Ever since I was kid I’ve been drawn to anything spooky, but I wouldn’t say I started truly considering myself a “Horror” fan until maybe a couple of years ago. Maybe it was my late start to the game, or maybe it was my punk-rock, teenage-based inclination to avoid anything that had mass appeal, but I’m here to confess something that may shock and offend—up until 2017, I had never read Stephen King.
That’s right. I lived 29 years of a life always trying to find the spooky or weird side of things, but actively avoided Stephen King. And, I honestly can’t remember the initial reason.
Okay, that’s slightly bullshit. For a while, I thought Stephen King was a hack. Despite my punk-rock, fuck-all roots, I did what every English Lit major does and just considered popular fiction trash. This didn’t last long, was full of hypocrisy, and I hope to Christ I was never very vocal about it. But, it happened.
Also, that totally BANANAS Langoliers mini-series with Bronson Pinchot probably didn’t help my opinion of King—it was a little too out there for younger-me.
Funnily enough, I had (and still have) a mom that could always find a Stephen King adaptation to watch on TV on the weekends. (Maybe four was a tad young for It, but thanks for the nightmares, Ma.) I don’t know if I should thank 90’s cable programming or the vague remembrance of my mom always insisting “No, you’ll like this! It’s Stephen King, so it’ll be good!”, but despite not reading his books I had plenty of exposure to his stories.
Once I was over avoiding Stephen King for one reason, I realized I had others. I matured from book-snob based logic and moved into shear intimidation and overthinking. When you have a dude that’s written dozens and dozens of books, where do you even start? Should I go chronologically to see the progression of his talent? Should I avoid every story whose adaptation I’d seen and only go for the “new’ stories?
Like any good 80’s-90’s child, I let pop culture be my guide. The newest incarnation of It was going to be released soon, so I decided to start there. I was worried that since I’d seen the 1990 mini-series adaptation a million times, I would be bored. I also worried that I would be out-of-my-mind terrified. (Thank you, and fuck you, Tim Curry.)
You can see where this is going—I was completely wrong about everything. (Except the being terrified--that was totally true.) There were enough differences to keep the story interesting, and even if the novel had been the same as the adaptation, King has a way of writing that kept me pulled in. I almost want to call it conversational, but that word doesn’t seem like it has enough weight to give King his due. But, more on that later.
In the year-ish since then, I’ve gotten a little distracted and, of King’s work, have only read Carrie (which I found to be pretty much the same assumptions-wise) and On Writing. So, as a challenge to myself, I’ll be reading Stephen King books and writing reviews here on Horror Bound. I’m going to keep letting the Adaptation Gods guide me, so Pet Sematary will be my first real start to actively digging in to King’s bibliography. I’ll take any suggestions on what to read next, and also any suggestions about what to call this mission that don’t sound like vaguely-sexual chess metaphors (King Me) or like fantasy RPG’s (Conquering King) since that’s all I’ve been able to think of so far. Wish me luck--and whatever else it will take to start making a dent in the King catalog—unwavering focus? Tons of nerve? More free time? You tell me.
Pet Sematary by Stephen King was totally not what I expected. Maybe that’s because I’d never seen the 1989 film adaptation, and so of the little King fiction I’ve read so far, I was going into this one the most blind. I legit thought it was going to be about a bunch of dead animals being resurrected and not being thrilled about it. I’ve even seen shots from the 1989 film with little Miko Hughes all terrifying and shit, and I never wondered, “Hey, how do they make the jump from living dead animals to creepy kid?”
I blame most of this on marketing. Every Pet Sematary book I’ve ever seen has only featured a crazed cat on the cover. (The covers below are just begging for a tag line like “Pet Sematary: Nine Lives Just Weren’t Enough!”) Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want any more murderous than normal cats in my life, but the idea was never compelling enough for me to want to find out more. I guess I always thought the story would be more along the lines of Cujo (an also never-read and never-seen King for me, but one whose plot I’m at least more familiar with), so I never really felt any draw to the story. (Beethoven beat Cujo to our VCR, and it’s too late to switch sides now—childhood allegiance is a tough bitch.)
And I think that’s where any kind of bad rap Stephen King has comes from—his books are (or have been in the past) sold as kind of these B-movie equivalents--publishers latch on to one visual horror aspect of King’s books and make it seem like this semi-schlocky element is all the story is about, when really no book of King’s of the few I’ve encountered has ever been as simple as the cover or even the synopsis has implied.
Pet Sematary is no different. Sure, there is an undead cat that gets up to some creepy zombie kitty stuff. But, that’s such a small element in a story that’s mostly about family, fear, and grief. King plonks you down in the middle of Maine with Dr. Louis Creed, his wife Rachel, and their kids Ellie and Gage. The genuinely friendly old neighbors across the almost unbelievably busy road, Jud and Norma Crandall, are quick to warn Louis and Rachel about the trucks that barrel through their part of the woods and point out the creepy yet innocent pet cemetery behind the Creed property. But, Jud’s other lazy-evening tales about the history of the town and its people accompanied by iced tea, cold beer, and recipe-swapping overshadow any worries and help the Creeds burrow into their new domesticity.
King never allows the reader to snuggle in to the same sense of safety though. Throughout the story, he drops subtle yet clearly ominous hints that any happiness the Creeds have isn’t going to last long. The first three quarters of the book are filled with sudden but short drops into darkness all gearing up to one long final plunge.
For me, there’s some un-nameable quality about King’s writing, or at least something I feel I can never accurately express. In all of the whopping three books I’ve read of his, he has an uncanny way of making you care about his characters without being too obvious about the reasons why you should and how he’s going to show you. King’s characters feel real. His settings feel real. And because of that, the terror becomes real. Louis describes Jud as “being as comfortable as an old slipper”, a man who could tell stories as if he had lived them, a man who “talked but never rambled”. And that, for me, is an accurate description of King’s writing. He makes things seem so real and normal, that I don’t ask a lot of questions about the how’s or the why’s—I can just let the story lead me where I’m supposed to go and I don’t get lost in the details. His writing is lean and intentional, so I’m never distracted by too much description or pulled out the story by clunky explanation—everything seems perfectly placed and the story just seems to flow naturally. Characters are never unbelievable, even when they are going through the most unbelievable experiences.
Because of all of this, Pet Sematary had my heart. I wanted to keep reading so I could see more of these characters and be by their side as they experienced terror, but I also never wanted it to end because I didn’t want any sort of ending for them to be real. I’d give this one a solid four and a half stars—I’m docking it that last half a star because I had an issue with the ending (I’ll leave it vague to avoid spoilers), I thought it could have been a touch more frightening with the supernatural element (I wanted to see just a little more of the things that inhabited the dead swamp), and King does have an almost-crass approach to some of his sexual scenes that seems to be the only thing that ever draws me out of his stories. Overall though, be ready to face real terror in the most unreal ways with this one.
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