It's probably wrong to believe there can be any limit to the horror which the human mind can experience... 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.
This passage from Pet Sematary makes me think of the famous opening paragraph of "The Call of Cthulhu," as well as Eliot's dictum that humankind cannot bear very much reality. Too, Shirley Jackson's description of Hill House. In his 10th published novel - the one he's famously said frightened him so much he wasn't sure if he should finish it - Stephen King tests those beliefs by subjecting an all-American family to the single worst horror a family can suffer... and then pushes further into taboo realms that reveal the blinders many people live with when it comes to death and dying. And whatever comes after.
Back cover of original 1984 Signet paperback
I don't suppose I need to recap the plot - young doctor Louis Creed and his family moves to delightful country house in Maine, befriend old-timers, meet destruction - since the strangely long-lived, decidedly mediocre 1989 film adaptation is rather faithful to its source (although of course this book-appropriate meeting of geniuses is perfect). Actually I can't recall if my favorite sequence is in that movie, and I really don't care; I just want to say two words to those of you who've read the book: Timmy Baterman. Timmy Baterman. I've read lots and lots of horror and one of its stylistic "tricks" that I find unfailingly terrifying is the old tale-within-a-tale. Like most things are in genre fiction it's practically a cliche, but damn if this one doesn't get at my soft vulnerable places and flay them wide open.
Told by Jud Crandall, the crusty old Maine native who lives across the road (or, rather, the rud, ayuh) from the Creeds' new home, this singular tale of a very young soldier killed in WWII and shipped home is one of sheer wrongness. A mountain walked or stumbled. A dead man lives again. That image of zombie-like Timmy Baterman, fresh from being reburied beyond the pet cemetery in the woods (an Indian burial ground, can you dig it?) by his grieving father ("So fuck the army, and fuck the War Department, and fuck the United States of America, and fuck you boys too. I got him back"), stumbling around town or screaming horrible secrets about the men who've come to kill him, is one I haven't ever been able to shake since I first read it in, oh, 1985. Nor, honestly, would I want to.
Of course the novel has its vulgar homespun moments, as one would expect; what King fiction would be complete without 'em? My, uh, favorite is when Louis's friend and colleague Steve Masterton, one of the few sane people in the entire narrative (and even he suffers, but survives, a bad shock at the end), tries to comfort him but can only cry out desperately in true King style, "Oh, Christ, Louis, what a cock-knocking, motherfucking mess this is!" Cock-knocking indeed, sir.
But what I find most effective about Pet Sematary - even after countless readings - is that its most unsettling scenes aren't necessarily the ones of gruesome supernatural horrors from beyond the grave; they're the simply observed and detailed moments of overwhelming grief, loss, regret, and numbness. The fight at the funeral home? Brutal. But later, when Louis awakens from a dream in which his son was not killed only to find his pillow soaked in tears brought on by that part of his mind that will always know the truth? Damn.
Now, sitting on his bed in the grip of this numbing hangover, rainwater spilling its lazy courses down the window beside him, his grief came for him fully, like some gray matron from Ward Nine in purgatory. It came and dissolved him, unmanned him, took away whatever defenses remained, and he put his face in his hands and cried, rock back and forth on his bed, thinking he would do anything to have a second chance, anything at all.
"Resurrection... ah, there's a word (that you should put right the fuck out of your mind and you know it)"), Pet Sematary can be a dispiriting and unhappy read. And some have compared its denouement negatively to a similar scene in 'Salem's Lot. But how else could this story have ended? You tell me.
So maybe think of this as King channeling Kubler-Ross with a(n un)healthy dose of "The Monkey's Paw," as directed by George Romero. With a soundtrack by the Ramones. Honestly I don't know where Pet Sematary sits with King fanatics, but for me it's about the top of the heap. Or the cairn, as it were. That useless, useless cairn. Because I don't wanna be buried in a...