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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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