Tuesday 28 May 2019

Pet Sematary, by Stephen King

As I've written about before, Stephen King got me properly into horror (with Salem's Lot) and I used his Danse Macabre to immerse myself in the genre.  Last year, after picking up a hardcover edition of Pet Sematary on the Crusty Exterior Leicester gathering, I decided to re-read the novel, having put it off for years (certainly since we had Dude).  I thoroughly enjoyed it (though it is genuinely frightening, especially the parental worries it brings) and I've decided to go back through his back catalogue, re-reading as a middle-aged horror fan what the teen version of me loved back in the 80s.  But first, Pet Sematary...
New English Library paperback, reprinted December 1985
cover scan of my copy
Dr Louis Creed has moved his family - wife Rachel, children Ellie & Gage and cat Church - from Chicago to Ludlow, Maine where he is taking over the running of the University of Maine infirmary.  Things start well - he has great neighbours, in 80-something Jud Crandall and his wife Norma, the house is lovely, the kids are growing - but then turn a bit darker.  First, Victor Pascow, a university student, is run over and mortally injured, dying in Louis’ reception while Jud shows the family a Pet Sematary which happens to be on their land and which Rachel is disturbed by.  When Church is killed by a lorry on the busy road, Louis makes a mistake in an effort to hide the dread news from Ellie.  Jud has told him about a place beyond the Sematary, an old Micmac burial ground that might have special powers and Louis asks Jud to take him there.

I first read this novel decades ago, as a teen who loved Stephen King and all things horror and, crucially, didn’t have children.  I loved it back then, though I could see it was dark and enjoyed the film too but have resisted a re-read, especially since we had Dude.  But now seemed a good time (the novel turned 35 last year, a new film version was released this year) and I’m so glad I did.

It’s difficult to state just how dark the book is.  It’s bloody frightening in places (that ending!) and it hits a parent hard where it hurts (the exhumation scene is almost unbearable) but it’s also beautifully structured (lovingly setting up the family, the house, the location, with the novel starting months before the bad stuff) and overall a fantastic read.  The characters are all vividly brought to life, the locations are well realised and everything is wonderfully realistic, even how rational characters embrace the supernatural.  Not for the faint of heart - King himself said in interview the novel scared him - but it completely justifies your attention and if you’re a horror fan I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Superb stuff.

New English Library paperback, rear cover, reprinted December 1985
cover scan of my copy
On his website, King writes that in early 1979 he was writer-in-residence at the University of Maine at Orono and rented a house in nearby Orrington.  Built on a major truck route that often claimed the lives of pets, “local children had created an informal pet cemetery”.  When his daughter's cat Smucky was run over, King buried the cat there and had to explain to his daughter what had happened.  Afterwards, he wondered “what would happen if the cat were to return the next day, alive but fundamentally different”.  This led to him wondering what might happen if a child were killed, brought on by an experience with his youngest son Owen.  He told the Paris Review “Owen [went] charging for the road. He was this little guy, probably two years old. I’m yelling, Don’t do that! And of course he runs faster and laughs, because that’s what they do at that age. I ran after him and gave him a flying tackle and pulled him down on the shoulder of the road, and a truck just thundered by him”

“Everything,” he told the Paris Review, “in it - up to the point where the little boy is killed in the road - everything is true.”  He researched modern burial practises and told himself he had to “go a little bit further”, before realising it was so “gruesome by the end of it” he didn’t even give a draft to his wife Tabitha to read.  “When I finished I put it in the desk and just left it there. I worked on Christine, which I liked a lot better, and which was published before Pet Sematary.”

The novel became known as the book King thought too scary to publish (he refused to do interviews or publicity in support of it).  According to Grady Hendrix however, this a lot of this refusal was down to it being “his final flipped bird to Doubleday”.  When he signed to them, his contract enrolled him into an author investment plan which protected him from taxes by only paying out $50k a year.  A victim of his own success, within ten years the fund had amassed $3m, which would take Doubleday 60 or more years to pay off.  He asked for his funds to be released (since he’d already moved publisher by then) and they refused, wanting at least one more book from him.  To fulfill this contractual obligation, he gave them Pet Sematary, saying in interview “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.”

Even though he wanted nothing to do with it, Doubleday went to town with their promotion.  The novel had a first printing of 500,000 copies (“actually only 335,000 copies”, according to Grady), backed by a major ad campaign and sold 657k hardbacks in its first year, becoming “his first mega-blockbuster”.
BCA hardcover edition, 1993
cover scan of my copy
The book was made into a film directed by Mary Lambert and released in April 1989.  I saw it at the cinema with my girlfriend of the time and found it chilling, but nowhere near as scary as the book.  She, on the other hand, was terrified.  A sequel, Pet Sematary Two, was released in 1992 and I never bothered with it.  A new adaption was released earlier this year.

In 1997, a dramatisation of six half-hour episodes was broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

In a 2010 introduction for the novel, King called Pet Sematary the most frightening book he’s ever written.  I’d have to agree with him on that.

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