The Stephen King Project – Pet Sematary (1983)
About the project
I will be reading all of Stephen King’s books in order of publication (with the exception of The Dark Tower series which I will read together, at the end of this adventure) and writing a review of each. I’ll be looking at the recurring themes, the tricks he likes to use, the way he develops character and the way that his craft has evolved in the 44 years since Carrie was first published.
I first read Pet Sematary way back in my teens and even then, before I had kids and a spouse and all those fragile, wonderful things that come with a family, I recognised this as one of his darkest works. That darkness makes sense when you understand the background to the book.
In 1978, King took up a position as Writer in Residence at the University of Maine in Orono and he and his family moved into a rented house on a busy road in Orrington, Maine. Nearby, they discovered a small burial ground, signposted the Pet Sematary, occupied by cats, dogs and even a goat, and supposedly maintained by the local children.
Not long after they moved in, their cat was found dead at the side of the road and they buried him in the Pet Sematary. It wasn’t much later that King’s son Owen had a near-miss with the road, having wandered too close to it one day when he was around 18 months old. King has said that he does not know whether he knocked his son to the ground seconds before a collision would have happened or if the boy tripped over his own feet, but either way, the situation came perilously close to being a parent’s worst nightmare come true.
Both inspired by and haunted by these events, King wrote the novel, delving into what could have been. Perhaps part of the reason these characters felt so very real to me was that they were, at least in part, real to King. The first third or so of the book shows us decent people, if a little flawed, just trying to make their way in the world. The Creed family could be any family, loving each other most of the time but getting snappy under pressure, as we all do. The Crandalls are a kind and welcoming couple, interesting and neighbourly. King gives us just enough time to settle in, to fall a little bit in love with these people, before he starts the spiral into darkness.
The moment upon which the rest of the story turns is when Louis and Judd find the Creeds’ cat, Church, dead at the side of the road. If Ellie had been there at the time, if Louis’ wife and children had not been away visiting her parents, if Judd had been somewhere else that day, then maybe everything would have turned out all right. A little girl’s heart would have been broken, but perhaps all else could have been avoided.
But of course, if that had been the case then there would be no book for us to read.
More than anything else, this is a book about death and grief and loss. It’s about the holes that are ripped into us when we lose someone we love. And it’s about the lengths we might go to if it meant getting them back. In this book, love does not save the day but instead damns Louis and those closest to him to a deeply unhappy ending.
Coming back to this book now, as a wife and mother, having tasted the fear of a toddler running towards the road, this book was so painful to read. Obviously, having read it before, I knew what was coming, but the tragedy is telegraphed to the reader fairly early, with Judd warning them to keep an eye on the kids around the road because of the big Orono trucks that came roaring by, on the very first day that the Creeds move into the house. All the way through the first part of the book, I knew that disaster was looming and that I couldn’t stop it. I read with a feeling of dread sitting heavy in my stomach.
This is probably one of King’s most straightforward narratives, along with one of his smaller casts, but that in no way reduces the brilliance of the book. It’s brutal and hard and achingly heart-breaking in places but it is also an example of a storyteller at his best.
If you haven’t read it yet, then you should absolutely pick it up. Hell, even if you’ve read it already, reread it and admire how well he pulls it all together. Just … have some tissues handy.