⭐ ⭐ ⭐
A disturbing, slow burn horror that sinks it’s claws in and drags you to a blood-curdling conclusion. Reading this book I felt like the proverbial frog in a pot of water, slowly being boiled to death, except I knew what was happening and was powerless to do anything about it.
This is the second Stephen King book I’ve read. The first one was his debut novel Carrie, which I thought was an interesting story even if it wasn’t particularly well executed. I was much more impressed with PET SEMATARY. It tells the story of the Creed family (Louis and Rachel, along with their young kids Ellie and Gage – and Ellie’s cat Church) who move to a big house in Maine when Louis lands a job at the university campus health centre. They meet their elderly neighbour Jud, who warns them to be careful of the busy road that runs by their house, as the heavy trucks have claimed the lives of many a pet dog or cat. He even shows the family the pet cemetery (misspelled ‘sematary’) behind their house, where the local kids bury their deceased pets.
I’m not going to overtly spoil anything in this review, but King makes no secret of the dark direction this story takes right from the outset, and if you read between the lines you can probably guess where this is going. Even as it became increasingly apparent what he was doing with it I found myself thinking “He’s not going to take it there is he? That’s dark”.
Oh how naive I was.
As more of a science fiction and fantasy reader it was interesting to see how differently this book read to my usual fare. In SFF a lot of the tension comes from uncertainty, from not knowing how things are going to turn out or if the protagonist you’ve came to love so much will make it through unscathed. In this book the opposite was true. It was obvious for most of the book what was going to happen and it was the dread of helplessly watching it unfold that caused the tension. I don’t read much horror so I don’t know if this is representative of the genre as a whole or if Stephen King is just particularly good at it, but PET SEMATARY is saturated with a pervasive sense of dread that hangs over the story from start to finish. And this is done with very little in the way of gore or gross-out horror which, while definitely having its place, is often a cheap and easy way to deliver scares to an audience.
The story is built on a supernatural premise, but fear, loss and grief are the true horrors of this book. Again, nothing I’m going to talk about is really a ‘spoiler’ because it’s all signposted throughout the book, but you might want to skip ahead if you like to discover everything in the reading. The most interesting part of the story for me was Rachel’s fear of death and the lasting psychological impact it had on her since she was a child. The story delves into our relationship with death and with the human psyche on an individual level through Rachel’s relationship with her sister Zelda, who suffered with spinal meningitis and died a slow and lingering death when they were both children. Rachel resented her dying sister and, far from being the ‘perfect victim’, Zelda was a hateful and spiteful person on her deathbed and Rachel is burdened with the guilt she feels at being relieved that her sister finally died. This contrasts with how, as a society, we tend to idolise the dead – ‘don’t speak ill of the dead’, so the saying goes – and it pulls the curtain back on the idealised facade that is our treatment of death.
The novel as a whole tackles some disturbing aspects of human emotion, subjects that rightly made me feel deeply uncomfortable as a reader. What makes King such a good writer is that none of it is done in a pretentious or grandiose way. Instead we see an ordinary family dealing with loss and grief in a very relatable way, even if as readers we want to shake them at times and tell them to get their shit together, if for no other reason than to stop the inevitable juggernaut of horror we can foresee but they evidently cannot.
PET SEMATARY is a good book. It’s definitely convinced me to read more Stephen King and heightened my interest in horror as a genre, both for entertainment and to familiarise myself with the conventions of horror writing, which are evidently much different from the SFF style I’m familiar with. If you’re looking for some pretty dark and emotionally heavy horror this Halloween definitely give this book a read, though if you want something a little more conventionally ‘spooky’ and lighthearted, you might want to put it off for a while.
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