The Plot

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Pet Sematary contains three large sections, each of which is prefaced by a paraphrasing of the portions of John’s Gospel that tell the story of Christ’s raising of Lazarus from the dead. A long headnote sets the theme and tone. Stephen King concludes the headnote with this sentence: “Death is a mystery, and burial is a secret.”

Dr. Louis Creed, his wife, Rachel, their five-year-old daughter, Ellie, and their one-year-old son, Gage, have moved from Chicago because Louis has accepted the position of physician at the University of Maine. On their first night in their new home in Ludlow, the Creeds meet Jud and Norma Crandell, their retired neighbors from across the road.

Jud takes the Creed family for a visit to the Pet Sematary, a plot of ground near the Creed home. Generations of Ludlow children have buried their pets there. It is a place of homemade headstones and markers announcing childhood grief. Jud tells Louis that the Pet Sematary is near an ancient Micmac Indian burial ground. Rachel thinks that the Pet Sematary is morbid.

When Ellie’s cat, Church, is killed by a car, Jud tells Louis the secret of the Micmac burial ground: Animals buried there come back to life, though, as Jud says, they may be “mean” and “a little stupid, slow.” Jud helps Louis bury Church in the Indian burial ground, where Louis sees strange lights and hears frightening sounds. On the following morning, Church returns home. The cat is clumsy and dull, and it smells of the grave. When Louis asks Jud if a person other than a Micmac has ever been buried in the Indian burial ground, Jud reacts with a violent “No!” Louis senses that Jud is lying. Norma Crandell dies suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage and is buried in a Bangor cemetery.

Part 2 begins with the death of young Gage, who is struck and killed by an oil tanker truck. Louis, Rachel, and Ellie are filled with almost unbearable grief. In desperation, Louis sends his wife and daughter to Chicago for a recuperative visit with Rachel’s parents while he plans to disinter Gage’s body from the Bangor cemetery. During the flight to Chicago, Ellie has dreams of her father’s death and of Gage’s empty coffin. Rachel senses that Louis is in peril and is concerned that he might commit suicide. In panic, Rachel books a return flight to Maine. As she is racing to him, Louis steals Gage’s mangled body from the grave and reburies him in the Micmac burial ground.

In part 3, Gage returns from the grave as a monster-child, filled with the evil spirit of the Wendigo, the creature who rules the Micmac burial ground—the creature who, according to Jud, can turn the living into cannibals with a touch. As Louis sleeps from exhaustion, Gage steals his scalpel, goes across the road, and stabs Jud to death. At almost the same time, Rachel arrives at Jud’s house and is attacked and killed by Gage.

Louis awakens and sees Gage’s muddy footprints in the house. He prepares syringes of morphine to rekill Gage and traces the footprints to Jud’s house, where he finds the body of Jud and the cannibalized body of Rachel. He is attacked by Gage and is able to kill the monster with shots of morphine.

Nearly insane from the horrors of his ordeal, Louis sets Jud’s house afire and then takes Rachel’s body and buries it in the Micmac burial ground. The novel ends with Rachel’s return from the grave.

Literary Techniques

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Perhaps...

(This entire section contains 145 words.)

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more than in any of his other works, the dramatic effectiveness of Stephen King's prose style is evident inPet Sematary. The use of italics and other typographical devices — a practice he occasionally overworks in other novels — here functions especially well as a means of gauging characters' inner states, and all of the stylistic touches familiar to King readers, from the prevalence of brand name products to the most wrenchingly visceral of images (e.g.. Gage Creed's baseball cap lying in the highway, filled with blood), seem here harnessed directly to the novel's unrelenting force of statement.

As in The Shining, King makes effective use of multiple point of view and of a structure which establishes a sense of comforting, leisurely normalcy in its early stages, to be counterbalanced by an ever intensifying aura of horror as the novel proceeds inexorably to its conclusion.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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Pet Sematary is counted among Stephen King's best novels. It is also one of the darkest; in fact, it was promoted (inaccurately) as being too horrifying even for King, who did not answer media questions about it. The premise of this darkness is represented as Louis Gage buries his son in the Micmac burial grounds, and draws a spiral on the site. While the novel is patterned after a spiral down into loss, obsession and death, this spiral pattern is as purposeful as it is inexorable. King notes at the beginning of Part 2 that this work is about exploring the question: "how much horror the human mind can stand and still maintain a wakeful, staring, unrelenting sanity," given that "horror is spawing horror." While this particular onslaught of terror is not inevitable, King has stacked the deck against the Creed family, allowing a close exploration of personality and events in the novel.

