Stephen King,
Pet Sematary
(Doubleday, 1983;
Pocket, 2001)

Once upon a time, Stephen King used to write tight, well-constructed novels into which you sank in total absorption, turning page after page, unaware of the horror creeping up on you until it had you helpless in its fangs. Then, alas, King started to lose direction and became so full of himself that he churned out bloated behemoths that reached their nadir in the final three volumes of The Dark Tower. But then King penned the coda to the last book, and lo and behold! He still had it in him after all! The coda is a slim, spare little gem, packing maximum punch with minimum words, just like his earlier books. In fact, very much like Pet Sematary.

Pet Sematary is King at his best. If you only read one Stephen King novel, this is the one to get. It's a great read, well written and, above all, it's scary as hell. You won't find any of the overblown verbiage that cluttered his later books. This book is what great horror writing is all about.

It's almost a sin to give any of the plot away, but without blowing the show, this is the story of the Creed family: Dr. Louis Creed, his wife Rachel and their two young children, Ellie, age 5, and Gage, a toddler, plus Winston Churchill, known as Church, Ellie's cat. They've just moved from a cramped apartment in Chicago to a large, rambling house in rural Maine, where Louis has snared a plum job as a doctor at the state university. There are some friendly neighbors across the road, an old couple named Judd and Norma Crandall, and lots of open space for the kids to run around in. There are also woods at the back of the house, and one day Judd takes the family on a hiking trip through the woods to the old pet burial ground, what the neighborhood children have lovingly maintained down through the generations as the "Pet Sematary." But there's a spooky feeling about this place; Rachel doesn't like it one single bit, and the path is ominously blocked by an enormous "blow-down," full of sharp thorns and splinters. Don't go past the blow-down; you won't like what you find on the other side.

But there's something about whatever's on the other side that exercises its own siren call, and when Church is hit and killed by a truck while crossing the road, Judd, against his better judgment, decides to show Louis just what lies on the far side of the blow-down, in the old Micmac Indian burying ground. And that's where they bury the cat. But as the old song goes, the cat came back, the very next day ... and what he brought along with him is an unspeakable horror that will devastate Louis and his family. Church's death is just the beginning. Fasten your seat belts, because now you're in for a real ride.

King was a master at this point in his writing at dropping hints of what was to come, but just when the reader falls into this trap, King gleefully pulls a "you-ain't-seen-nothin'-yet" that blows the reader away. The siren call of the Micmac burying ground is too much for Louis and, ultimately, too much for us. We turn the final page shaken and enervated at the total horror ride we've just been through.

More than horror for its own sake, though, Pet Sematary explores the mystery of death and dying, and the meaning it has for the Creed family. Rachel is spooked by death; she's watched her sister die a horrible death at an early age and she's never gotten over it. Rachel is convinced that nothing is worse than death. In the pages of this book, King slyly raises the question: wanna bet?

Pet Sematary shows us that there is a time to live and a time to die, a time to mourn and a time to move on. It also shows that attempting to interfere with this process can have some horrific consequences. If Rachel -- or the reader -- wants to know if there is anything worse than death, King's answer is yes -- very much worse.

by Judy Lind
11 February 2006

Buy it from