When you dig the dirt out of a hole, there never seems to be enough to fill it back up. And with that sentiment, Stephen King gives us an achingly haunting analogy for grief in his 1983 classic, Pet Sematary. In his mind’s eye, I think Pet Sematary started out as King’s morbid curiosity and foray into Death’s own doings: That which we, specifically American society, most likes to avoid talking about. Despite, as King puts in one of his best passages in any of his books I’ve read, Death being everywhere in everything we do, always present, always … busy. But, as he began writing the book, I imagine it turned, more deeply into a meditation on Death’s corollary: grief. Then, since King is King, he took grief to supernatural, horrific ends.
I can genuinely say, I’m not sure a King book has frightened me in the way Pet Sematary did. Not in that sort of fun, superficial way, but in that under the skin and looking for the bone marrow heebie-jeebies way. Interestingly, I don’t think that is because of the omnipresence of Death — as someone who has faced down chronic depression and suicidal ideation, Death and I are like drinking buddies at the local watering hole — but because of the unrelenting rawness of grief, and imagining how grief can turn us ugly and into our own sort of walking Death. In that way, as someone who has somehow avoided spoilers for Pet Sematary, despite the 1989 and 2019 film adaptations, and that I listen to a The Losers’ Club Stephen King podcast covering King books, the book also surprised me in not being what I expected. Going by the title alone, I expected a creature horror book, where former pets (dogs and cats) and other creatures rise from the dead and haunt the local children. Or something. Pet Sematary ain’t that. Instead, the Pet Sematary in the book is a smokescreen for the real horror that awaits over the deadfall to an old Indian burial ground. It is from this burial ground that the townsfolk of Ludlow, Maine have resurrected their pets for more than half a century, and eventually, as human curiosity mingled with human grief is wont to do, humans.
Except, because Death is finality, when those pets and humans come back, they are marred by having passed through: They smell of Death, they are caked in mud and dirt and whatever other filth they encountered while buried, and they are fundamentally different, zombie-like in a space between alive and dead. And yet. The tug and pull of the Indian burial ground and grief compel the townsfolk to try, and for our main character, Louis, to try this perverse attempt at cheating Death.
First, when his daughter, Ellie’s, cat, Church, is killed by a truck in the road. Granted, this first time is at the behest of Jud, his 83-year-old neighbor and longtime resident. Jud knows all about the power of the Indian burial ground, and even at 83 and even at what he has seen, he feels compelled to pass this power on. That sets the terrible stage for when Louis’s 2-year-old son is also killed by a truck, to try to resurrect his 2-year-old son. Even though he is a man of science and a doctor, his grief pulls on him and finds a way to rationalize it. There is also an interesting philosophical consideration of whether Rachel, his wife, will still love this new Gage if he resembles a child with an intellectual disability.
Rachel has an interesting arc in her own right. For a large chunk of the novel, she’s almost an “aside” character used to show how scary Death can be for some people because Rachel experienced Death early on with her sister, Zelda. That is why, when Jud takes Ellie to the Pet Sematary and basically gives her a crash course on the fact of Death, Rachel is near-hysterical. She also was clearly subservient, for lack of a better word, to Louis and his direction. I mean, she hadn’t seen the house they were moving to from Chicago before they actually arrived there! Because of that, I didn’t much care for the Rachel character initially. But that was only the beginning of the arc. Next in the arc was Rachel being damn near catatonic after Gage’s death. That is intentional, by the way. She’s being “sedated” by Louis’s doctor friend, Steve Masterton. Louis himself pops a Tuinal, a since-discontinued sleeping pill that was widely abused from the 1960s through the 1980s. That is such an interesting artifact of this book that in a King book, it was still considered normal to regularly sedate yourself after a stressful day. Nonetheless, because of this grief and Louis’s manipulating and scheming, he convinces Rachel and Ellie to go back to Chicago with Rachel’s parents, the Goldmans. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Irwin Goldman and Louis hate each other, and fight at Gage’s funeral in one of the most difficult to read moments from a King book I can recall. Grief is ugly and make old grudges, already difficult to bury (heh), more salient than ever. The reason Louis sends them off to Chicago is so he can resurrect Gage without any interruptions or distractions, but more importantly, to see if Gage comes back as someone who can be ingratiated back into the family, or if, as a doctor, he needs to put him down.
