For those unfamiliar with the story, Pet Sematary tells the tale of Louis Creed and his young family. He relocates his wife and two children to a rural Maine town, where they purchase a house on a busy stretch of highway. This road is infamous for the death of many a child’s pet, and in the woods behind the Creed house the local children have erected a “Pet Sematary” to honor their fallen pets. Not long after the Creeds have settled in, their cat is struck and killed in the road. Louis’s elderly neighbor, and friend, takes Louis deep into the woods beyond the Pet Sematary to bury the cat in an ancient Indian burial ground. The next day the cat returns from the dead and Louis never tells his family what really happened. The cat isn’t quite the same though. Months later, two year old Gage stumbles into the road and is killed by a speeding big rig. Prostrate and half-mad with grief, Louis decides to bring Gage back to life with the power of the burial ground, but the thing that comes back from the ground is no longer his son.
It may be hard to believe, but as a young child, I was a bit of a scaredy-cat. I would get terrified if I accidently wandered into the horror section in the video store. Just the covers of those movies horrified me. I remember catching a chunk of Killer Clowns from Outer Space on TV some afternoon and having trouble sleeping for days! Scary and Anne did not mix, and for many years I was happy to avoid all things horror. Unfortunately young girls don’t live in bubbles and it wasn’t long before I found myself at a slumber party faced with deciding between two very unappealing options: suck it up at watch Child’s Play 2 with the rest of the ten year old girls, who didn’t seem at all afraid, or call my mom and go home in shame. I was terrified to watch that movie, but more terrified of the ridicule I would face if I went home, so I bottled my fear as best I could and watched that movie. It was scary. I jumped and screamed along with the rest of the girls and I realized something I had never known before; scary can be fun. After that night I was determined get over my fears and jumped headfirst into a lifelong love affair with horror.
My mom drove me to Walden Books when I was eleven years old to purchase Pet Sematary with my allowance money. My parents didn’t put any restrictions on my reading selections. Ever since I successfully made my way through The Lord of the Rings at the young age of ten, despite my mom insisting I was too young to comprehend it, I had been given free range to read whatever peaked my interest. By fifth grade, I had already exhausted the options of my elementary school library and was regularly making trips to Walden for new books. I had heard stories from friends at school who had seen the movie Pet Sematary. I didn’t know all of the details, but I know it was supposedly the scariest book Stephen King had ever written and apparently he had written a LOT of scary books. I had conquered my fear of scary movies. It was time to see what horror looked like in print.
I remember reading the first few chapters of the book, sitting on the counter of the pantry in my childhood home. I haven’t thought about that in a long time, but the memory is quite clear. I remember calling K.R. Yaddof from the corded phone in the pantry (still sitting on the counter) to exclaim to her over how many times the “f” word appeared in those first few chapters. This was the first R-rated reading material I had ever encountered and it was scandalous. I remember being surprised by how little horror appeared as I continued to read. King lets you get attached to the family in the story before he tears everything apart, and boy did I get attached. At the time, my family was living in a huge ninety year old house with two staircases and small bedroom with an attached bath at the top of the back stairway that my mom called the maid’s room. I currently inhabited the maid’s room, and anyone who has read Pet Sematary will know why I started to think of it as “the back bedroom” as the book went on. By the time I reached the climax of Pet Sematary, I was so spooked that I didn’t like to sleep in the same room as the book and would deposit it in my bathtub behind a shut door before attempted to sleep. The book terrified me. I loved it, but it terrified me.
Pet Sematary stuck with me through the years. My original copy is quite battered from frequent re-reading during my teenage years. Pet Sematary nightmares are something that I have come to accept as a permanent feature of my dreamscape. They are the only reoccurring dreams that have traveled with my through every stage of my life so far. I’ve seen the movie more times than I can count and own the DVD. In college I picked up a new addition of the book with an introduction by Stephen King that outlined his inspiration for the book. I read it again, at that time in my early twenties, under a whole new light of that intro. It felt different that time and after that reading I let it lie for years. My two paperback copies traveled with me through my twenties to several different apartments and cities but were not opened. Eventually they came to rest on the bookshelf in my husband and my first house. I picked up the book once during the first years year of our marriage, thinking it was time to read it again. I got a few pages in and closed it and immediately returned it to the shelf. The familiar paragraphs in those first few chapters suddenly didn’t sit well with me. I was now in my late twenties and the realization that I was in fact going to turn thirty in a couple of years made my own mortality suddenly seem startlingly real. I decided a book about death was not a necessary re-read anymore. Those first few paragraphs already had me feeling icky and scared. Maybe it was time to say goodbye to my old friend Pet Sematary.
Fast forward to the present! Despite how busy the fall of 2015 has been, I have somehow managed to spend a lot of time thinking about Pet Sematary. I have my reasons. My husband and I have two kids now: a five year old little girl and an almost two year old little boy. Our kids are the exact same sexes and ages as Ellie and Gage Creed are at the beginning of Pet Sematary. My husband, Derick, turned 35 over the summer. He is the exact same age as Louis Creed. Two years ago we moved to our second house, which happens to be located on a busy road. Shortly after moving in, our neighbors advised us to keep out cat indoors so we could avoid the heartache of having her killed in the road. They had lost a cat. I took their advice on the cat, and am constantly grateful for the six foot tall fence around our backyard that keeps our kids and dog safely penned in. I rarely let them play in the front yard. It’s too easy to imagine my toddler, James, running full speed into Jersey Ridge Road. My little blond haired son even looks a lot like Gage Creed. I caught some of the movie on cable a week or so ago and found myself in tears while watching it. I even had one of my old nightmares. Pet Sematary has definitely left its scars.
