This book, alongside a discouraging handful of other King novels, begins with great promise, drawing the reader in with the kind of three-dimensional characters King does best. Unfortunately, it hits a slump halfway, from which it cannot recover, and meanders its way to a predictable conclusion.
The plot deals with grief, obsession and reincarnation. The Creed family (Doctor Louis, Rachel, and two children Ellie and Gage) move to backwater Ludlow, a small town in – you guessed it – Maine. Ludlow’s a dandy slice of American pie. It’s also the halfway point between two large townships and is frequented by huge trucks on shipping runs … See where this is going?
So, protagonist Louis strikes up a friendship with local old-timer, Jud, and learns about a makeshift cemetery that is situated near the Creed’s new home. Apparently generations of residents have used this ground to bury their beloved pets, and it’s become a sort of eerie community tradition. But this ain’t your grandpappy’s cemetery; the titular Pet Sematary is actually a front for ancient Micmac burial grounds. It’s a spiritual place with deep historic roots – generations of teenagers have fooled around here. Burying your pet here is said to bring about reincarnation, which is handy because, after some whacky hijinks, Louis ends up home alone with the still-fresh corpse of family cat, Church. Ruh-Roh!
So Louis is faced with that classic parental dilemma: tell Ellie (his daughter/Church superfan) the truth, or dabble blindly in the dark arts. The choice is clear; anyone who’s seen the Arnie classic Jingle All the Way knows only deadbeats disappoint their kids.And so Church comes back — albeit a little dopier than before. His movements are sluggish and he permanently smells of the earth, which was admittedly cool. The prospect of a reanimated cat – possibly infused with a sinister Micmac spirit – is great horror fodder, but, in King’s hands, it amounts to nothing. The cover and blurb allude to some terrifying developments; a murderous four-legged zombie that perfectly resembles your beloved Mr Whiskers would make for an excellent monster, but nothing like this eventuates. The whole concept of the Pet Sematary is severely underutilised – unless your secret fear is slow, dim-witted cats that lumber around not hurting anyone.
Pet Sematary has a strong premise and solid opening. It’s great to see King sink into teeth into some serious subject matter and, as usual, he excels at inhabiting his characters. Rachel and Louis are particularly compelling (as luck would have it, Rachel has a debilitating fear of death – guess who’s confronting their fears tonight?), and it’s a pleasure to discover the intricacies of their marriage. Louis is a bog-standard King everyman; however, his profession does distinguish him (slightly) from others of this mould. Doctors are logically minded and less inclined to buy into supernatural mumbo jumbo. I enjoyed Louis’ early scepticism and stoic nature, but grew frustrated with the irrational behaviour he exhibits later on.
Pet Sematary also suffers serious pacing issues. It takes three quarters of the book for all the (obvious) set-pieces to come together (believe me: the signposts are as big as Maine itself). You know the Pet Sematary will cause major complications, yet it goes damn near unmentioned for the first half of the book. Instead, the reader is dragged through family drama subplots that, while mildly interesting, add squat to the narrative.
My biggest issue with Pet Sematary is its conclusion, which unfolds like a slow train wreck. Despite being cautioned by Jud on the dangers of the Pet Sematary, and learning about how a reported case of human burial went horribly awry, logical, level-headed Dr Louis jettisons all common sense and tries it anyway.
A sizeable portion of the novel’s conclusion details Louis’s inner monologue as he climbs up to the haunted burial grounds, his child’s corpse in tow. He openly admits it’s not the answer, that he’s clinging to empty hope. He knows whatever emerges from the ground won’t be his loved one, no matter the resemblance. He knows his actions will cause grief and heartache, and that they will destroy his remaining family’s chance of moving on. He also knows his actions will place everyone in very real danger – yet he goes ahead and does it anyway.
The ensuing bloodshed was senseless, a chore to read, and was all so preventable. King spends so much of the novel (which, it’s worth noting, isn’t short) building rich characters and relationships, only to throw them to the wind in the last seventy pages.
I get the suggestion that grief supersedes rational thinking, and that the Micmac burial ground had some sort of supernatural pull of Louis, but that doesn’t justify this frustrating, limp-wristed ending. Here, King rejoices in kicking his readers in the teeth. The fact that Louis is aware what a dope he is adds insult to injury. God awful – and this is coming from someone who defends and understands Cujo‘s macabre ending.
Read The Shining instead.