1. The opening of the novel is slow-paced, allowing readers to understand Louis and Rachel Creed, and Jud Crandall. What details and experiences do his characters have which draw you into their lives? Establish their character?

2. Both Jud and Louis believe that "The soil of a man's heart is stonier. . . A man grows what he can . . . and tends it." How is this perspective reproduced in the settings of the Pet Sematary and the Micmac burial grounds? How would you characterize those qualities of emotion and landscape? In a larger perspective, how does this assumption regarding the male emotional landscape work in King's other novels?

3. Critics note in the novel that "some exponential effects begin to obtain ... as one coincidental evil begets other, often more deliberate evil." What are the "coincidental" events in the novel? Is this an unrelieved darkness or does King give Louis a way out? What does King say regarding coincidents and accidents, choice and free will, responsibility and consequences?

4. Examine the craft of the gruesome or scary scenes in the novel. When are King's descriptions or tone overstated? When are they subdued? How does this affect the interpretation and emotional impact of the scenes?

Literary Precedents

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Pet Sematary, quite evidently, touches upon one of the most basic of all archetypal taboos, and as such, warrants comparison to a staggering number of narrative treatments — ranging from such ancient accounts as those of Icarus and of Eve's fateful decision in the Garden — to the contemporary medical horror novels of Michael Crichton and Robin Cook. Certain of the premises which underlie Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), a work which also, albeit from a radically different perspective, focuses upon reanimation of the dead, seem to have bearing on King's work, while the novel undoubtedly owes something to W. W. Jacobs's classic tale of terror, "The Monkey's Paw" (1902). The zombie, though not nearly as frequent a visitor to horror literature as ghosts, werewolves, and vampires, does have his own tradition in the genre, and it may be worth noting that the zombie films of director George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead, 1968, and Dawn of the Dead, 1979) are frequently mentioned by King as among his favorite horror movies. In the last analysis, however, it must be said that, notwithstanding its nominal indebtedness to a variety of precedents. Pet Sematary is in most respects a largely innovative work.

Adaptations

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A motion version of Pet Sematary, directed by Mary Lambert, was released in 1989. It stars Dale Midkiff, Fred Gwynne, and Denise Crosby in a faithful rendering of the novel. The motion picture was well received by critics and fans. A sequel, Pet Sematary Two, was released in 1992. This was also directed by Mary Lambert, and stars Edward Furlong as a young man trying to bring his mother back to life. This sequel was not well received.

Bibliography

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Beahm, George, ed. The Stephen King Companion. Kansas City, Mo.: Andrews McMeel, 1989.

Beahm, George, ed. Stephen King from A to Z: An Encyclopedia of His Life and Work. Kansas City, Mo.: Andrews McMeel, 1998.

Blue, Tyson. The Unseen King, Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont House, 1989.

Magistrale, Tony. Hollywood’s Stephen King. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Magistrale, Tony. Landscape of Fear: Stephen King’s American Gothic. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Press, 1988.

Reino, Joseph. Stephen King: The First Decade, “Carrie” to “Pet Sematary.” Boston: Twayne, 1988.

Spignesi, Stephen J. The Essential Stephen King: A Ranking of the Greatest Novels, Short Stories, Movies, and Other Creations of the World’s Most Popular Writer. Franklin Lanes, N.J.: New Page, 2001.

Underwood, Tim, and Chuck Miller, eds. Kingdom of Fear: The World of Stephen King. New York: New American Library, 1986.

Vincent, Ben. The Road to “Dark Tower”: Exploring Stephen King’s Magnum Opus. New York: NAL Trade, 2004.

Wiater, Stanley, Christopher Golden, and Hank Wagner. The Stephen King Universe. Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 2001.

Winter, Douglas E. Stephen King. The Art of Darkness. New York: New American Library, 1984.

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Critical Essays