Even if I hadn’t had a vague understanding going in that Stephen King’s Pet Sematary was the one where a guy’s son dies and then he brings him back to life with a supernatural crypt, it became obvious within ten pages that the two-year-old boy was going to die and that his father, drenched in grief, was going to revive him in a supernatural crypt. Some of this is down to it being a horror book; it struck me that horror is the one story structure that completely gets away with knowing every beat of the story before it happens, especially when it’s just your intuition and not a literal plot summary. Realistically, when you’re ten pages into a horror book and the writing is pretty good, you think, okay, what’s the most horrifying thing that could happen? The answer in this case is obviously the toddler dying and coming back as a monster, obviously. I correctly had the whole plot in my mind: the guy will learn of a Pet Sematary that brings dead things back to life, he will revive his cat that way, his son will die, and he will revive his son only to see him as a monster. But it also comes down to the fact that I’ve been through this kind of experience before.
(By the way, I’m aware it’s the Indian burial ground that brings corpses back to life and not the Sematary, so don’t bother pointing that out.)
When I was sixteen, my best friend’s two-year-old sister was killed in an accident. This friend was the son of my mother’s best friend who lived two doors down from us, and whose lives were very intimately intertwined with my own; I spent as much time during summers at their house as I did in mine, so I would consider her almost my sister and certainly family. The emotions King describes are vividly familiar, and those opening chapters before the Sematary capture not just the qualities of living with small children (both pleasant and unpleasant), but the uncanny sense of remembering experiences from Before some horrible traumatic event. It’s impossible for me to articulate, but there’s a sense of a shadow cast over everything, like a minor chord in a major key.
What’s interesting is that I would think it would be some horrible thing, revisiting one of the most awful experiences of my life, but it’s something so squared away for me that it felt like a radical recontextualisation. I’ve never brought it up because there’s never been any reason to; I feel that I processed and learned to live with the experience a long time ago, and so up until now there’s never been a reason to filter it through an essay the way I have my father’s dementia. I recall seeing an interview with a man who had lost his hands in an accident, and he remarked that he had so thoroughly come to terms with the loss that his conversations with new people were more about putting them at ease than himself, and I recognise myself in that. I could also have used it to batter people with in arguments, but what kind of callous prick would I be to use a personal trauma to win a petty argument, let alone the specific trauma of a dead child?
(I also offer this as an explanation for why I’m so callously amused by dead kids in media – I’m personally familiar with the difference between fiction and reality in this case.)
The interesting thing about this is that, despite both the book’s reputation and King’s conviction that either this or The Shining is his scariest work, I found it more bleak and sad than scary. I did find some of the climax terrifying; in particular, the parts in which undead Gage is moving about ‘offscreen’ were disturbing and literally gave me nightmares after I finished. I found myself wondering: this clearly came off as King working through the most nightmarish fear a parent can possibly have, and is that what made it not at all scary for me? No fear of the thing happening before it happens – just waiting for the other shoe to drop? For me, it was less about processing something that could happen and more about recognising how much time since it did happen; to see the vast difference between me now and me then.
When I think about her now, I think of who she could have been now, how she might have reacted to things, and not about the loss of her itself. The strange thing about traumatic events is, in the end, how little it actually changes about a person. I remember at the time taking advantage of the fact that I was a mere week into college and using it as motivation to embrace new experiences and meet new people. I remember the one thing I held onto was that it was essentially random and nobody was really at fault, the way King sympathises with the truck driver in this story. I remember I also couldn’t really fault anyone to falling to pieces over it; I carried some guilt over the fact that I was using someone’s dead child as motivation for self-improvement. But now I can see how much I’m still a neurotic asshole who sabotaged himself in banal ways by caring too much about what other people think. Could you imagine Ellie, as an adult, telling people the events of the novel actually affected her less as a person than some cop show she saw as an adult? I mean, she’s six and not sixteen, but still.
This is my third King after IT and Misery, and this feels like the point where I really get him. Regular readers may recall that I worked through Thomas Pynchon and didn’t get him until I tried Mason & Dixon, a complete unleashing of Pynchon’s, uh, Pynchonness that taught me an entirely different way of reading books, at which point I could go back to his shorter works and more fully appreciate them. This feels like the reverse; IT was an undisciplined slog, whereas PS is tightly structured and economical without feeling stolid or obvious. To my great surprise, zombie Gage doesn’t show up until the last twenty pages, and yet every other event in the story seems to come faster and harder than I expect. This has the fewest of King’s cliches, with no metafictional elements (I was pleased that the protagonist was a doctor and not a writer), no Magical Negro, and an ending that felt completely logical and conclusive. The story is set in Maine, but in a way that enriches the flavour.
