The 1983 novel ‘Pet Sematary’ from the master of horror, Stephen King, is the latest of his classic books to be released in an exclusive edition by The Folio Society.
The story is about death, and how an ordinary family deals (or fails to deal) with it. As the author’s introduction (written in 2000) attests, the plot is closely based on some of his own experiences when he held a position at the University of Maine and moved his young family there. King’s limitless imagination and natural taste for the macabre allow him to extrapolate from this ordinary situation circumstances that would make them truly extraordinary and horrific. He recounts in his introduction that he wondered if, with ‘Pet Sematary’, he had gone too far this time, and the manuscript would prove too grotesque to publish. The reading public decided that allowing Stephen King to push them to the outer reaches of their comfort zone is an enjoyable experience, and ‘Pet Sematary’ became a bestseller. Nevertheless, it remains the book that terrifies the author the most.
In many ways, it’s not hard to see why. ‘Pet Sematary’ is a relentlessly creepy tale that frequently makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. The supernatural elements aside, losing a loved one and the grief we process afterwards happen to everybody sooner or later, so we can all relate to the plot points that drive the tale forwards. When young medic Louis Creed begins a new job as a doctor on a university campus, he moves his family out to Ludlow, Maine. At first his wife Rachel and young children, daughter Ellie and son Gage, with their cat Churchill, take to life in the small town. They become friendly with their elderly neighbours, Jud and Norma Crandall. It is idyllic save only for the busy main road that cuts through the town, and the relentless sound of speeding Orinco tanker trucks. On a walk through ground at the back of the house, Jud shows them an old pet cemetery, where the sign is incorrectly spelt (hence the book’s title). The experience disturbs Ellie. But when Churchill is killed on the busy main road when Louis’s wife and children are out of town visiting the in-laws, Jud lets Louis in on a secret. Anything laid to rest in ancient burial ground beyond the pet cemetery returns to life. Worried that his daughter will be upset about her pet’s death, Louis buries Churchill there. Lo and behold, his animated corpse soon returns home. But he doesn’t quite seem like his old self, and as for the smell…
Many of the characters in ‘Pet Sematary’ are already dealing with grief. Rachel hasn’t gotten over the death of her sister. Louis befriends Jud because of the absence of a paternal influence in his life after his own father died when he was a child. Jud and Norma are in failing health and are coming closer to death. Ellie worries excessively after seeing the pet cemetery that her cat will die. In a sign of things to come, a student on campus, Victor Pascow, is killed in an accident. He later appears to Louis in what he assumes to be a vivid dream. Death is the constant in the book. The moral is that death must be accepted, and any attempt to cheat death will result in something much, much worse. King dials up the discomfort the deeper you journey into the story. The cat’s return from the dead is only the beginning of a long and increasingly hideous trail of grief, chaos and destruction that will leave your nerves shattered by the time you reach the final page.
From the opening short paragraphs, Stephen King masterfully structures a gripping and compelling story. In small details he establishes a rounded family unit, creating characters that his readers care about and root for. Most of the story is told from Louis’ point of view and like all heroes who inadvertently lead their family into danger, his character flaws are apparent but so ordinary as to be forgivable. The early sequences in which Victor Pascow is brought to Louis, fatally wounded but still alive, yet clearly about to die, have a visceral quality that more squeamish readers may squirm to read. The unfortunate, violent death of someone young and healthy is the perfect way to lead readers into the disturbing sequence of events that King unfolds.
There are two criticisms that can be levelled at ‘Pet Sematary’, but neither proves to be an obstacle to enjoying the novel. The first is that the mid-section following the cat’s return to some semblance of life is overwritten. It contrasts with the short, punchy chapters that lead up to the death of Pascow and the equally tightly-structured closing chapters. King is notorious for writing long books and ‘Pet Sematary’ comes in at close to five hundred pages (about mid-range by King’s standards). But he is a good enough writer for the long descriptive passages to retain the reader’s interest. Secondly, the nature of the evil in the book sees those returning from the dead possessed by a wendigo, because the ancient burial ground belonged to the Native Americans. This is an idea that has been covered many times. These legends aren’t delved into, but simply used as plot devices, and so their inclusion is too fleeting to seem hackneyed.
Those minor misgivings aside, ‘Pet Sematary’ is a thoroughly absorbing book. The final chapters, right up to the final sentence, will be sure to chill your blood and give you nightmares. ‘Pet Sematary’ is a superb example of the horror genre, written by a craftsman who has dedicated his considerable talent to adding many terrifying and original tales into popular culture. King knows exactly how to scare, steadily creep out and build a sense of dread in his reader. These talents he exploits to maximum impact here. If you love the horror genre, ‘Pet Sematary’ will hit all of the right notes.
The design of The Folio Society’s ‘Pet Sematary’ is similar to their edition of ‘Misery‘ that came out in 2021, and pairs well with it. The black hardback cover is embossed with red and silver lettering, and a demonic-looking Churchill the cat stares malevolently out at you from the cover. Inside, there are eight full-page, full-colour illustrations by Edward Kinsella that add a visual component to the horror that radiates from the text. There are many delightful finishing touches, such as a reproduction of some of the animal’s epitaphs in silver text against black on the inlay, and a two-page monochrome illustration on the title page. If you’re a fan of Stephen King’s work, The Folio Society’s superbly-produced edition of ‘Pet Sematary’ is the ultimate copy to embellish any bookcase.
The Folio Society edition of Stephen King’s ‘Pet Sematary’, illustrated by Edward Kinsella, is available exclusively from ‘The Folio Society‘.
Publisher: The Folio Society Publication date: May 2023