Pet Sematary by Stephen King
First things first – I am a Stephen King fan. I’m a big King fan and have been since I was a teenager, which was a while ago. A long while ago. I just want all my biases laid out here at the start: I am a fan, and I am predisposed to like his writing style and his works in general. Despite being a pretty big fan, I have not read everything he has written, and this book was ‘new’ to me.
I put the ‘new’ in quotations because I knew the basic plot outline of the book. I hang out in Stephen King fan-ish places on the internet, where the plot gets referenced. I grew up going to a video store that, for a very long time (or so it seemed because I found it terrifying), had a big poster for the movie Pet Sematary 2. When the remake of the original movie came out, I skimmed the Wikipedia entry for the original film.
At a very high level, the basic plot of the book is a family’s move to Maine due to the father’s job (he’s a doctor and will be working at a Maine University in the student health clinic there). The family comprises the father (Louis), the mother (Rachel), and two kids (Ellie and Gage), along with the family cat, Church. Their property is situated not far from a local Pet Cemetery (or Sematary, as the sign at the entrance says). With a major highway near the house, the family is warned about the road’s dangers for pets. Given it’s a Stephen King novel, you can anticipate that bad things start happening, escalating into horrifying events.
I had next to no desire to read the book; however, because I just – I don’t like animals dying. I’m one of those people. I knew from the title alone that Bad Things would happen to pets. And the cat on the original book cover was creepy and implied bad things happened to the cat. I had the sense that bad things happened to people, but you know what, Stephen King fan here, and I can handle that. Mostly. Then the end of 2023 rolled around, and I was like, you know what, let’s give it a try. Somewhere I read that this book was about grief, and I was like, let me wallow in those feelings a bit. 2023 was rough, yo. I read Pet Sematary to cheer myself up.
I picked the audiobook because it had a shorter wait time at the library, and I figured if the narration was going to drive me bonkers, I could easily switch to print. The narration did not drive me bonkers; in fact, I quite enjoyed it. I can’t speak to the accuracy of Michael C. Hall’s Yankee accent, but it did not make me want to claw at my ears, which was a worry I had going in. I had it in my head that one of the characters (Jud) had his Yankee accent spelled out phonetically, and I was worried that it would be distracting. I can’t speak to how it is written, but the narration was pleasing to my ears.
I was surprised by the amount of time spent delving into the everyday lives of the characters. It allowed me to get to know them and empathize with their experiences. All the while, a dark foreboding hung over the narrative (things got pretty twisted early on), but much of it revolved around the characters coping with grief and trauma. In some cases, it was the struggle of not coping at all.
And then shit got weird. Weirder.
And from here on out spoilers for those who haven’t read the book or read the summary of the movie plot.
You can still turn back before ye olde spoilers. But the paragraph after this is going to go into details of what happens in the book.
I just want to flag that going into this, I thought Church the cat was a lot more… actively evil. I don’t know where I got that idea, but the fact that he was just wrong when he came back, and more vicious with the mouse and crow killing, was somehow more upsetting. Like the cat was still the cat, just a little less. A little offside. A bad copy. It was upsetting as a pet lover (I kept calling out to my dog while listening to the book, ‘I love you, but I don’t think I’d bury you so you could come back—probably.’ I love my dog), but not horrible.
But I get the desperation, and in fairness to the story, the idea that there was a force out there in the universe that compelled Jud to share about the old burying grounds with their bringing back the dead powers, to save your daughter’s pet – hell, to save any pet. One, because you love your daughter/pet, and two, because yeah, you don’t want to have that conversation; you want to keep the innocence alive a bit longer. I think this relates to the work that Louis does later in the story to convince Ellie that Santa Claus is real. Yes, he thinks she needs to know about the big topics, but I also think he really wants her to be a kid.
I was also horrified and fascinated (again, a nod to the fact that the force from beyond was manipulating the characters) by Louis’s mental gymnastics to convince himself he should dig up Gage’s body. But I got it. Grief does not make you act like a rational person. The daydream/fantasy that Louis has, where he imagines Gage’s life, it almost broke me; it felt so real and so much like things I’ve imagined when faced with loss.
And the trip up to bury Gage was a lot, Mr. King. I don’t know if it was because I was painting my bathroom and listening to the narration, and the paint fumes were working on me, but it felt like listening to a fever dream. It freaked me out. But then, we got to the climax of the book, and it sort of fell apart for me. Gage came back, and honestly, the story went off the rails in a not-fun way for me. Yes, it was horrific! It was kind of scary, but maybe it would have been scarier if I hadn’t known this was where it was going? Honestly, Rachel coming back at the end was freakier to me. An evil kid was just—meh. Maybe because I knew it was coming and maybe because I’ve consumed so much horror media that an evil out-of-pocket child is not that scary to me.
I get that the story ends where it ends, and we pass out of the characters’ lives or unlives, but I need to know what happened to Ellie. Her mother did not have the best coping mechanisms with grief, and last we heard of Ellie, she was in the custody of her grandparents—the people who raised her mother and had a hand in Rachel’s issues around death. What is going to happen to Ellie!?
“In the end, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. I thought it was going to be ‘meh’ for some reason, but I really, really enjoyed it.
Also posted on my dreamwidth journal here: https://dreadpiratekel.dreamwidth.org/3022.html