‘Pet Sematary’ and Why Sometimes Dead is Better

What I Learned From Stephen King

bookThere is a bit of lore that exists around the origins of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. It was a novel he never intended to publish, the one he felt was “too dark” to unleash upon us Constant Readers. That is somewhat difficult to believe, considering it was only two years before Pet Sematary’s publication in 1983 that King picked up his typewriter and hit us over the head with Cujo, wherein five-year-old Tad Trenton dies by the novel’s final pages. King has said on numerous occasions that he received a lot of flack for that one, to be sure. One of the most popular questions he would get asked at the time is: Why, Steve, why? Why did you have to go and kill the kid?

Perhaps he had been asking himself that very same question. While with Cujo King gives little Tad Trenton death, in Pet Sematary he gives little Gage Creed life… after death.

The master of horror giveth.

The master of horror taketh away.

The mater of horror giveth back Gage Creed.

It’s a gruesome scene, arguably one of the most difficult to read in any of King’s novels, as Louis and Rachel Creed’s three year old son wanders out into the road and is hit by an oncoming semi. The prose is ruthless and heartbreaking in its sincerity.

Gage is not the first victim of the busy road, however. He’s not even the first victim of the household. Earlier in the tale, Louis and Rachel’s five-year-old daughter Ellie loses her beloved cat, Church, to the traffic.

Louis keeps the pet’s death a secret from Ellie. It’s a secret from Rachel, too. It’s a secret Louis shares only with old Jud, the neighbor from across the street. For it is Jud who has introduced Louis to what lies beyond the “Pet Sematary” in the woods—that Micmac Indian burial ground where what is laid to rest has a nasty habit of clawing its way back from the dead.

book2Of course, Ellie suspects something is wrong with Church. The cat may look the same, but it smells rotten. It also has acquired a newfound penchant for murder in its resurrection, carrying in dead rodents and hissing threateningly at its masters. Still, most of Church’s strange behavior goes ignored, and life goes on as normal for the Creeds.

Until that day when Louis watches his three-year-old boy run out into the busy road, and nothing will ever be considered normal again.

The wheels and cogs of Louis’s grief-stricken mind begin to turn until reaching the irresistible question: What if I buried my son in that old Micmac burial ground? Never mind that the whole town knows of Gage’s death, and might suspect something upon seeing him alive. Never mind that the sight of little Gage could send his wife and young daughter straight into a life of therapy sessions. Never mind that his son has already been laid to rest elsewhere, and that means he will have to dig the boy up with shovel and pick. It means he will have to carry his boy’s lifeless body without being noticed, through the woods, up the path, beyond the barrier, and into that forbidden territory.

Of course, Louis’s neighbor Jud can see the wheels in Louis’s head turning from miles away (or from just across the street, as it were). He tells Louis about the few times he’s known men who buried their pets up there, and about the time he himself buried his beloved dog. Jud warns Louis that what comes back has a way of being different from how it once was. It’s changed. More aggressive and downright mean, like Church, the cat. Perhaps it’s because it is soulless. Or evil, even.

As Jud warns Louis, “Sometimes dead is better.”

But Louis, desperate for his boy, cannot stop himself.

And that is, of course, when all hell breaks loose, and the real horror begins.

*

On the surface, it could easily be said that Pet Sematary is like a fable; a story about the dangers of wanting something so badly, we no longer care about the consequences. This is probably true. However, there’s something deeper buried in Pet Sematary’s pages. It takes a little digging, and a lot of reading between the lines, but if you’ll grab a shovel and a pick, and indulge me for a moment…   

Sechrest scared...
Sechrest scared…

Something happens to one who reads Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. There comes a time inevitable, though that time may not be the same for each of us. Perhaps it’s on a different chapter, a different page, or maybe it’s after we’ve set the book down for a while and we’re thinking about it alone in the shower, or while making dinner for our own family, feeding the dog, or tucking our little ones snug into bed.

But the question we ultimately are to arrive at is the same: What would I do?

Would I do such a thing?

Could I…?

Bury a beloved pet in that Micmac burial ground?

Bury even… a person if we were under the emotional strains of such grief?

It’s a question that only merits a few seconds of serious thought before we begin to laugh at it, and ourselves. “No” is the conclusion as inevitable as the question itself. No, of course not, and how silly. Who would do such a thing?

*

You’d likely never guess the scene in Pet Sematary that stood out to me the most. It might seem a throwaway moment, but I knew immediately upon reading it that it contained some sort of secret lesson, a hidden wisdom as ancient perhaps as the Micmac Indians.

Louis Creed is at the airport, sending his family off to have Thanksgiving with his wife Rachel’s folks. Louis does not get along well with his in-laws. In fact, he doesn’t get along with them at all. He’s had no communication with them in years, ever since the night Rachel’s father, Mr. Goldman, invited Louis into his study and offered him a sizeable check to walk away from his daughter. He muses about this, as he sees them off.

