The horror of Pet Semetary isn’t supernatural – it’s the disturbing, ordinary horror of grief

What makes Pet Semetary so uniquely awful is not an undead child – it’s the novel’s painfully precise portrait of grief, desperation, and madness. 

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Though I am no horror nerd – the kind with an encyclopedic knowledge of creatures of the lagoon, and iterations of vampire, and what kind of ketchup was best used to make fake blood – many of the cultural encounters I remember most fondly have been with horror. As a kid, before I was allowed to watch such things, I would spend a long time in the video rental store reading the blurbs on the back of each scary film, before reluctantly being led to choose another Disney cartoon. When I was a little older, almost a teenager, I once waited until everyone was asleep and then snuck downstairs and found a copy of Texas Chainsaw Massacre I had spotted amongst my stepfather’s things. I dragged a chair up to the tiny TV in the corner of the kitchen – the sitting room would have been too audible – and put it on with an almost holy anticipation. I sat there in the dark, frozen to the spot, rigid with delighted agony, until it was over.

When it came to reading, too, some of my most memorable experiences were with horror: most notably with Stephen King. King was a constant companion throughout my young adulthood. I am a primal, basic creature in many ways. The art I like best is often the art that moves the blood around my body fastest, physically dislocating me from my own life. I’m making good innings on reading all of King’s novels, but none will ever touch Pet Sematary for me.

I read it as a 14-year-old, just beginning to glance off the edges of depression, to understand certain difficult realities. My cat, Iggy – a spirited, bolshy creature with an extravagant ginger tail – had recently been killed by a car. It was the first loss of something I loved that I was old enough to understand. I was well disposed to Ellie, the little girl in Pet Sematary, shouting, “He’s my cat! He’s not God’s cat! Let God have his own cat! Let God have all the damn old cats He wants, and kill them all!” about Church, her pet.

Pet Sematary sees doctor Louis Creed, his wife Rachel, and their children Ellie and Gage move from Boston to rural Maine. Their new elderly neighbour Jud Crandall shows them that their land is home to a pet cemetery, where local children bury their departed animals. When Ellie’s cat Church is run over, Jud guides Louis to bury its body in a particular spot there. The next day, Church is returned – the same cat, reanimated, seemingly alive, but somehow off.  Ellie and Rachel, who didn’t hear of Church’s death, nevertheless notice something is wrong too: the oily, matted fur, the vacant yet cruel stare, the new unsettling clumsiness.

The book’s real horror arrives in the second half, when Gage, the Creeds’ toddler son, is killed by a passing truck. In the darkness of his mourning Louis is thinks of the pet cemetery, and its power to reanimate the dead. He knows how terrible and wrong it would be to try and bring a person back from death. But his demented grief compels him to.

I saw the current film adaptation of Pet Sematary last weekend. While perfectly serviceable, the film neglects what truly defines the novel. Pet Semetary is a book which made even King himself think he’d “gone too far”, a book that maintains a feeling of total hopelessness uncharacteristic of King’s body of work. It’s a book I found so deeply unsettling and frightening that I feared it as an object, and had to put outside my bedroom door in order to sleep at night. The film relies on the frightening image of a dead girl – altering the plot so that Ellie dies and is reanimated (fearing, wisely, that the animated corpse of a toddler in a suit would be difficult to avoid making comedic). But this image is common in horror. The undead little girl with blue lips and a party dress is a generic trope.

What makes the novel so uniquely awful is not the undead child – it’s the painfully precise portrait of grief, desperation, and madness. As in most King novels, there is a pre-existing supernatural evil, the burial ground. But what sets Pet Semetary aside as his darkest work is less to do with that exterior device, and more to do with what takes place inside a broken man. It’s not just a frightening book – it’s a terribly sad one. Gage’s death is drawn with punishing, forensic clarity – an idiotic, meaningless moment that somehow decided between him living and dying.

Then King employs a structural technique of dazzling cruelty. He begins a new chapter by telling us that Gage’s death was all in Louis’s mind – a terrible, realistic dream. Because we have seen Louis have nightmares already, this seems convincing. He sketches out – over several pages, long enough to settle into – how Gage was rescued from the path of the speeding truck, and all the things that he will go on to do, having survived. It feels like a clever illustration of how vivid the fears of parents can be, how nightmarish the dread of harm befalling their children – until he flips on you again, and reveals that this was the vivid dream, Gage’s survival was a fantasy that Louis’ collapsing mind desperately constructed, re-imagining the crucial, slipped moment where he failed to grasp Gage’s sweater before the truck tore through him. But it was not real, and Gage is dead. It remains one of the most effective, visceral depictions of the utter chaos of grief that I’ve ever read. The text warps our reality, upends time, distends single moments, in the way that grief truly does in real life.

When Louis begins, in his madness, to look toward the pet cemetery, he knows the task is doomed. He knows what he is considering is horrifying and perverse and can never work out – but the bloody strength of grief makes him do it anyway. Here, again, is that senseless desperation of losing someone you love, that furious cry to God, the willingness to do anything – anything – to reverse your loss. Grief will make you ruthless.

John Irving, another author who has written the deaths of children devastatingly, writes similarly in his book A Prayer For Owen Meany. Owen’s best friend John is delivering the eulogy at his funeral, and concludes by crying out, “O God - please give him back! I shall keep asking You.” It makes us ask for things which we know in our ordinary minds are impossible – but a grieving mind is not an ordinary mind.

The loss of a child is too dreadful for most of us to contemplate, but we can perhaps imagine it well enough to understand why Louis is driven to his terrible act. Everyone has considered their own personal worst case scenarios, those people we cannot do without, but someday may have to. I have no children of my own, but it is a kind of loss I think of and read about a lot. My own worst-case scenario is losing my father – a loss I can barely articulate without weeping – but my fears toward him are entwined also with the idea of children and losing them. I am his only child, and I have often been tearful with shame looking back on times when I failed to look after myself. I am terrified to have brought his loss of me into the realm of the possible. At times, the fear of his grief has been the only thing that has motivated my sense of self-preservation, when I didn’t care much to save myself.

Ultimately what makes Pet Sematary enduringly chilling isn’t the reanimated corpse of the child, obscene as that image may be. It’s the horror of the child’s death in the first place; a horror that is upsettingly real. It’s a simple, ordinary, and endlessly frightening fact – that we could lose the ones we love the most.

Megan Nolan is a writer of essays, criticism and fiction born in Ireland and based in London. She writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman.