Saturday, August 18, 2012

Stephen King: Pet Sematary (1983)

"It's probably wrong to believe there can be any limit to the horror which the human mind can experience. On the contrary, it seems that some exponential effect begins to obtain as deeper and deeper darkness falls - as little as one may like to admit it, human experience tends, in a good many ways, to support the idea that when the nightmare grows black enough, horror spawns horror, one coincidental evil begets another, often more deliberate evils, until finally blackness seems to cover everything. And the most terrifying question of all may be just how much horror the human mind can stand and still maintain a wakeful, staring, unrelenting sanity."
Stephen King, Pet Sematary

Those 112 words are a fine summation of Pet Sematary, hyped as a book that, for a time, Stephen King was too frightened to finish writing. However, that claim is not quite true. In 1980, King mentioned he had written a novel dealing with burial customs, but "I have no plans to publish it ... It's too horrible. It's worse than The Shining or any of the other things. It's terrifying."

Sometime later he was asked, "Did you ever write anything too horrible to be published?" and he thought of this unpublished manuscript.
Tabby [his wife, Tabitha] had finished reading it in tears, and I thought it was a nasty book - I still think that it is a nasty book. ... Maybe I don't have the guts for that end of the business of horror fiction - for the final truths.
During a contractual dispute with Doubleday over monies that were owed to him, King agreed to publish Pet Sematary as the final book under his contract before signing with another publisher. He rewrote his 1979 manuscript, and allowed Doubleday to use the "too horrible" quote in its promotional material. The dust jacket states:
Can Stephen King scare even himself? Has [he] conceived a story so horrifying that he was for a time unwilling to finish writing it? Yes. This is it.
Part of King's reluctance to publish Pet Sematary was how personal it is. Back in the early 1980s - the peak of his fame - King said several times that his biggest fear by far was the death of one of his children. Specifics from the novel match details from King's own life. Like Louis Creed, King accepted a job at a university in Maine and moved his family into a big white house that bordered Route 15, a busy truck route. His daughter's cat died and the family buried it in a local "Pets Sematary". (Like Creed, King debated whether to tell his daughter the truth or simply imply that maybe the cat had wandered off.) And one day, King's young son was headed straight towards the road's traffic when King grabbed the back of his coat and pulled him down to safety. In the novel, Louis Creed is not so lucky. Their young son, two-year-old Gage, is hit and dragged by a 18-wheeler.

Because of the closeness of the subject matter, Douglas Winter calls Pet Sematary "one of the most vivid, powerful, and disturbing tales" King has ever written.

***

Dr. Louis Creed and his family - wife Rachel and children Ellie and Gage - have moved from Chicago to the small, rural town of Ludlow, Maine. Creed is starting a job in the health clinic of a local university. After moving in, Louis befriends Jud Crandall and his wife Norma, an older couple who live across the road. Louis is immediately drawn to Jud, and often spending his evenings drinking beers with the older man.

Crandall takes the family back into the woods behind their house to a clearing that the local kids maintain as a pet cemetery. Seeing the cemetery brings the idea of mortality home to Ellie for the first time, and she is upset that her cat, Winston Churchill (or Church, for short), will die one day. While Rachel and the children are visiting her parents in Chicago, Church is hit by a passing vehicle and killed. Jud suggests burying the cat immediately, not in the regular cemetery, but in another, more mysterious burying ground a few miles back into the woods. Two days later, Church reappears in the house.

The resuscitating powers of the burial grounds - once inhabited by the Micmac Indians before the ground went "sour" - is a local secret. When Gage dies, Louis is so overcome with grief - insisting that fathers burying sons is not part of the natural order - that he decides to disinter his son's corpse and bring him to the special burial grounds.

Pet Sematary focuses on the question of moral responsibility for interfering with the natural order. As a doctor, Louis knows that "except perhaps for childbirth, [death is] the most natural thing in the world". Our differences mean nothing to the grave; none of us will escape death. The idea that you or anyone in your family could die at any time is an uncomfortable truth, but it's one "you learned to accept, or you ended up in a small room writing letters home with Crayolas". But when Gage is killed, Louis does not accept this bitter truth. Rather, he convinces himself that he can manipulate the powers residing in the burial grounds to his advantage and the good of his family.

Louis remains rational in other parts of his life, but he believes he can keep his family safe from the outside world. He recalls moving into the Ludlow house, having the boxes of their possessions act as "a small enough bulwark between his family and the coldness of all the outer world where their names and their family customs were not known". Louis thinks back to the death of Victor Pascow - a jogger who was killed on Louis's first day on the job - as the beginning of this loss of security. Pascow's death seemed "to have removed some sort of crash barrier between these ordinary people and an extraordinary run of bad luck". It is only when Louis awakes the morning after burying Gage and sees little muddy footprints in his kitchen that he feels like "a sucker in some game in which he was only now realizing he did not understand in the least".

***

The local secret of the burial ground is just one of many secrets in the novel. Louis does not confide in his wife at all. He keeps Church's death and resurrection a secret, and he has never told Rachel that her father offered to pay for his entire medical education if he broke off his engagement to her. Rachel is consumed with guilt over the death of her young sister, who had spinal meningitis and was kept hidden in a back room; it's a story she has never fully told her husband. Louis's plans for Gage's body is kept a secret from everyone, even Jud, who has chosen to keep some history of the burial grounds hidden from Louis.

Early in the book, Louis says there is so such thing as a true union between two people, that even in a successful marriage, it is impossible to know the secret mind of another person.
He more than half suspected that one of the things which had kept their marriage together ... was their respect for the mystery - the half-grasped but never spoken idea that ... there was no such thing as marriage, so such thing as union, that each soul stood alone and ultimately defied rationality. That was the mystery. And no matter how well you thought you knew your partner, you occasionally ran into blank walls or fell into pits. ... And then you trod lightly, if you valued your marriage and your peace of mind; you tried to remember that anger at such a discovery was the province of fools who really believed it was possible for one mind to know another.
***

Anthony Magistrale sees similarities between Pet Sematary and the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom King cited in Danse Macabre as an influence. Magistrale writes that Louis Creed has much in common with Hawthorne's darkest characters, as he is an impassioned but misguided man who fails "to recognize the inviolable distinction separating human idealism from the limitations of reality".
As is so often the case in Hawthorne's canon, the awareness of sin forces King's characters to proceed in one of two possible directions. The first is toward moral regeneration, a spirit of renewed commitment to other human beings that is born from an acceptance of the devil's thesis as postulated in "Young Goodman Brown," that "Evil is the nature of mankind", and that the failure to acknowledge either the existence of evil or its nexus to mankind results in spiritual death. On the other hand, the discovery of sin can frequently be overwhelming; it does not always lead to a higher state of moral consciousness. In Hawthorne and King, the encounter with evil is often portrayed as an experience that leads to isolation and self-destruction. Characters in their fictions commit their worst transgressions in refusing to recognize the evil in themselves, and in failing to exert a greater measure of self-discipline.
***

Pet Sematary "presents an irreconcilable opposition between wilderness and civilisation". During the initial walk to the pet cemetery, Jud Crandall tells the Creeds: "This way, nothing but woods for fifty miles or more. ... I know it sounds funny to say your nice little house there on the main road, with its phone and electric lights and cable TV and all, is on the edge of a wilderness, but it is. All I'm saying is that you don't want to get messing around in these woods ... God knows where you might end up ..."

Kevin Corstorphine discusses the idea of place ("the politics of territory") in Pet Sematary in this essay. He quotes Thomas L. Dumm, who wrote that "etymologies suggest that fear once meant the experience of being between places of protection", in transit, unsettled. Thinking about Louis's need to keep his family safe, Corstorphone asks: "If [home] does not give us the order we look for, then what place does?"

When Jud takes the Creeds up a hill, they can see the Penobscot River and trees, roads, fields, the town's church spire, and other buildings. Rachel asks Louis is a low, awed voice: "Honey, do we own this?"
And before Louis could answer, Jud said: "It's part of the property, oh yes."

