Monday, 27 February 2017

Pet Semetary, by Stephen King

Why yes. Yes I do intend to read them all eventually.

This is the almost last of the SK books I own with the blood red spine of "Iconic Terror". Famously King cites this as his most horrific book. Not the scariest, or the goriest, but the meanest, darkest of his work, the one he tried to bury in a drawer because it was too horrible.

Inspired by his own move to a Maine University, to a new house in a new town, one near a road frequented by big trucks on which his daughter's cat Smucky got killed, it's a story of what could have happened.

Louis Creed, a doctor from Chicago, takes a new job as director of the University of Maine's campus medical service. Looking to get away from the in-laws he hates and because the job is a nice cushy number of fixing up booze-injured students and fresher's flu, he moves to Ludlow, Maine. Uprooting his wife Rachel, young kids Gage and Ellie, and Ellie's cat Winston Churchill (Church to his friends) from the Midwest is tough at first, but the family settle in quickly with the help of wholesome Yankee father figure Jud Crandall, lifetime Ludlow resident and keeper of secrets. Lou comes to see him as a father figure, and he and his arthritic wife Norma are soon fast friends with the Creeds.

It's Jud that initially warns his new neighbours of the dangers of the highway that divides their houses, claiming that "that road has used up a lot of animals". It's Jud too that takes them to visit the Pet Semetary, a little plot of land tended by generations of Ludlow kids, all of whom laid to rest their beloved pets that the road "used up". Jud is nothing if not an enabler. The night after the family's first visit to the semetary, 5 year old Ellie has a prophetic-feeling dream about Church dying on the highway. Lou sees this emotional outburst as a healthy, normal response to a child's first encounter with mortality- his wife Rachel, who lost a sister young to spinal meningitis has a total death phobia and will not entertain the concept of anyone, least of all Church, dying. This pretty much sets up the inevitable chain of events that follow. There are deaths. There are resurrections. There are ancient Indian burial grounds and spirits of the north and all kinds of ancient malice.

It's not an elaborately plotted novel. To the untrained eye it might look like not a lot happens in Pet Semetary, but it's expertly paced with an oppressive, low simmering malevolence that lurks just behind every line. We follow Louis to work and back. The beers he drinks with Jud. We watch him scoop up his daughter's dead cat, and watch him follow Jud to the secret local-pet-semetary-for-local-people graveyard out in the creepiest woods in literature. We know it's a terrible idea, even before the cat turns up alive- changed, but alive.

I really liked Louis as a character, the Stephen King stand-in for this particular story. His mediocrity is kind of endearing, and he seemed to play the role of "family man" quite convincingly. Mostly enamored with his lovely family, occasionally frustrated and annoyed. Cocks up infrequently, but enough to prove he's a real person. He's a fairly weak character, in denial of his weakness. He blames his shortcomings on anything and anyone he can, he makes excuses. Is he guided and manipulated my some malevolent force? Or does he just make really bad calls?

I loved how subtle this book is, and how pure the horror of its plot. There are no scares, no prolonged scenes of torment or torture, no murders or stalkings- there isn't even a bad guy. It's a type of horror that makes you wonder whether your own morals and beliefs would have stood up to the same test, a creeping, chilling horror at things that seem 95% ridiculous. Pet Semetary is about wanting something so desperately that you do not care about consequences. The refusal to acknowledge that sometimes the hardest thing to do is the right thing, in this case to let go, to grieve, to pick up the pieces and carry on. I guess too it's about how you can never un-learn something, and the deadly temptation that this might sometimes present.

With every additional Stephen King book I read, the more I get why he's sold 350 million books. Man's no amateur.

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