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Pet Sematary by Stephen King (1983) 368 p.

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Even before anything supernatural happens in Pet Sematary, the novel is marinated in dread. Our protagonist Louis Creed has been hired as chief doctor at the University of Maine’s on-campus clinic, and the novel begins as he and his wife and young children arrive at the big old farmhouse in the countryside they’ve bought to live in. The Creeds’ amiable neighbour Jud Crandall soon shows them the path into the woods behind their house which leads to the town’s secluded pet cemetery, titularly misspelt on its sign by the children who made it decades ago. This later leads Louis into a difficult conversation with his daughter Ellie about the mortality of her cat Church, and in fact mortality in general, which leads to a fight with his wife Rachel when they disagree about how best to tackle it: Louis the hard-headed medical man and realist, Rachel carrying around baggage on the topic because her sister died in childhood. The mood of their new life only becomes more grim on Louis’ first day on the job, when a student is struck by a car and dies horribly on the floor of the clinic.

From the student’s grisly death to their son Gage’s habit of getting nasty infections to Louis’ ruminations about his daughter getting older, Pet Sematary is a book very much revolving around ageing, time, and the fateful day we all have waiting in our own futures. Maybe it’s just because I’m getting older myself, but I found this instilled a much deeper sense of anxiety than any of the more prosaic monsters King has populated his other books with. The setting works brilliantly, too: it’s all sunshine and wildflowers when the family arrives in July, but before long it’s autumn in Maine, a lonely old farmhouse set back from the road, frost in the fields and November winds howling as Louis’ family decamps to Chicago for Thanksgiving, and he goes to meet Jud after an unsettling phone call rings through his empty house. That’s when the supernatural comes into play. You can see where Pet Sematary is going to go after a certain point; what’s surprising is how King takes his time in getting there, lingering on every foreboding moment.

There are moments towards the climax, disappointingly, where King can’t help himself. He always has more than one idea floating around in his head and rarely restrains himself from shoehorning them into a plot when perhaps they were best saved for another story. The prophetic dreams that visit Ellie and the notion that the Pet Sematary can evoke some malign influence beyond its boundaries were best left on the typewriter ribbon. The notion of a sacred/sullied space that can resurrect the dead is frightening enough without giving it agency. If anything, our own human motivations (and King does a brilliant job of writing how an intelligent, logical man like Louis would rationalise bad decisions to himself step by careful step) is far more interesting than what we actually see, where characters speculate the influence of the cemetery is affecting the broader world for its own malevolent motives. A better editor would have curbed these fantastic tendencies. The scariest stuff in Pet Sematary is not the ludicrous rotting devil figure that Louis sees in the misty swamp. It’s the glimpse through the window of the dew-covered rental car parked outside Jud’s house; the unexpected phone call in the dead stillness of the morning; the creak of the floorboards on Jud’s porch. It’s the moments in life when we hear or see something we know to be wrong, when we’re forced to confront that life is not always safe and everything is not always going to be okay. King gets that – he could never have painted those scenes so well without getting that – which is why it’s so frustrating, as always, when he lets his imagination lead him down the garden path.

This is still a very good book, and its flaws pale in comparison to its strengths. It’s easily some of King’s best work, second only to The Mist and – perhaps – the better, earlier Dark Tower novels. I can easily say that nothing from the 20th century’s most renowned horror writer has unsettled and disturbed me more.

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Advise and Consent by Allen Drury (1959) 638 p.

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Allen Drury was a political reporter in Washington DC for fifteen years. Understanding that fact is key to understanding Advise and Consent, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel which is perhaps the quintessential Washington book in the same way Mr Smith Goes to Washington is the quintessential Washington film. It’s a journalist’s view of government, and in particular a DC correspondent’s view of government. That view is often not coterminous with reality, then or now. The fact that this novel is sixty years old and was written at a paranoid time in history only makes it more of an odd, unique read – and an often tedious one.

Advise and Consent revolves around several US senators and the confirmation process of a second-term President’s nominee for Secretary of State. In Drury’s scenario a single party (I think the Democrats, though he rarely says so outright) have control of the House, the Senate and the presidency, and so the debate to have Bob Leffingwell confirmed as Secretary is almost entirely an intra-party matter. I don’t know what level of bipartisanship there was in the 1950s, but certainly in the 2010s, when Republican obstructionism is beginning to undermine the integrity of the system itself, it seems an odd choice for a political novel. I suppose it allows Drury to demonstrate the majesty/wisdom/beauty/superlative-of-choice of the separation of powers, and wax poetic about the great responsibility resting on the shoulders of that small body of men, debating in the hallowed halls of this inspired nation, standing on the shoulders of Washington and Lincoln, [description runs a further 18 pages], etc. Realism on that note aside, the strangest thing is that the president’s selection of this particular man is treated as a bonafide existential crisis. For the first 200 pages Drury doesn’t explain exactly why, though we can gather from the context and from the age in which the book was written that Leffingwell is just a bit too far left, just a bit too “international,” that he might potentially be some kind of Soviet appeaser. You can perhaps forgive this frankly risible notion in a man of the 1950s, who saw World War II come and go and lived through the genuinely horrifying revelations of the early atomic age. You can even forgive it of a journalist. But it was around the time the cartoonish Russian ambassador said (and this is an actual quote) “You will choke on words, you weaklings of the West!” that I decided I couldn’t quite forgive it of a novelist.

Red Scare agitprop aside, the problem is that Drury is effectively asking you to believe that the appointment of one man – the wrong man – might somehow pose an existential threat to the free world. Not even to the office of President, mind you, but Secretary of State. I would put it to you that the Secretary of State could be an honest-to-God brainwashed Manchurian candidate hellbent on destroying the American way of life, and it would not somehow result in the entire government being subverted and America writhing under the Soviet boot. Yet at the same time Drury asks you to believe this frankly ludicrous notion – even for the time, never mind that the US has an imbecile game show host for a president now and we’re all still trucking along more or less okay – he revels in portraying the backroom deals, horse trading and windbaggery of the Senate. It’s a journalist’s view of Washington: cynical yet somehow still idealistic, standing daily in the shadows of the world’s real movers and shakers and perhaps becoming a bit self-conscious about the stenography trade. (The press gallery serves as a Greek chorus throughout the novel, its members referred to not by their names but by their publications or wire services.) Advise and Consent would have worked well as a shorter novel about a truly dangerous, pivotal moment in American history demonstrating the importance of the separation of powers; or as a longer, sprawling, character-driven saga about the various characters who serve in the Senate and all the thousands of matters from the mundane to the critical which compete for that body’s attention. It suffers from trying to be both, and it most certainly suffers from a glacial pace that inches its way across 628 pages of undifferentiated dialogue and lengthy exposition.

And yet. There is something here. For the first few hundred pages I was fully prepared to give Advise and Consent a terrible review and maybe even ditch it before the end, but its second and third acts move onto something which is, I suppose, less political and more personal. The story becomes more fixated on a single senator, his crisis of conscience, and the gut-wrenchingly terrible consequences of his own party’s attempts to threaten and blackmail him with a secret from his past. The moment when Seab Cooley hears something in his office, and knows full well what it is, and goes downstairs to confront it: that’s a great passage of writing. There are more of them scattered throughout the latter part of the book, moments when Drury chooses to really drill down inside his characters’ heads, when he gets away from the sprawling cast of surnames and focuses on the smaller canvas instead of the larger and showier one. It’s always a shame to see an author who is capable of great writing be bogged down by his own inability to cut the wheat from the chaff, or to secure an editor who will.

I can’t say Advise and Consent is a great novel. It’s a bloated, uneven book which manages the peculiar feat of appearing simultaneously jaded and naive about its subject matter. Nonetheless, I ended up liking it more than I expected to – even if I didn’t, overall, really like it. If you’re one of those people working your way through the Pulitzer winners, I suppose the best I can do is assure you it does pick up a bit after the halfway mark.

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