“Unbeing dead isn't being alive.”
—E. E. Cummings
Pet Sematary, Stephen King’s most caliginous work, is unrelenting and unrepentant. The 1983 novel concerns the reanimation of carrion, if not the soul, and the discrepancy between corporeality and true life. It’s a sepulchral work, more ontological than most of King’s fiction, and a depiction of life and death at its simplest, its most existential.
Louis Creed is a doctor who has just moved his family (wife, daughter, son, cat) from Chicago to central Maine so he can spend more time with his family. His is a logical, scientific mind, while his wife, whose sister died of spinal meningitis when they were children, has a deep-seated fear of death and clings to vestigial notions of a happy afterlife. Louis befriends their elderly neighbor, Jud Crandall, who regales him with stories of halcyon days and becomes something of a surrogate father for Louis. When the Creeds’ cat, Church, is killed on highway that runs past their house, Jud shows Louis the cemetery where the local children used to bury their pets (a hand-painted sign misspells it “sematary”). But beyond the pet cemetery is another, wholly more insidious place, an ancient Native American burial ground once used by the Micmac people, which has the power to bring back the dead, but somehow they come back different, missing that ineffable quality that gives the living life. As Harry S. Miller put it, the cat comes back the very next day, but now the mangy, malodorous cat only vaguely resembles the family’s beloved pet. It came back, but wrong.
When Gage, the Creeds’ young son, traipses into the path of a speeding truck, like the family cat before him, another tiny body mangled by the hulking vehicle hurtling down that treacherous highway, Louis knows exactly what to do, even though he’s already seen what happens. But grief usurps common sense, and he buries him in the secret cemetery ensconced in the woods, a haunted swath of dirt enfolded by gnarled trees and pervaded by spirits best left alone. The child returns, and his resurrection proves to be a greater tragedy than his death. As Jud says, “Sometimes dead is better.”
King’s novel was adapted faithfully by King (who wrote the screenplay) and director Mary Lambert in 1989. That film adheres to the plot without much deviation, but, as with the reanimated dead, something is wrong. Despite an inspired performance by Fred Gwynne (aping King’s Maine accent quite well), it feels like a generic horror film, albeit one with an especially dark heart, whereas the novel is truly tormented.
The proliferous King wrote 16 novels in the ’80s, and claims that Pet Sematary was the one that truly scared him. It was only published to satisfy a contract—its progenitor, who prides himself on being an unelitist entertainer, didn’t like the Stygian book, which was, we now know, born of baleful habits: King wrote the novel at the apogee of his drug and alcohol dependency. The influence of those palliatives is palpable throughout the novel; you can feel it in the sense of hopelessness that pervades the story, in the agony suffered by the characters. Galvanized by a hodgepodge of substances, King wrote in a fervor, “often working until midnight with my heart running at 130 beats a minute and cotton swabs stuck up my nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding,” he said in his memoir On Writing. He was still struggling with addiction when he wrote the screenplay in 1989, and there is something fetid, something odious, about the novel and the first adaptation, from the foul odor emitted by the undead cat to the doleful ending, which feels inevitable, perhaps Draconian, and insinuates a certain cynicism on King’s part. The idea of perpetuating injudicious decisions, of not being able to stop doing something that is obviously bad for you, harks to King’s addictions, which he would finally kick in the early ’90s.
The new Pet Sematary is a more conventional film, rife with horror tropes and all the adequate gore and a tired proliferation of shock scares, but directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer have lustrated the uneasy soul of the book in a bid for modern mass appeal. Some changes both minor and major have been made to the story, i.e. the nine-year-old daughter is now the one who is frightfully resurrected, the friendship between Jud and Louis is now not as father-son, and a gaggle of creepy children have been added arbitrarily, because children are innately creepy and this is a film comprising many tropes. But the most profound and damning changes are those done to the tone, once funereal and fatalist, now simply miserable. There are now twists instead of inevitabilities, death no longer a consequence but a gimcrack insertion. Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz play the ill-fated Creeds, and Jon Lithgow plays Jud Crandall. (Clarke is milquetoast, Seimetz does what she can with her hollow role, and Lithgow brings a sense of sapience and sadness to the film.) This Pet Sematary would be just another forgettable, inept horror remake, of which we already have droves, but what makes it fascinating is the ways in which is illuminates the brilliance, and genuine pain, of King’s novel. Even if the 1989 Pet Sematary isn’t very good, it’s still a noteworthy curio, a relic from a dark period in King’s life. (The shambolic King-directed Maximum Overdrive is similarly fascinating in its delineation of drug-induced mania.)
“Life isn’t a support system for art,” King wrote in On Writing. “It’s the other way around.” The Tommyknockers (1987) offers a more obvious metaphor for cocaine abuse, with its mysterious white powder that makes people hyper-intelligent but violently mercurial, but it is Pet Sematary, more than any other of his ’80s novels, that is pervaded by the unsound apparitions which plagued the writer in real life.