What was really funny was that noticing that King’s approach to writing fiction must be similar to how I write essays. I like looking at all fiction as self-expression on some level – not that a storyteller necessarily agrees with everything every character does and says, but that a storyteller is only capable of showing things they can conceive of. I know that I’ve written characters do things I would never do, and I had to think, okay, how do I make sense of this behaviour? When I apply this as a tool of analysis, I tend to notice how the author tends to approach storytelling matches up with the logic of character action. In this case, I notice how many of King’s characters tend to be playing a bit of word association; it’s most notable in Jud Crandall’s rambling monologues, where he finds himself explaining, I dunno, car maintenance in the middle of telling an anecdote from his youth. But all the characters do it, from Louis’s internal pop culture references (“Hey, ho! Let’s go!”) and inner rage to a random guy on the phone that Rachel talks to when booking a car.
King’s narration is in third-person limited, which allows him to keep intimately with a single character but also throw in asides and commentary; most powerfully, when he observes that Gage will be dead two weeks from the events of the page. I’m thinking that King’s approach is to say “this is true, and this is true, and this is also true”, with the hope being of logically deducing what must therefore also be true. This is probably why he has so many terrible endings; I know I have a fair few essays where I have no idea how to end them, and I just stop (how funny would it have been to end there? But no). The thing about creativity – and, to an extent, criticism – is how much of it works on pure intuition. There’s a few principles I know; longer works will generally produce enough thoughts that not only will I have plenty to say, I can then chop up and rearrange paragraphs a la Pulp Fiction, so that one thought interrupts another for a short moment.
What’s most interesting about this is that I’m applying this approach to criticism whilst King is applying it to fiction. I’ve always struggled with writing fiction, despite my ambitions, while criticism flows out of me effortlessly. What I’ve found lately is that fiction is easiest for me – not effortless yet, but building up the muscle – when I’m specifically making up new things that don’t exist yet. I’ve tried putting Definitely True things in fiction before – not just factual statements or even cliche genre elements but actively trying to write things that fit how the world is supposed to work – and it’s never been as effective as when I just make up shit that sounds cool. It’s like, my instinct for what is cool already accounts for plausibility and I end up overthinking it too much. With criticism, rearranging things people have already said and done feels perfectly natural, even necessary.
I wonder if King finds it the other way around. He’s gotta keep putting Definitely True things in the start of his stories, regurgitating things he’s heard and read and experienced, and then keeps following the logic. The one big flaw of this novel is that, very late in the book, he keeps attributing character decisions to a supernatural force pulling the bad out of people. I think he so effectively and so plausibly lays out Louis’s rationalisations that, if anything, being able to pin the blame on Satan and not normal grief and parental love only undercuts the horror. I’m particularly moved by his thinking that he can decrease the chance of bringing people back wrong by reducing the amount of time between burial and revival. Even if I hadn’t personally experienced this level of grief, the internal logic makes sense.
It makes the early sections of the book not just spinning wheels until we get to the cool bits, nor even The Calm Before The Storm, but actual meditations on married life; highly personal and specific mini-essays on daily minutia, not too different from either the conversations of Seinfeld or the heady exploration of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Where King and I come together is that I can report that how he imagines grieving a child is pretty close to the reality, right down to the incredibly black jokes you end up making. The most heart-stopping moment in the book is when Louis opens Gage’s grave and thinks, for a brief moment, that he’s missing his head; it reminds me strongly of the moments before viewing her body at the funeral, where fears like that are going through your head.
The days after are also pretty much how it goes; I know it’s a common feeling in any grieving process to be unable to understand how people can just keep going about life after this terrible thing has happened, and I suspect it’s understandable that this would feel especially intense after the death of a child. But I’m especially intrigued by the fight between Louis and his father-in-law during the funeral; the line between conflict you can drop entirely in the wake of trauma and the conflict you will no longer tolerate in the same situation becomes incredibly fuzzy. It’s nothing so simple as channelling grief into a figure you can physically attack, it’s about being enraged at having to suffer this petty shit on top of everything else.
For me, though, the weirdest part was thinking how life really does move on. I remember my grandfather driving me somewhere during the funeral, and I was quietly infuriated by his odd, blase attitude to the worst possible thing happening. Now I get where he was coming from (“Pain or damage don’t end the world.”), even if I would act different in his place in that moment. One thing I think anyone who knew her would agree on is that ‘outsiders’ are unnecessarily afraid to talk about her, as if it would make any of us break out in tears and we’d prefer to forget her or keep her some private thing. But there is a point where the past becomes the past, and I’ve been beyond that for half of my life. Obviously, we can’t literally revive the dead – ‘sometimes dead is better’ applies to states of self we hold ourselves in.