King writes:

Louis could have gone to Chicago with his family, although the university schedule would have meant flying back three days earlier than Rachel and the kids. That was not a great hardship. On the other hand, four days with Im-Ho-Tep and his wife the Sphinx would have been. The children had melted his in-laws a good deal, as children often do. Louis suspected that he himself could have completed the rapprochement simply by pretending he had forgotten that evening in Goldman’s study. It wouldn’t even matter that Goldman knew he was pretending. But the fact was (and he at least had the guts to be up front about it with himself) that he did not quite want to make that rapprochement. Ten years was a long time, but it was not quite long enough to take away the slimy taste that had come into his mouth when, in Goldman’s study over glasses of brandy, the old man had opened one side of that idiotic smoking jacket and removed the checkbook residing within. That surprised disgust had been quite its own thing, and the years between then and now had not changed it. He could have come, but he preferred to send his father-in-law his grandchildren, his daughter, and a message.

In short, Louis refuses to let the past be buried.

Louis isn’t the only one. Rachel, too, cannot let her past rest soundly. She cannot accept what happened to her in her childhood, the trauma of caring for her deformed and disabled sister, and the day she died on her watch. She is so emotionally paralyzed by this moment from her past that she cannot look death or illness in the face, she cannot think about it, she cannot even speak about it without a panic, a shortness of breath, and a mind unraveling.

From petty quarrels to life’s unbearable traumas, that which we refuse to accept has a way of haunting us. It has a way of coming back. Changed. Darker than before. Darker than it ever truly was, perhaps. Memory is a tricky, subjective thing upon which time can heal or wreak havoc.

We are so quick to answer “No.” No, of course I would not, could not ever bury anything in that Godforsaken ground. And yet, how often do we refuse to let the past stay buried?

Just as a wife who pines for “the one that got away” cannot give of herself fully to her husband, and just as a boy who cannot bear the pain of his childhood will remain a boy unable to advance into becoming a man, as long as Louis Creed cannot accept the loss of his son, his life will be no life at all but his death.

When it comes to something as extreme as the loss of a child, this might seem a tough pill to swallow. If you’ve ever watched the show The Affair (a show Stephen King has praised often on Twitter), you might be reminded of the couple, Alison and Cole, who lost their child at around the same age as Gage. Alison and Cole are unable to talk much about what happened that day. In their inability to accept what has happened, a wall is built between them. They turn frigid and forever remain stuck in their past, as long as they are with each other.

book3I’d venture to say Alison and Cole’s story is probably the most likely to happen in a circumstance like this, and yet I personally know a couple for whom it did not. I know a couple who, as painful and as heartbreaking as the death of their young son may have been, found the courage—with the help of love, time, and God—to not allow a moment to consume their entire lives. I can’t begin to imagine what kind of strength that must take, and yet I see them and I know that it is possible. Today, they have three beautiful children and have raised a loving family, all of which would have been impossible without an ability to let the past be simply that… The past.

*

As I write this column in October 2016, I am recently engaged to be married. With that engagement arrived an onslaught of memories from my past; some of them the kind that haunt. All of them beg to be seen for what they are, to be accepted, and to be released. In order for me to become the kind of husband I hope to become, the kind of father I hope to become, the kind of person I hope to become, I will need to let what’s been done be done. Too often, I find I am like Louis Creed. Holding too tightly to a grudge, wanting to send a message. Keeping too close to a memory, no more than a faded photograph.

To live in the present is a great risk. We hold onto our past, our memories, our scars like security blankets; for despite the heartaches they bear, they are what is safe and what is known.

Yes, to live in the present is a great risk, but as Stephen King writes in Pet Sematary, “There is no gain without risk, perhaps no risk without love.”

What I Learned from Stephen King” is a Cemetery Dance Online exclusive series of articles about the wisdom, spirituality and life lessons found within the works of Stephen King. Jason Sechrest began his career at 15 years old as a full-time staff writer for Femme Fatales magazine. His writing credits include LA Weekly,Frontiers, Entertainment Weekly and more. He tweets as @JasonSechrest and posts often onFacebook.

8 thoughts on “‘Pet Sematary’ and Why Sometimes Dead is Better”

  1. You’re about to get married? Then keep in mind a line from Pet Sematary that I have always remembered: “Having children is like agreeing to die.”

  2. That was a great article. I remember asking myself the same thing. “What would I do if I had the power to bring a loved one back from the dead?”

  3. I remember sitting cross-legged on my living room floor, reading of Louis disinterring his sweet, dead, forever broken son from his grave. It was the mid 80’s, and I had two small children of my own. I cried like a baby while reading and knew that I would never again read anything that would touch me like that did. And I haven’t. After many years and even more miles, that pitiful, unbearably sad, damned vision remains fresh in my mind’s eye. I knew in that moment that yes, I would make the same decision. Even knowing how tragically it would end, I would take the chance. Pet Semetary is, at heart, a love story. A doomed love story, on most every level, but a love story nonetheless. I found your article insightful and thought provoking. It brought back those memories of my past, when I was young and my heart so full, that I no longer take out very frequently to hold and remember. I thank you for it.

  4. Hi Jason,
    I’m a television producer working on an unrelated series and would like to get in touch with you to discuss the series further.
    Is there an email or contact phone number where you can be reached?
    Thank you

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