Which wasn't, Louis thought, quite the same thing.
Magistrale:
The journey into the wilderness in Hawthorne's fiction is always fraught with danger. Within the New England pines of Hawthorne's symbolic landscapes we find the powerful rhythms of primordial and uncontrollable forces. Hawthorne's Puritan ancestors fully comprehended that within the uncut trees surrounding their early enclaves lurked elements that were seldom benevolently disposed toward human welfare.
Heinrich Zimmer expounds on this point:
The forest has always been a place of initiation for there the demonic presences, the ancestral spirits, and the forces of nature reveal themselves. The forest if the antithesis of house and heart ... It holds the dark forbidden things - secrets, terrors, which threaten the protected life of the ordered world of common day.
Magistrale:
The events which transpire in the woods behind the Pet Sematary are reminiscent of the narrative pattern which occurs in Hawthorne's fiction. An individual loses his innocence in the encounter with tragic circumstances and is faced with the struggle to redefine himself morally. In portraying the negative results of this struggle, both writers suggest that there are certain mysteries man must simply learn to accept, certain secrets he has no business attempting to discover, and certain ethical barriers that he only transcends at the expense of his soul. Hawthorne's tales and King's novel achieve their power in demonstrating that one's humanity is dreadfully easy to lose, and what we abandon ourselves to possess, we necessarily become.
Rebecca Janicker:
Pet Sematary makes much of the unknown, potentially malevolent, nature of the wilderness in which this young family suddenly finds itself: rural space is continually, and sharply, contrasted with urban and civilised space. Along with this comes notions of bad space; allusions both to ancient evil and the taint of human sin lingering in the landscape abound, suggesting that there exist fundamentally evil places in New England into which it would be better for people not to venture. ...

[T]he wilderness essentially mirrors the human potential for falling into moral darkness; the Creed family's move from civilisation to a precarious existence on the edge of a wilderness mirrors their fall from security to a horrific void.
***

Pet Sematary also includes allusions to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Louis tries convincing himself that the resurrected Church is not acting like "Frankencat". When Gage returns from the dead, his face is described as "swollen, as if he had been terribly hurt and then put back together again by crude, uncaring hands". Victor Pascow's first name may be a nod to Victor Frankenstein. (Louis also uses the term "wild work" when referring to digging up Gage's body, a phrase used in Bram Stoker's Dracula.)

Jesse W. Nash calls Pet Sematary "post-modern gothic", a transformation or mutation of the traditional Gothic tale, since it combines King's "own life experiences and fantasies, popular culture, and his reading of archaic burial lore". Nash, in a negative critique of the novel, states that while King may have wanted to write directly about the death of a child, his manuscript detours away.
King's novel does not deal with death. It deals with a fear that replaces the fear of death, and that fear is the fear of the return of the dead. Such a replacement is a defense mechanism no doubt, and that is probably why King's novel is so popular and why the ideas that form the basis for that novel are so persistent in folk and popular culture. Death may well be an issue the American family and society will not face, but then neither will Stephen King.
Magistrale appears to disagree:
[A]s Pet Sematary makes clear, the horror story - at its most penetrating, important moments, those of the immaculate clarity of insight which we call art - is not about make-believe at all. It is a literature whose essence is our single certainty - that, in Hamlet's words, "all that live must die".
King, from Danse Macabre:
We fall from womb to tomb, from one blackness toward another, remembering little of the one and knowing nothing of the other ... except through faith. That we retain our sanity in the face of these simply yet blinding mysteries is nearly divine.
Next: The Talisman (with Peter Straub).

4 comments:

Dr. Jeff said...

The one thing I remember about reading it (it had just come out in paperback) is that it was very difficult to put down, once started. A week after I finished it I saw a woman in the checkout line at the supermarket reading it, while waiting. I had never seen anyone reading a book at the grocery store before. Totally captivating.

Zenslinger said...

The thing I remember about this novel is that it was just freaking everywhere. Huge displays, stacks of copies in it in every bookstore. I remember being told by someone that King was crap and only started reading him later.

laura k said...

Pet Sematary focuses on the question of moral responsibility for interfering with the natural order.

This is one of the oldest themes of literature. When Shakespeare used it, it was already very old.

The wilderness vs civilization theme is also ancient. Your segment on that theme could be written about any of Cormac McCarthy's works (the ones I know, anyway).

laura k said...

I also love the riff on the essential mystery - that which we must accept we cannot understand - and how we fight that acceptance only at great peril.