10th March 2020

Grief in Pet Sematary

How does horror fiction prepare us for real life tragedy? In my Pet Sematary analysis/review, I try to figure out what role the darkest of stories may play in our abilities to deal with the inevitable traumas of life.

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Stephen King never intended Pet Sematary to be published. On looking over his completed manuscript, he found its themes of mortality and loss (particularly of children) too uncomfortable to bear, in the end only allowing its publication in order to settle a book contract. He’d written the story while renting a house with his family in the town of Orrington, during his time as writer-in-residence at the University of Maine. There really was a path out back leading to a pet cemetery, just as there really was a busy main road his son Owen wandered too close to on one occasion. The death of children in a manner so near to his own personal experiences didn’t sit well for the father of three. Fair enough, I thought going into Pet Sematary. The thing swerves too close to home for the guy, I get it. But it can’t be that tough a read.

It was.

Pet Sematary is split into three sections, the beginning of each marked with paraphrased excerpts from John’s Gospel of Christ’s resurrection of Lazarus, placing in the reader’s mind the seeds for the themes to come. The story follows Louis Creed, husband to wife Rachel, and father to five-year-old Ellie and toddler Gage. Louis has just moved his family to a house in Ludlow, Maine where he has landed a job as head of the local university’s infirmary. Passing alongside the house is the busy Route 15, along which monstrous ten-wheelers regularly thunder past. This proves a cause of much trepidation for the couple, who fear young Gage may run out into the road and get hit by a passing truck.

Jud Crandall and his wife Norma live nearby, and the Creeds soon become friendly with the charming elderly couple. Things seem sweet until a car mows down Ellie’s beloved cat, Churchill, on Route 15. Jud, knowing how the loss of Church will affect Ellie, takes Louis through the woods at the back of the house and into the local kids’ ‘pet sematary’, as they’ve misspelt it. They follow a trail deeper into the woodland until they come to an ancient Native American burial ground of the Micmac tribe, where Jud instructs Louis to bury Church. Of course, the cat comes back.

Ellie, although having had the fact of Church’s death kept from her, notices a change in the resurrected creature. It stinks, is uncharacteristically vicious, and seems to have developed an unnerving habit of staring stonily at Louis from the shadows. The inevitable finally occurs when Gage runs out into Route 15 and is obliterated by a passing truck, plunging the family into fathomless grief and despair. The toddler’s death sets the characters on a deepening spiral towards their grisly destinies; Louis exhumes Gage and reburies the boy in the Micmac burial ground, who returns from the grave to kill Jud and eat Mummy. Louis injects him with a lethal cocktail of chemicals from his medical supplies, killing him – again. Unhinged, and possibly under the influence of the Wendigo creature responsible for the curse of the burial ground, Louis carries Rachel’s body along the hidden trail past the ‘pet sematary’, over the deadfall, and buries her in the unholy Micmac soil. The novel ends with Louis playing solitaire late into the night, when the sound of the backdoor opening resonates through the house.

“A cold hand fell on Louis’s shoulder. Rachel’s voice was grating, full of dirt.
Darling,’ it said.”

Pet Sematary, said to be a modern re-telling of The Monkey’s Paw – the W. W. Jacobs 1902 short story about parents wishing for the resurrection of their son, and having their wish come true – approaches the age-old story of man finding a way to cheat the natural order of things from a new angle. As in Frankenstein, the story centres on a man of science. The difference here is that it’s not a furthering of the scientific discipline that enables Dr Louis Creed to cheat death, but the discovery of a supernatural loophole that he must come to accept. Setting aside his scientific scepticism will grant him the opportunity to find salvation for his family in the wake of the devastating loss of their son Gage.

