Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Pet Sematary by Stephen King (1983): And Jesus Said Unto Lazarus, "Hey-Ho, Let's Go"

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.

Nope, nothing can beat the original hardcover/paperback cover art

With its effortlessly bleak depiction of a normal home rent asunder not only by death but by weakness, neglect, and failure, not to mention a true resurrection of the dead ("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...

Why am I not wearing this right now?

19 comments:

TheGirlWhoLovesHorror said...

Definitely near the top of my list! Pet Sematary was the first King book I tried to read and I was waaaay too young back then to really get what it was saying (I was like, 10 I think). But now I see it for what a great and heartbreaking, and yes, gruesome, story it is.

Anonymous said...

The Timmy Baterman sequence was in the movie--sorta. It's such a bland, perfunctory rendering, shorn of most of the story's chilling incidental detail and filmed with about as much flair as a flashback inside a bad Tales from the Darkside episode, that you wouldn't recognize it if you didn't know what you were watching.

Altijd verbijsterd said...

One of the few horror novels that really got under my skin, even though I have read it in the Dutch translation.

What really got me was that it made me doubt if I wouldn't make the same choice as the protagonist, even after reading the horrible results. This when I was just a dumb teenager that hated kids, because that's what dumb teenagers should do.

I need to read it again in English sometime...

Christine Hadden said...

After The Shining, Pet Sematary is my favorite King read. I've read it dozens of times and am still affected by it.

I have a first edition hardback (as I do with all his stuff, I'm a pathetic completist where he is concerned) that I read the year it was published (yep, I'm dating myself) and it remains, to me, one of his scariest novels.
I had dreams about Timmy Baterman for weeks after reading it the first time

lazlo azavaar said...

In terms of horror, I'd rank it behind The Shining and Salem's Lot; but it is probably the most emotionally brutal of his books. It's no wonder he never wanted it published. Only a contract dispute with Doubleday (if memory serves) wrenched it from his hands; to our benefit.

Will Errickson said...

Thanks guys... glad to know I'm not alone in how I feel about this book.

Rabid Fox said...

One of these days I'm gonna read this book. Gargh. So many childhood years spent not reading and now I'm playing catchup.

Luis said...

Great review of the the book. Perhaps the best King novel I've read, and I've read a few.

Will Matson said...

Yep, the Timmy Baterman story is used in the movie. They even show him, he looks sort of like a mid-1980's George Romero zombie. No surprise there.

However, the movie leaves out a large part of the story. It also changes how the Baterman story turns out. Since you never saw the film and probably won't anytime soon, I'll go ahead and spoil this piece of the film.

In the book, it is suggested that Bill Baterman shot Timmy and himself a couple of days after Jud and the other townspeople visit the house. Bill also sets the house on fire in the process.

In the movie, however, this is modified. Instead, what happens is a lynch mob shows up at the Baterman house in Jud's flashback and set the house on fire to get rid of Timmy, who they see as "unnatural."

What happens here is that inside the living room, Bill Baterman is shown trying to get Timmy out of the house before it burns down but Timmy won't budge. He even goes as far as to prevent Bill from leaving even though the house is going up in flames around them. The scene concludes with Timmy grabbing Bill from behind and dragging him out of the living room into a hallway which is consumed with flames.

So they both die that way.

Will Errickson said...

I did see the movie way back in '89 and maybe once or twice since then so I barely recall what you described. It seems like a distinction without a difference, though it loses the bit how Timmy knows all the horrible secrets about Jud and his friends. Basically I don't think King should adapt his novels into screenplays. Thanks for stopping by, Will!

Anonymous said...

I want to read that.

highwayknees said...

Again Will ,we are on the same page! I always believed this to be King's scariest, and saddest,novel.And my favorite -after The Shining.Read when it came out it did a number on me...I remember the movie as being impressive mostly for the performance of the little boy-creepy and cute and the same time is a weird sorta frisson.

Anonymous said...

Dreadful, and real. The scenes describing what a parent goes through during the death of a beloved toddler, and the mental hell and anguish are captured perfectly. The Timmy Baterman story is scarier than 10 modern zombie flicks. IF this is re-made, a master director needs to do it, maybe King himself.

Hooligan Youth Reviews said...

An excellent post - as usual - but for me and my two cents I'm going to point out a few moments in the book and, to a lesser extent, the film that continue to stick in the back of my mind and continue to give me the willies.

The first is when Jud and Louis make the first trek beyond the deadfall. Growing up in the woods of New England I learned an early fear of the woods at night. Combined with a family who seemed to derive glee from telling me regional ghost and monster folktales as bedtime stories (Anglo and Native American) that particular scene of something dark and colossal striding through the woods gives me the willies.

The second is King's handling of of the Creed family. As with many of King's earlier writings, he creates a near instant empathy with his protagonist. The opening sequence of Louis's internal monologue (a father during a long drive with a tired, cranky family and yowling cat) is my favorite (and memorable) moment in a King novel. It played through my mind when my wife and cat had a long drive through Texas.

The last is Rachel's relationship with and her nightmares concerning, her sister. It directly brings to mind King's short story "Grandma". It's not the element of the grotesque that makes this subplot so compelling (though it is frightful) but it's the element of hard, realistic "horror". It's not the things that go bump in the night that traumatize us and that we're truly, deeply, afraid of but other human beings. King struck a similar chord in the relationship between Jack and Danny in "The Shining".

Apologies for the overlong comment. Hope all is well. Thanks for putting together a top notch site.

Hooligan Youth Reviews said...

Oh, and we all forgot about good old Victor Pascow.

Will Errickson said...

Excellent moments all, Hooligan! I could do post after post on PET SEMATARY...

Bob Milne said...

This is the book that not only made me a Stephen King fan, but which made me a grown-up reader.

Thanks for the photo of movie-Gage holding the book. That garish old cover, with the ferocious cat on the front, still sits in a place of honour on my shelves.

Lincoln Brown said...

Yes, one of my favourite King novels. Haven't read it since becoming a father, though.
I'm going through a bit of a King 'phase' at the moment, for the first time since the mid 90's, so will get to it again in the near future.
The NEL cover above is the one I remember.

John Seavey said...

It's weird, but this one has never scared me. It was heart-breakingly sad to me, instead. I felt so bad for Louis, torn and tantalized by something that could give him almost what he wanted, but the difference between his son and the thing that comes back is so utterly vast that I don't think there's anything that could happen to him at that point that would be worse than the knowing of it. It's an amazing book, real and personal, but I've never seen it as sad.