I decided it was time to face my fears and see what the book had in store for me under current circumstances. The coincidental similarities were nagging at me too much to ignore. It was time to visit with the Creed family again and this time I would really explore the story because this time I would be writing about it. It would be a cathartic exercise. I don’t have built in shelves in our new house so I had to dig the paperback out of a box in the basement. I plowed through it over two days and I feel emotionally and physically exhausted by the experience.
The familiar characters were all there, like old friends you haven’t seen in years, but still feel inexplicably connected to. As a thirty-three year old mother of two, Louis and Rachel are now my contemporaries and the day to day of their lives as spouses and parents were relatable in a way that it had never been in previous readings. I now know what it is like to have had a husband for several years and what a marital disagreement is like and I now know what it feels like to have and love a child.
I found myself rushing through the climax of the book as I have always done when reading it. I wished the same thing that I always wish when I get to the point in the story when things really get horrifying: that this time it would be different. Maybe this time, Rachel would take Jud’s advice and not rush home to her doom, or maybe Jud wouldn’t fall asleep and this time he would be able to intercept Louis before it’s too late, or better yet, a caretaker at the cemetery would interfere with Louis’s plan, or maybe Louis would change his mind and go to Chicago with Rachel and Ellie, or not send them at all, and most of all I wish that it all was just a dark premonition and that Louis had actually snagged the back of Gage’s jacket before he reached the road, and he had never been killed in the first place.
But the real horror isn’t in those last pages. The real horror isn’t a toddler back from the grave and thirsty for blood. The real horror isn’t written on any of the pages of Stephen King’s scariest book. Gage’s accident happens off screen so to speak. The reader only sees it through fragmented memories in Louis’s crumbling mind. The real horror is imagining what a two year old body would look like after being hit by a semi. The real horror is wondering what you would do if you had to see your own child destroyed right before your eyes. How would you stay sane? What would the days that followed really look like after seeing that?
The average person doesn’t worry about those types of horrors, because we all secretly think that we’re immune to them. We all think that since we are the star of our own story that nothing bad could ever happen to us or our family. Louis even thinks this exact same thing in the book after the family cat is killed in the road, “Just like your family is supposed to be different, he thought now. Church wasn’t supposed to get killed because he was inside the magic circle of the family (p. 152).” The ugly truth is that none of us are immune to tragedy. It happens to normal people who don’t reside in horror stories every day. Accidents happen. People fall down the stairs, flat screen televisions tip over, cars crash, mothers forget to drop off their sleeping infants at daycare and end up cooking them in the car mere feet away from their offices. We tell ourselves that we’re good people and our lives our safe, but we’re telling lies.
I’ve been lucky so far. In thirty-three years I have lost very few people that I have been close to; three grandparents, some peripheral friends, my beloved childhood cat: Shadow. Even with my luck I still feel the sorrow for those losses. I occasionally wake up from a dream in which my Granddad was alive and well and feel completely devastated all over again, and he’s been dead for almost ten years. I can’t imagine what it would be like to wake up every morning to the realization that your child was the one that was gone, that your baby would never be there to tickle or hold or talk to ever again.
That is why Pet Sematary is Stephen King’s scariest book. It’s not the bringing corpses back from the dead; it’s the parents’ loss of a child that is so horrific. This message is easily missed admits the violence and gore that culminates the book. It’s easily missed by a teenager or even a twenty something adult. That is why it has been lurking on my mind so much, because I now completely understand what the book is about and it is more terrifying now than it ever was when I was hiding it in my bathtub at age eleven. What would I do if one of my children died? How would I go on when the pictures and toys would be staring at me from every corner of my home? How would I be able to comfort my husband or explain the loss to our other child? How could we ever go on vacation again or celebrate Christmas or do anything for that matter? And then Stephen King asks the ultimate question: how could a parent let their child stay dead if there was an alternative?
So, how do I feel about this story, that I once loved in my youth, now that I have read it as a grown up? I’m not sure. I know that I missed the point of the book when I was a kid, and if nothing else, I’m glad to have read it at a time in my life when I can fully understand the message. I know that for the first time I can relate to Louis Creed’s motives when he decided to bring his boy back from the dead. I don’t know if facing my fears and reading it again has done more than that for me. If anything I feel more distrustful of busy roads, and basement stairs, and all the would-be accidents that await my children around every corner. I feel apprehensive, but apathetic at the same time, because what can we really do? I send my kids to school and daycare, and even when I’m with them there’s no way to know that they will be safe. There is no way for me to know that tragedy won’t strike my family. Reading Pet Sematary again has really resigned me to this fact and it’s a bleak feeling. I used to recommend this book to anyone who was looking for a good scare, but I’m not sure I can recommend it to friends anymore. I’m not sure I would wish these dark thoughts on others. I don’t know if I will ever read Pet Sematary again. Time will have to decide that. What I do know is that I will be giving my kids extra hugs and kisses whenever I get the chance and I will try to remember to never take their lives for granted.