King’s construction of each character places them all faithfully in service to its central theme of mortality and loss. There’s Louis, whose profession as a doctor has, and will, position him in close proximity with death; Rachel, whose traumatic experience as a little girl with her terminally ill sister has laid the groundwork for an unhealthy fear of death; and Ellie, whose beloved cat is destined to stray too close to the speeding ten-wheelers on the busy road by the house. Finally, the family’s elderly neighbours, Jud and Norma, the latter of whose death will touch them all. Interestingly, Gage seems to be the only main character not exposed to loss before his demise. He is, in contrast with everyone else touched by death, a pure soul, and his naivety to the influence of mortality makes his demise all the more harrowing. With these pieces in place by the time Gage perishes, the path has been paved for all these differing perceptions of loss to converge, each character’s grief manifesting in different ways.

The Creed family are built so fully, from their minor idiosyncrasies to their underlying insecurities, memories, and concerns, that we find ourselves utterly invested in their wellbeing. Once in the throes of grief, we grieve with them. The decision to throw us into their mourning by moving from the closure of part one with:

“He went back to Gage’s crib. In shifting around, the kid had kicked his two blankets down around his knees. Louis disentangled him, pulled the blankets up, and then merely stood there, watching his son, for a long time.”

to the opening of part two (following a paragraph’s rumination on the limits of the mind’s sanity in the face of true horror) with:

“Louis Creed might have harbored such thoughts if he had been thinking rationally following the funeral of his son, Gage William Creed, on the seventeenth of May, but any rational thought – or attempt at it – ceased at the funeral parlor, where a fistfight with his father-in-law (bad enough) resulted in an event even more terrible – a final bit of outrageous gothic melodrama which shattered whatever remained of Rachel’s fragile self-control.”

means we are dropped directly and without warning into the deep end of the family’s grief. Although the blanks are filled in by way of flashbacks and Louis’s musings over the events surrounding Gage’s death, we are thrown in as if we are part of the family, feeling like we’ve just awoken from a deep sleep to the sudden reminder our family’s heartbreaking reality.

The handling of Louis’s grief is refreshing. Absent are the usual melodramatic signallers of despair, replaced instead with his numb bafflement at the obligatory custom of the funeral service guestbook, the breakdown of communication between him and his wife, and his all-too-convincing dreams of his son growing up to become an Olympic swimmer. And as Louis’s rationalisations of what we know he will come to consider begin to creep in – his utilisation of the ‘pet sematary’ – we have been led to understand his need to bring Gage back and save his family, even believing this inevitability might not be such a bad idea after all. All the while another part of us watches on in dread, begging him to reconsider. Louis was the one character who seemed to have made peace with the certitude of mortality, seeing it as a natural part of life. When he loses Gage, he abandons this outlook and sets out desperately to defeat it. As in most cheat-death-at-all-costs scenarios, wherein man flies too close to the sun of Lazarusesque resurrection, he ultimately fails – and falls.

A year after Pet Sematary’s release, King said in an interview:

“I don’t like it. It’s a terrible book – not in terms of the writing, but it just spirals down into darkness. It seems to be saying that nothing works and nothing is worth it, and I don’t really believe that.”

I don’t know whether his opinion of the novel has changed in the years since, but I believe there can be worth in a book so deprived of hope. Pet Sematary is, amongst other things, a simulator ride for grief. As ‘in bad taste’ as that concept may initially sound, this ride is an important one. In witnessing the tragedy of the Creeds unfold, we either have our own experiences with grief and loss dragged from us – a challenging and even painful experience, but healthy nonetheless – or we are given a taste of a necessary part of life we may still have to encounter. The simulator ride ensures that when it’s finally our turn to go into the inevitable trial of grief, we don’t go in sterile and unprepared.

I disagree with King: unresolved darkness in a story doesn’t equate to a terrible time. I got much from this book, as did many. I came out having witnessed different manifestations of grief, damaging coping mechanisms, reactions, and ways to crumble under the weight of sorrow, and learnt that, in the face of such darkness, none are anything to be ashamed of (except that whole exhumation thing). If there’s any worth in horror’s ability to force us to face the buried nihilistic truths of life – that darkness we usually try to ignore until it comes knocking on our door – then Pet Sematary must be very worthy indeed.

This ride is an important one.


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