In high school, two friends and I rented Pet Sematary for a Friday night sleepover. We thought it would be a corny and ridiculous horror B-movie to make fun of, but instead it scared the hell out of us and might have stolen a little bit of our sleep that night (I talk about this and other defining horror films for me at length over here). While the film had a profound effect on me at the time, I now wish that I had not seen it before reading the book.
Roughly ten years later when I picked up Pet Sematary from where it sat untouched for years on my shelf, the general direction of the movie and vivid imagery from certain scenes were still very fresh in my mind. Had I entered the book knowing nothing of the story, I believe it would have hit me even harder than it did; it would have been a more chilling “surprise,” so to speak. That said, the book was still ultimately a powerful read, and its most notable difference from the movie is the ending, which is quite dark (and in my opinion, superior to that of the film).
As a long-time fan and Constant Reader of Stephen King, I confess that I was disappointed to find that this book took nearly 100 pages to really grab me. It was good and had enough intrigue to keep me interested, but something about it didn't feel up to King's usual level of greatness. I struggled to care about Louis Creed or his family, which is a rarity in King's work. Normally, I'm hooked on his lead characters and their defining quirks within just a few pages, but in this case I found that the digressions in dialogue and attempts at humor fell somewhat flat. Even though this is considered a “classic” among King fans, it is worth noting that this was written before the author had gotten sober, which may contribute to the lack of fervor in the first chunk of the book.
That said, by the time Louis was being led to the Micmac burial ground by Jud Crandall with the dead cat Church in his arms, I was drawn in for the long haul. There is a teeming discomfort throughout this book that carries a great heaviness; something just around the corner but never quite in full sight. This quality is exemplified, apart from the obvious, in the nondescript creatures who loom in the forest around the burial ground. King does an excellent job of never describing exactly what these beings look like (as they are never fully seen by any character), but their dreadful presence is undeniably felt.
Another aspect of the underlying heaviness is the Pet Sematary's supernatural, almost personified ability to “pull” at characters minds, drawing them to itself. There is even suggestion that the burial ground has a force of its own that can influence the physical realm, such as when Rachel is hindered from getting home at a critical moment when the battery terminal on her rental car mysteriously unhooks itself, or when Jud Crandall is waiting all night for Louis to get home to prevent him from doing something unspeakable, yet Jud is lulled asleep at just the wrong moment. There is a feeling that the Sematary is against all of these people; a demonic force bent on bringing destruction to the lives in its vicinity.
The strength of King's writing—whether he was sober at the time or not—is most felt in the middle of the book as he describes the Creed family experiencing the loss of their child. This is a taboo subject in any circumstance: you just don't mess with the death of a child. But King approaches the tragedy with the delicacy and sympathy of an actual father (he is one, after all) and the realism of how each of the characters mourns is striking. As the father of a seven-month-old, I found myself tearing up more than once through these passages, and I've been told by several others that Pet Sematary is far more terrifying to read as a parent. The realities of the situation are just too heartbreaking to dwell upon for long.
The ending—which I won't spoil here (but then can you really spoil something more than thirty years old?)—absolutely shocked me, which is why I was delighted to find it different from the movie. Let's just say that many of King's works end mostly well for his characters most of the time. This one doesn't, and it's one of those gut-dropping conclusions that makes you walk away saying, “Oh ma-a-an...”
Even with the rocky start (in my opinion), this was a strong read and a significantly unsettling book. Does it deserve the term “Classic” in the world of King's catalog? I'd say so.