. You miss those in a movie anyway, though — I mean, you get whatever the actor can speak or convey with an expression, but you’re still going to miss a lot of nuance and detail. And while a killer zombie toddler can work in a book, it’s of course going to be tough to make that work onscreen. So I can see the logic for switching the two out for a movie. I would have been OK with that if they’d done it well — but they didn’t. My biggest gripe with the new Pet Sematary movie is that it was boring. Even John Lithgow, who is usually worth watching in anything, seemed flat and uninspired to me — like he was just phoning it in. And no one else did any better.
But I don’t think this is one of the ones that translates easily to movies anyway. If you want to really feel that horror, I think you need to read the book. Not that it’s impossible to make a great Pet Sematary film, but I think you’re always going to be missing something that the book can give you.