“Sometimes, dead is better.” This is the haunting tagline of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, which I made myself finally finish last night. And despite having read it before, I am still utterly horrified by it and I expect it’ll take me a few days to fully recover. Let’s get through this review quickly so I never have to think about this book again.
Pet Sematary, like many of King’s novels, is set in small-town Maine, this time in a town called Ludlow. Dr. Louis Creed and his family move there from Chicago in late August so Louis can direct the University of Maine’s infirmary. They move in across the road from Jud and Norma Crandall, an elderly couple who have resided in Ludlow for their entire lives. The road is a busy one, often besieged by huge fertilizer-bearing tractor-trailers. Jud warns Louis the day he moves in to make sure to keep the family cat away from the road, which, in his words, has “used up a lot of animals.”
That same day, Jud leads the family—Louis; Rachel, his wife; and Ellie and Gage, his young daughter and toddler son—through a path in the woods near their house that leads to a somber little spot called the “Pet Sematary,” where, for generations, local children have been burying their pets. Rachel, who has never been comfortable confronting death, is horrified and later forbids Louis from taking the kids there again. And although Louis believes that death is part of life and that the kids must come to term with it someday, he agrees.
But beyond the Pet Sematary lies a secret: the kind of small-town secret of which everyone knows but no one speaks; the kind of secret that only a grizzled old-timer, like Jud Crandall, would believe in; the kind of secret that has the power to destroy you. And now that Louis Creed knows exactly what lies beyond the Pet Sematary, will he be able to resist its power?
I think I’ve mentioned before that it took me a few times to really be scared by this book. I even wrote a paper on it in tenth grade, but I think that was the last time I read it before now. I haven’t read all of Stephen King’s books, probably not even half, but this is definitely the one that scared me the most. And you know what? I’m not alone: this is the book that scared the master of horror himself the most.
In the introduction, King writes that when he finished Pet Sematary, he thought to himself that he had finally gone too far, and put it away in a drawer, thinking no one would ever want to read it. He only reluctantly submitted it to Doubleday to fulfill his contract with them in 1983, at which point it was published and became surprisingly popular. But to this day, Pet Sematary is the novel that scares Stephen King himself the most.
The story itself is incredibly tragic, which is part of the reason it’s so hard to choke down. King says that the inspiration for the story was basically his imagining all the horrifying “what-ifs” from parenthood coming true—if that gives you any idea of the horror this story contains.
It’s kind of hard to explain even to myself why exactly it freaks me out so much, but it does. The vast majority of it contains the same old boogeyman scares that King is famous for and that frankly don’t bother me that much, except at the end:
The tragedy is part of it, but watching Louis descend into insanity is almost worse. It just has a really indefinable quality that just makes me want to never touch it again, as if the book itself was dirty. (Which it’s not. It’s brand new.)
I would never say not to read this book, since it’s Stephen King, after all, but I would say to at least read a couple of horror novels before you read this one because if you’re a horror newbie, this one will turn you off the genre forever.
- The Great Stephen King Re-read: The Dead Zone (tor.com)
- Stephen King: Five of my favorites from the master of horror (therabbitbooks.wordpress.com)
- The Ramones filmed ‘Pet Sematary’ video in Sleepy Hollow (newyork.newsday.com)
- Yup, Sometimes Dead IS Better: ‘Pet Sematary” (Review) (popmatters.com)
- If Only My Eyes Were Not Pinned To Your Page (ravingmadscientists.wordpress.com)