This is one of the best novels I’ve ever read, which is funny and surprising because I picked it up in the library based on this cover:
I mean, you don’t see Dostoevsky novels with covers like that.
Minor spoilers ahead.
Pet Sematary is an ingenious exposition of the problem of pain and the problem of evil, and the relationship between them. Technically and stylistically, Stephen King is a great writer, and in my opinion this is his best work. He and I agree it is also the most horrifying.
The linchpin moment is the tragic death of the protagonist’s son, which plays out according to every parent’s worst nightmare. They’re playing in the yard, and the toddler has gone from walking to constantly running around. He suddenly takes off for the road, right into the path of a big rig truck. The mom screams for the child to stop and the dad sprints and dives to catch him, just barely missing the kid’s jacket (fingers gently brushing against it) before the toddler gets creamed. So here we have the problem of pain, which is played out in microcosm throughout the book. Channeling the psychology of horror- the anxiety, the pain, and the brokenness- is where King’s writing really shines.
The titular cemetery is misspelled because it is a cemetery in the woods created and maintained by children who’ve lost their pets to the same high-traffic road. But even further into the woods is a forbidden place which can be described very roughly as an Indian burial ground, where buried pet corpses come back to life as muted, retarded, sadistic copies of their former selves. Despite experiencing the sad truth that a zombie can’t replace their loved pet (“Sometimes dead is better”), the people who have resurrected their pets continue to initiate other grieving souls into their secret ritual. This is completely senseless behavior, and we see over and over that despite the characters’ rationalizations they are aware of this. Thus, we have the problem of evil just as it may be observed in real life: senseless, persistent, and destructive.
The pet cemetery itself represents the thin boundary between humanity’s natural religious instincts and the latent supernatural horrors that can be awakened and expressed through human vessels. Evil is an insanely expensive endeavor; Think about how much money is wasted on the cause of evil just by George Soros. And yet evil continues, despite all our appeals to common sense, rationalism, economic theory, what have you. I believe the most poignant feature of evil is how stupid it is. Hannah Arendt described this as the banality of evil, but really what it boils down to is stupidity. People simply don’t grasp the concept of consequences– and even when they do they don’t care, and blithely go on doing the same things.
I’ve heard progressives described as “people who simply don’t understand the connection between their actions and the consequences of their actions”, but I think this is unfair. “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.” In rare moments of honesty, we can- all of us- observe this in ourselves. Again, it is senseless, persistent, and destructive. We can be trained to do good, to think well, to have wisdom and understand good doctrines, and yet despite all this the human heart is deceitful and desperately intent on wickedness. The human condition is horrifyingly stupid. And this book explores that even better than Solzhenitsyn.
Now, as Koanic has mentioned elsewhere we often describe stuff we don’t understand as “supernatural”, but this is often just a placeholder term. To King’s credit, he has diagnosed the horrifying stupidity of the human condition as a properly supernatural problem. There is a great deal of stupidity that can be traced back to simple cause and effect, and this is shown in the characterizations of the protagonist and his wife- he takes out his daddy issues on his family, and she has a nervous breakdown anytime the concept of death comes up due to some over-the-top childhood trauma. Despite all this, the family limps along and functions, albeit poorly. Life goes on. That is, until the protagonist destroys even this small consolation by using the burial ground to resurrect his dead son.
Reading this book is like walking down the sidewalk and watching the cars go by, and seeing more than half of the drivers buzzing past you with their heads down, looking at their phones. I see this every day as I walk home on the left-hand sidewalk, and there’s a point when you realize it’s not just a few bad apples, or just some significant minority. It’s almost everybody. If I see two heads looking down at phones for every three cars going by, and assume that people are glancing up at the road sometimes, then at least some of the one-third of people who I see looking at the road are just glancing up momentarily from their phones. I am literally watching car crashes in super-slow motion that just haven’t happened quite yet. Sometimes I see kids and carseats in the back and it breaks what little is left of my heart. And if you took a survey, all of these people would tell you this is a stupid, stupid way to drive.