Book review: Pet Sematary, by Stephen King

Pet Sematary

After a long dry spell in reading I decided to trust one of the greatest storytellers of our time to take me back to the routine of absorbing the pages. I wasn’t let down. Shakespeare he isn’t, but that’s not the point – King tells a story better than pretty much anyone, making you turn the pages hungrily to see what awaits on the other side of the paper.

The synopsis is familiar to most people who haven’t spent the past 30 years in a barrel. A young family exchange the urban buzz of Chicago to the serenity and privacy of a small town in Maine. Located just outside of the perimeter of their property is something unusual: a pet cemetery.

After the family cat dies, old-timer neighbor Jud introduces Louis to a part of the cemetery most people don’t know about – a secret, hidden portion of the graveyard with a creepy history of supposedly bringing animals buried there back from the dead…

I hate book reviews where the main portion of the text consists of a re-iteration of the plot of the book being reviewed; hence, I’m going to leave the description of the plot there. Read the book – King will tell you the story better than I possibly could.

King’s genius has always been in being able to turn the familiar into the unfamiliar, to make us notice the shadows in the familiar rooms of our homes. He has probably never done it better than he does it here. The Creed family’s domestic bliss quickly starts turning into a nightmare when father Louis realizes the price he has to pay for keeping his shaky world intact.

The atmosphere is tense throughout. The most memorable instance of King’s tension-building ability is, in my opinion, Louis’ and Jud’s first trip to the secret portion of the cemetery. The dreamlike logic of the trip, the surrounding trees, the incapability of either man to stop what’s taking place – the sequence is perfectly written, and makes the hair at the back of your neck stand up.

Obviously, the book is partly about death, its inevitability, how different people approach the concept, and how our personal experiences of loved ones passing on shape our attitudes towards death. However, deep in its buried, gravestone-covered heart Pet Sematary is about identity – specifically, how we conceive of each others’ identities, firm in our beliefs that our conception of another person is the definitive version, the Final Truth about who that person is. King uses the mysterious cemetery as a literary device to examine the human mind in a predicament where this comfortable (albeit delusional) sense of certainty about other people is erased, leaving the protagonist adrift in a setting once familiar, now a landscape of a waking nightmare.

The most interesting “clue” to this theme being explored and symbolized in the book is a scene where Louis approaches Jud while the sun is setting, and realizes how close he has to stand to Jud to truly be certain it’s him and not someone else. In the next scene, the two head to the hidden, creepier portion of the pet cemetery, and during the journey the same uncertainty hits Louis: Jud acts completely differently from how he usually does; the old man is suddenly fearful and uncertain of himself. Louis doesn’t really know Jud, doesn’t know his memories or his fears, no matter how many evenings the two have spent chugging down beers and exchanging anecdotes from their lives.

Pet Sematary is a delightful example of how a book can entertain and be profound at the same time. This is a Story, with a capital “S” – not a writer examining his own navel, expecting us to stay interested because, well, he’s just so profound, man! King laid out his work ethic in his fantastic memoir On Writing. A writer has to work hard to make a book interesting and entertaining, and not just expect people to read his works because he thinks he should be listened to.

Ultimately, the most beautiful gift the book leaves to the reader is the realization that, as the famous line from the book goes, “sometimes dead is better.” Being able to let things go is not a matter of just turning your back and walking on – it’s something to be worked on, pondered, an attitude to be cultivated. Hard though it might sometimes be, the alternative can be worse – a LOT worse…

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