Title: Pet Sematary
Author: Stephen King
I’ve mentioned this before: my grandma says Pet Sematary, published in 1983, was so scary that she put it down halfway through and didn’t pick up another book by Stephen King until Mr. Mercedes, which debuted in 2014. A fan of King myself, I can’t say that Pet Sematary was on my list of books to read either — until I saw the trailer for the upcoming movie adaptation. I teased my grandmother, asking her if she wanted to read the book together and then go see the movie in theatres. But she was adamant — thirty-six years later, Pet Sematary is still not on her To Read list, and never will be.
But, just how scary is Pet Sematary?
My edition opens with a letter from King, written in 2000, that starts:
When I am asked (as I frequently am) what I consider to be the most frightening book I’ve ever written, the answer I give comes easily and with no hesitation: Pet Sematary. It may not be the one that scares readers the most…. All I know is that Pet Sematary is the one I put away in a drawer, thinking I had gone too far…. Put simply, I was horrified by what I had written, and the conclusions I’d drawn.”
The introduction goes on to share how Pet Sematary came to be written. After reading it, I can understand why it would be so frightening to King. The horror story is loosely based on events in his own life at the time — a family man taking a residency at a university (King as a writer, his character Louis Creed as a doctor). Both King and Creed selected “a wonderful house in a wonderful rural main town.” The only problem, for both King and Creed, is the road. Both King and Creed, and their wives, were warned by a neighbor to watch their children and pets along the road. King and Creed each had a daughter with a pet cat and a toddler son who had a brush with a truck on that ominous road in front of their homes…. And behind the house of both King and Creed existed a makeshift cemetary with a wooden sign declaring it “Pet Semetary,” the burial ground of community pets.
Epithets from the real Pet Sematary make their way into the book, as do pet names, and quirky phrases, and even a conversation King has with his daughter. Pet Sematary was borne of King’s own fears and grapplings with mortality. Death is terrifying to many, and I am sure the death of a child to a parent even more so.
As King states in his introduction, “the fearbone, like the funnybone, is located in different places on different people.” This is true — the three scariest King novels that I have read are probably strange selections to some: Misery, “Apt Pupil,” and The Long Walk — three works that I would argue are more internally, psychologically scary than the external, physically scary works that are Salem’s Lot, Christine, and Cujo.
I believe Pet Sematary attempts to be both. It could be described as a dissertation on death — all the fears and anxieties that come with it. Through most of the both, death lurks in the language: conversation between characters, etc. It is not until the end that Death becomes manifests itself as a horror that haunts and potentially hurts.
The internal anxieties and discussions on death are done well. But I do not feel the external scares really delivered.
Put simply — I wanted to be scared reading this book but I wasn’t.
Of course, I must also admit, I read with jaded eyes. I began the book fueled by my grandmother’s hype.
So, I was let down by the fear factor (or lack thereof). But I am, though, amazed at King’s mastery, his ability to transform his fears into such a powerful tale.