I’ve always read King with a bit of detached bemusement. I love his writing for the languid ease with which he captures the chronic normalcy of everyday life in a small town. When people tell me they don’t read King because he’s too scary, I’m always a little surprised that that’s the takeaway people have. I’ve never been scared by his books. But his characters….. His characterization is amazing, and the world he populates with those characters leaves me in awe.
To that point, I haven’t been scared by any horror story since I was in the sixth grade and first read “The Monkey’s Paw”.
So color me interested when I read that King called this something he felt was too scary to publish; so scary, in fact, that he hid the manuscript away in a drawer. Not only did the book terrify its writer, but the plot rolls out in a way awfully reminiscent of the story which haunted me lo so many years ago.
The Creeds move from Chicago to the small Maine town of Ludlow, where Louis has taken a job as the University of Maine’s health services director. Their house is situated on a curvy road that sees a lot of traffic, and there’s a nicely mowed path behind their house that leads back to a pet cemetery. Across the road is an elderly couple Jud and Norma Crandell, and they all quickly become close friends. But there’s more to the pet cemetery than the Creeds initially think…
I think this is the King book most emblematic of the “horror” genre. Sure, demonic clowns, rabid dogs, and post-apocalyptic landscapes have terrorized generations of readers, but most of his stories seem just as focused on following the lives of their characters as they are with evoking chills in the reader. He spends more time exploring the degradations of childhood and inadequacies of adult life than he does supernatural hauntings or the raving violence of the criminally insane.
But here, every line seems to be infused with the echoing solemnity of a crypt, its sole focus to haunt and unsettle. King goes to great lengths developing the inner life of his protagonist and surrounds him with the vibrant and full-figured winsomeness of Kingian townsfolk, but everything exists to propagate the feeling of disjointed unease and sudden loss. Death is ever-present here, and it clings to this world with oppressive strength.
King begins this book with a brief introduction detailing the impetus for the novel. His daughter, a young child at the time, was taking her anger at the death of a family pet out on some bubble wrap. Except King calls them “blisters” instead of “bubbles”. This is such a small detail, but, I feel, it perfectly sets the tone for the book. Pet Semetary was written to unnerve, and the entirety of its content is tilted with the effort of achieving that goal.
I couldn’t help but wonder at the nature of fear while reading this book. Because, by their very nature, horror novels don’t really scare me, I’m always wondering whether legitimate put-the-book-in-the-freezer-fear is a real thing, or if these types of stories make people think about the unpleasant truths in their own life, and that that is what people mean when they refer to how scary a book is.
If that is the fear people refer to when talking about Stephen King novels, then I think I can finally appreciate them for reasons that everyone else seems to: absolute terror.
I’m a married guy in my mid-30s with a kid, and I live on a curved road that sees more traffic than I’m comfortable with. I’m frequently struck with a sense of foreboding whenever we’re outside in the front of the house, and our little one is running around gleefully ambivalent to the danger that lurks at the end of our driveway. This ever-present threat, looming just outside my carefully manicured passivity, is so unambiguous that my son has only played in the front yard a handful of times.
There is a reality to the horror in this book that sets it apart from the more supine unease of It or Misery. This is the kind of nightmare that parents the world over experience without needing the assistance of a bestselling author’s vivid imagination. Which, perhaps, is why this book has resonated so strongly with people.
It’s also the kind of nightmare that might cause a writer to hide the manuscript in a desk drawer for awhile. Maybe with the childish superstition that not putting word to the thought will be enough protection to save him from having to face the unimaginable.
Thankfully, this is just a book. Just a story. And I’m going to tuck my son into his bed tonight, after reading him a (less terrifying) bedtime story.
But he’s still not going to play in the front yard.