Continuing with the Rachel arc, once she and Ellie arrive in Chicago, Rachel finally awakens from her grief, as it were, thanks to Ellie experiencing horrific nightmares of a premonition nature, and realizes something is amiss with Louis. She hurries back to Ludlow as fast as she can — or, as fast as the Indian burial ground’s power will allow her, eerily reminiscent of The Shining and how it tried to keep Dick Hallorann from returning to the Overlook hotel — and goes to Jud’s house first. Unfortunately, Gage already got to Jud, killing him, and then we find out a few pages later, Gage killed her, too. But still, I was glad that Rachel became a strong character by the end, though I was sad she was killed and the evil forces won.
I don’t know about you, but I find the thought of an evil child who comes back from the dead trying to kill you more terrifying than if it was an adult. Because it is a child! And also, children are tiny, squirmy little things. Louis is able to kill Gage fairly easily, but that does not make for a happy ending. Instead, Masterton witnesses Louis carrying Rachel over the deadfall to the Indian burial ground. The Epilogue finds Rachel entering the house to greet Louis. King gets knocked for some of his endings, but no complaints here. The ending and Epilogue were handled well.
Something I was confused about: Because of everything that happened, when Masterton witnesses Louis carrying Rachel over the deadfall, his hair has gone white and he looks like an old man. Why? Why did it affect him, and as far as we know from the lore of the Indian burial ground, only him, in such a manner? I’d be curious to hear the theories from others who have read the book, or a reference mentioned in the book I missed!
If I had one criticism of the book, I don’t like when King tells us what is going to happen before it does. He tells us Jud’s wife, Norma, will die before she dies, which fine, it’s only Norma. But he later tells us Gage will die before he does, and then we jump to Part Two of the novel where we are in the aftermath of Gage’s death and then catch-up later to how his grisly death happened. Imagine, instead, reading the book and then Gage’s death comes out of nowhere. It would have been shocking! Which is also reflective of how grief works.
Still, Part Two that deals with the grief of losing Gage is so well-done. You feel the family’s grief, including little Ellie, who carries around a picture of Gage and her sledding. In a follow-up to a conversation she had earlier in the book with her dad, she also believes in God now (contra her dad). You feel Rachel moving around like a barely-alive mother, completely blindsided by her old nemesis, Death, who she thought was merely in the past. And you feel Louis’s desperation and agonizing over whether to resort to the Indian burial ground’s promise of renewal, rebirth and resurrection, even though it both feels like a foregone conclusion it will happen, and that it will go terribly, terribly wrong.
One thing I will say, even though Church came back smelling of Death, to where Ellie didn’t want much to do with him anymore, the smell never factors into Louis’s thinking! Sure enough, when Gage comes back, he stinks and Louis even recognizes the smell.
Everybody grapples with grief differently. Some find comfort in the darkness of their room and their bed covers. Others dive into work to take their mind off of it. Still, others fall back into familiar vices and addictions to mask the pain. And if you’re Louis, you dig up your son’s body — that entire scene of Louis digging up his son’s body, and then cradling the bones in his arms was horrific — and bury him at an Indian burial ground to bring him back to “life.”
If you haven’t yet read this King classic, I highly recommend it. I’m glad I did. I would rank it among the best King books I’ve read so far, with 11/22/63, The Stand, It, Misery and The Shining in no particular order ranking higher (off the top of my head). But in a ranking of what frightened me in a different way than any King novel has? The answer is obvious. The Shining had its moments, but it didn’t get under my skin. It had its moments, but it didn’t get under my skin. Misery had great body horror, but it didn’t get under my skin. Pet Sematary, you could say, is buried under my skin, waiting to break through.