(Jun 10 – Jun 24)
Popularly billed as ‘the novel Stephen King found too scary to publish’, Pet Sematary delivers its share of grotesque thrills, but the true horror stems from its all-too real-world inspiration. Without going too much into spoilery detail, let’s just say that the basic setup for the novel comes entirely from King’s own life and anyone who has raised (or is raising) a young family will feel a very specific fear gripping them pretty much from the first chapter.
One thing I’ve learned through this project is that King’s novels are often written in a different order than they are published. Pet Sematary was written after The Stand, but stuffed away in a drawer after King decided that what he had written was too horrific to be published. As such there’s a familiarity to the novel, an odd sense that King is finding his feet again; when in truth this novel came into being before King reached his bonafide superstar status, and possibly before the crates of beer and cocaine started propping up his writing desk.
In many ways this could be considered the definitive King novel: it revolves around a family; it’s set in a small town; it features some classically overbearing grandparents; and it has the ‘everyday thing’ infected by supernatural evil. In this case the everyday thing is death, and it’s possibly this angle that sets Pet Sematary slightly apart. I’ve written before about how I admire King for never retreating from the dark places, but Pet Sematary is one where he goes all the way—the worst possible thing you think could happen is typically the thing that happens. There’s simultaneously a visceral darkness and a grotesque schlockiness to the novel that has you enthralled while reading, but once you put the book down prompts a sense that it was, perhaps, all a bit over the top.
I watched the remake last year and found it promising but ultimately disappointing. There were some interesting angles on the story that ended up not being particularly well developed, but the changes to the original story were admittedly pretty good fun.
I do remember watching the 1989 movie at some distant point in the past (who could ever forget that achilles cut scene?) but was keen to revisit it before writing this post.
Like many of the King adaptations it’s a bit of a mixed bag. It has the aesthetic sensibility of a TV movie, but rises above this on occasion with some fleetingly great moments.
The acting definitely bears comment. The two leads are terrifically wooden (I took great enjoyment from commenting on the lead actor’s constant expression of ‘mild concern’ at the various horrific events that his character endures). In contrast, the two children are incredible. How they conjured the performance they did out of a toddler I will never know. Special credit must also go to Fred Gwynn (better known as nominated Munster) who all but carries the film with what should have been an Oscar-worthy performance, despite (or perhaps because of) his distinctive Bette Davis accent.
Overall, the 1989 movie is worth watching if you enjoyed the book (or if you simply want to revisit the story without reading the novel). The 2019 movie is worth a look if you fancy a popcorn horror flick with decent production values, but I’m unlikely to opt for a second viewing of either myself.
Once again, the point of this project was to help me get into a regular reading habit, and I certainly seem to be getting fairly regular with these novels. I’m averaging 50 pages each sitting (note: I pretty much only read at night, in bed) and for the most part each novel is taking me around a fortnight to read (depending on length).
I had read Pet Sematary before—pretty sure it was way back when I was first discovering Stephen King—and mostly remembered only the broad details.
Except for one thing.
Pet Sematary was possibly the first time that I’d encountered an author literally writing a spoiler into their own novel. At one point we are clearly told that a major character is going to die. I remember being gobsmacked by this. I was so used to twists like that coming out of the blue, that it blew my mind to have something so major telegraphed in plain English right there on the page. It’s one of the tricks that I’ve always remembered (though I’m not sure I’ve ever used it myself).
Strangely, my memory of where the spoiler happens was much hazier: I was expecting it much earlier in the book during this reread, but it eventually popped up relatively late in proceedings (and, in fact, only shortly before the event that it supposedly spoils).
I suppose it’s also worth noting that, despite the supergrim subject matter, I still found this far less of a struggle than Cujo—in fact, it was a pretty good read.
The Top Ten
If you include Different Seasons as a single work (which I will for the sake of doing this), I have now read 10 Stephen King books—and you know what that means? That’s right: it’s time for a top 10!
I will update this as I continue to read more of King’s novels, and we’ll see what drops off the bottom and what gets added in. For now we have:
- Salem’s Lot
- Different Seasons
- Pet Sematary
- The Dead Zone
- The Shining
- The Stand
Naturally this is a very subjective list, and is mostly based on how likely I am to reread each title. For example, Firestarter and Cujo are arguably much better books than Salem’s Lot, but there is something about the classic gothic nature of Salem’s Lot that really gets to me.
Similarly Cujo is actually a better book than Carrie (and possibly several of those above it) but it’s a tough read. I would like to revisit it one day, but that day will likely be a long time in the future.
Up next: … you’ll float too!!