Social Concerns / Themes

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Generally considered to be Stephen King's most frightening and disquieting work (a view which he himself apparently shares), Pet Sematary is also a relatively complex novel in terms of the diversity and intertwining of its various themes and social concerns. Since the core of the narrative involves that most basic of human attempts to interfere with the natural order - the recalling to life of those who have died — the seemingly timeless problem of distinguishing between the province of the gods and that of man — is immediately set squarely before the reader's eyes. As if to emphasize this distinction through dramatic counterpoint, King prefaces various sections of the novel with a number of New Testament quotations concerning Jesus's raising of Lazarus from the dead.

Further, by making his protagonist a man of science — in this instance a medical doctor — he echoes an essentially dyspromethian view of human scientific endeavor which has been recurrent in literature from Mary Shelley onwards.

At another level of thematic interest, King returns to the notion of the "Bad Place" explored in The Shining (1977) and elsewhere. In this case it is the ancient burial ground of largely defunct Micmac Indians, a place loaded with culturally specific mythic dread and whose evil power, long dormant, is once again stirring. Moreover, as is generally the case in King's treatment of such themes, there is present the assertion that evil can only accomplish its purposes through the control and ultimate absorption of human subjects. This work is again pervaded by an air of helplessness (indeed, with the possible exception of Cujo, this is undoubtedly King's most darkly pessimistic statement on the human condition), but in delicate contrabalance to the novel's largely naturalistic framework there is added another factor only hinted at in The Shining — that of moral responsibility for one's acts.

Throughout the novel one seemingly enigmatic phrase recurs in leitmotif fashion at significant points in the action — "A man grows what he can... and tends it" — and it is only gradually that the reader, as well as protagonist Louis Creed, comes to understand and appreciate its full metaphorical implications. This insistence upon the inescapable effects of moral responsibility, so dominant a feature in King's later works, may well provide the key to understanding and accepting an ending to the novel which some readers have found too horrifying even to contemplate.

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