Book Review: Pet Sematary by Stephen King

Sometimes dead is better

pet sematary by stephen king

Reflections and Thoughts

“Pet Sematary” by Stephen King, if passed on as a story around a cosy fireplace must be done when the fire is ablaze and the night is young, for when the embers have died and the cold wind whistles through the woods, even the slightest rustle can make your heart leap out of your chest. 

What should have been the springtime years of life for the nuclear family—Louis Creed, his wife Rachel, and their two children Eileen and Gage, and Eileen’s cat Winston Churchill “Church”—when they moved in August, to a New England colonial house “Ludlow House” (a picturesque family home) with a sprawling lush green lawn, which stood at the threshold of a quiet suburb and the woods that went on forever, spiralled into a tale of macabre and horror. 

The story is underlined with irony. Louis Creed at the beginning of the story, explains the concept of death—rather bluntly—to his daughter Ellie who encounters the Pet Sematary, a burial ground created by children for their pets, which explains the innocent misspelling—and subsequently the idea of death—strange for a kid her age—for the first time while on their little walk through the woods. Despite the hush-hush around topics such as “how are babies born” to “what happens when someone dies”, Louis, being a sensible parent and a doctor, despite the squabble with his wife who prefers that such topics be not brought up around children, tells Ellie the truth she deserves to know. He does not entertain lies. The same Louis, halfway through the story, takes part reluctantly alongside Jud Crandall, in the resurrection of Church after he is knocked dead by a heavy truck, in the ancient Indian burial grounds. He does this, whilst dismissing the idea of rebirth and the existence of such a place from where the dead return and continues to deny it, also wondering if Jud is a lunatic who has lost his marbles, long after the family cat—not so much as a cat but as a zombie-cat—returns from the burial spot. Yet in his heart, the seed of ploy is planted. And when his young son Gage has “an appointment with the Orion truck” and meets unfortunate Death, the seed takes root. In the end, Louis Creed, the sane man who once held the strength to come to terms with death, entertains the idea (A man grows what he can… and tends it.)—and executes it—believing truly in his heart that if he does it the right way, that if he is quicker in sneaking off his boy’s body from the graveyard—Louis Creed is more of a graverobber than a doctor at this point—and burying it in the secret burial place—then Gage would return; sure he would be dim-witted, a tad bit slow, and perhaps slightly “retarded” but they would make do. Despite the old stories of such things gone wrong as recounted by Jud who ends it with a subtle warning against entertaining such ideas, despite knowing that what returned from the dead was anything but Ellie’s Church, feeling the tug of evil and at some point, being aware of his train of thoughts and the consequences of it, goes ahead with it. As a backup, he hatches a plan to kill his son if things went south, wishing that they would not, but he knows better

Pet Sematary is among all other things—pets buried ages ago in a supposedly spiral fashion (birth, death, re-birth); the evil spirit Wendigo, which possesses creatures and turns them into cannibals and murderers—preying upon the evil that lies lurks in all men; sounds like voices and hanging faces in the air—eyes like the eyes in a classical Chinese painting, rich yellowish-grey, sunken, gleaming—in the swamp on the path towards the burial ground; Church who returns from the dead and has a particular taste for hunting (tearing apart small animals); Paxcow (no, Pascow) who haunts Ellie in her dreams and warns her of the impending doom, which eventually was used to lure Rachel; and so on—an allegory for grief and loss in life. Louis, unable to comprehend the sudden and tragic death of his son, does not allow himself to fully grieve, to come to terms with his loss, instead resorting to an alternative—in this case, the resurrection of his son Gage to any form, even inhuman, as long as what returns, returns in flesh and bone—to relieve himself from the pain. The path to the Pet Sematary and beyond leads Louis to perdition. 

In the woods behind the house, and far beyond the Pet Sematary, evil had always lurked and even to this day lurks, but the force that drove seemingly sane men—for example, Louis Creed—to insanity always lay deep embedded in their hearts and as Jud Crandall, the family’s neighbour, a man in his late eighties would say, “The soil of a man’s heart is stonier, Louis. A man grows what he can… and tends it.” Don’t we all nurse something in the murky depths of our hearts and don’t we defend what we have tended for so long against all rationale? The story is a lens through which we see ourselves and what do we see? Even if we do not want to admit it to ourselves, we see with appalling clarity that given the circumstances our actions might not have been any different from that of Louis Creed. 

About the Author

stephen king

Stephen King was born in Portland, Maine in 1947, the second son of Donald and Nellie Ruth Pillsbury King. He made his first professional short story sale in 1967 to Startling Mystery Stories. In the fall of 1971, he began teaching high school English classes at Hampden Academy, the public high school in Hampden, Maine. Writing in the evenings and on the weekends, he continued to produce short stories and to work on novels. In the spring of 1973, Doubleday & Co., accepted the novel Carrie for publication, providing him the means to leave teaching and write full-time. He has since published over 50 books and has become one of the world’s most successful writers. King is the recipient of the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to the American Letters and the 2014 National Medal of Arts.

Stephen lives in Maine and Florida with his wife, novelist Tabitha King. They are regular contributors to a number of charities including many libraries and have been honored locally for their philanthropic activities.

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Notable Quotes from Pet Sematary

“And the most terrifying question of all may be just how much horror the human mind can stand and still maintain a wakeful, staring, unrelenting sanity.”

“The soil of a man’s heart is stonier, Louis. A man grows what he can, and he tends it. ‘Cause what you buy, is what you own. And what you own… always comes home to you.”

“It’s probably wrong to believe there can be any limit to the horror which the human mind can experience. On the contrary, it seems that some exponential effect begins to obtain as deeper and deeper darkness falls-as little as one may like to admit it, human experience tends, in a good many ways, to support the idea that when the nightmare grows black enough, horror spawns horror, one coincidental evil begets other, often more deliberate evils, until finally blackness seems to cover everything. And the most terrifying question of all may be just how much horror the human mind can stand and still maintain a wakeful, staring, unrelenting sanity. That such events have their own Rube Goldberg absurdity goes almost without saying. At some point, it all starts to become rather funny. That may be the point at which sanity begins either to save itself or to buckle and break down; that point at which one’s sense of humor begins to reassert itself.”

“That lesson suggests that in the end, we can only find peace in our human lives by accepting the will of the universe.”

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