Smucky the Cat, He Was Obedient: Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (Part 2)


Welcome back to Reading the Weird, in which we get girl cooties all over weird fiction, cosmic horror, and Lovecraftiana—from its historical roots through its most recent branches. This week, we continue Stephen King’s Pet Sematary with Chapters 7-10. The novel was first published in 1983. Spoilers ahead!

Summary

“He had pronounced two dozen people dead in his career and had never once felt the passage of a soul.”

The Creeds settle into Ludlow, and into friendship with Jud and Norma. Ellie’s first kindergarten morning is anxious for Louis and Rachel, but Ellie returns eager to detail her adventures. Rachel’s sad glance unsettles Louis; Ellie’s growing up, which means he and Rachel are growing old. As Louis carries Gage upstairs for his nap, he’s hit with “such a premonition of horror and darkness” that he stops cold. Out of nowhere, he remembers his undertaker uncle’s “showroom,” where coffins stood on display. Dump the horrors, he commands himself.

The next Saturday, Jud takes the Creeds to the pet cemetery. He wasn’t exaggerating how town kids keep the path mowed. The hill offers a stunning view westward down the Penobscot valley. Jud tells Ellie the path is safe but she shouldn’t venture off it; the surrounding woods stretch north for miles. Louis shares Rachel’s “city-bred” uneasiness at this wilderness on their back doorstep, but Jud reassures them: “You keep on the path and all’s well.”

A second hill surmounted, they find an arch of weathered boards bearing the faded legend PET SEMATARY. It guards a forty-foot clearing floored with well-tended grass. Grave markers stand in concentric circles: wood or tin scraps, slabs of slate. Their inscriptions grow increasingly illegible toward the center, the oldest graves. Ellie’s thrilled. Rachel’s “It’s lovely” sounds forced. She’s uncomfortable around anything death-related, an antipathy Louis ascribes to her sister Zelda’s childhood death from spinal meningitis.

Even Jud doesn’t know how old the cemetery is. It was there in 1914 when he buried his dog Spot. He had a gang of friends then, to help turn over the rocky soil. Now Jud’s the last of them.

Louis isn’t sorry when Rachel wants to leave. Ellie’s started climbing a huge blowdown of trees that blocks the path deeper into the woods. Jud, alarmed, warns her off the tangle. The woods-wise know how easy it would be to break an ankle.

The next day Ellie beards Louis in his study. He sees at once that she’s troubled. When Church slouches in to nap on a windowsill, she finally brings up the pet cemetery. Why don’t pets live as long as people, she asks. Louis explains how metabolic time-clocks differ among species. He reassures Ellie that three-year-old Church could live into her high-school years. That’s not time enough for Ellie. She bursts into tearful fury. Church is “not God’s cat! Let God have His own cat… all the damn old cats He wants, and kill them all!” But Church is hers. Louis holds Ellie as she sobs over her first true understanding of death’s inevitability.

From the kitchen, Rachel overhears Ellie’s outburst, but she waits until the girl’s upstairs before confronting Louis. She doesn’t want Ellie visiting the pet cemetery ever again. The place is unhealthy – she doesn’t want Ellie catching whatever morbid obsession the town kids have contracted.

Rachel’s vehemence startles Louis. He realizes they’ve hit one of those rare “pocket[s] of alien strangeness” that even the closest marriages are subject to. When Rachel decries how Ellie now thinks Church is going to die, he blunders into answering that “Church is going to die.” The argument spirals into Rachel sobbing that death is not natural; as a doctor Louis should know that.

As a doctor, it’s exactly opposite what Louis does know. He feels for Rachel, but he can’t deny that “In the end there was only the clock, and the [grave] markers, which became eroded and nameless in the passage of time.”

Louis visits the Crandalls that evening, knowing Rachel has gone to bed angry. Jud knows the cemetery upset Ellie. He and Norma reminisce about how it gave a boy named Billy nightmares, but when Billy’s dog died, a ceremonial interment there helped him mourn and move on. It’s funny, the difference in attitudes between generations. “We were on closer terms with death,” Jud muses, what with two world wars and diseases doctors now seem to cure by magic. “We knew [death] as a friend and as an enemy… sometimes it took supper with you and sometimes you could feel it bite your ass.” Norma predicts that Ellie will get busy with new friends, maybe help them with the cemetery, and so “start to get that nodding acquaintance with [death.]”

Not if Rachel has anything to do with it, Louis thinks. Back home, he finds her and Gage in the defensive curl he anticipated. The memory of his first hard “acquaintance” with death keeps him awake. When his cousin Ruthie was killed in a freak car accident, twelve-year-old Louis screamed to his mother, “SHE CAN’T BE DEAD – I LOVE HER!” Nevertheless, his mother said, Ruthie is gone.

Louis gets up. The crux of his and Rachel’s rift is Ellie’s fear for Church. At least Louis can do something to keep the cat safer. He writes a note for Rachel’s TO DO board, with the number of a veterinarian who can neuter Church. His doubts are dispelled by the rumble of a big semi on Route 15.

He pins up the note.

This Week’s Metrics

What’s Cyclopean: King excels at vividly kinesthetic descriptions of fear: “His heart was racing; his scalp felt cool and abruptly too small to cover his skull; he could feel the surge of adrenaline behind his eyes.”

The Degenerate Dutch: Louis’s thoughts about women are somewhat… medically shaped. He jumps very quickly to anorexia and menopause as explanations.

Meanwhile, Judd says that moose are only dangerous to people from Massachusetts. If you take this seriously, it will put you at considerably greater hazard from moose.

Libronomicon: To be fair, Louis also dismisses his own fear with a reference to A Christmas Carol: “You may be no more than an underdone bit of potato.” The fact that Marley was real rather undermines this attempt at self-soothing. 

Madness Takes Its Toll: Of Norma’s arthritis, Louis says: “You learned to accept, or you ended up in a small room writing letters home with Crayolas.” Later he describes Rachel’s denial of death as “an attitude…so peculiar… that it seemed nearly psychotic.”

Anne’s Commentary

On its surface, Chapter Seven is a comfortable one. Bumps and bruises and prekindergarten anxiety occur, but the Creeds are adjusting well to Ludlow. Louis is settling in at his infirmary and hanging with the Crandalls. Rachel and Norma have hit it off. Gage is sleeping again.

But beneath that everyday life, the monster lurks. It’s the oldest monster of all, the monster with many masks, invisible in itself, noticeable only in its effects. You glimpse the monster whenever you look at a clock or notice the sun’s going down. You know its name. Let’s say it together, with feeling:

Time, you monster, we all know where you’re taking us in the end. We just don’t continually acknowledge it. That, as Louis thinks, would land you “in a small room writing letters home with Crayolas.”

Chapter Seven’s big event is Ellie’s kindergarten debut. She’s only five, but she knows what’s up. Approaching the school bus, she “cast a strange, vulnerable glance back over her shoulder, as if there might not yet be time to abort this inevitable process.” What Ellie sees in their faces “convinced her that the time was gone, and everything which would follow this day was simply inevitable.” In one sentence, King twice invokes two monstrous concepts: Time and Inevitability. Ellie’s courageous to board the bus, whose doors close behind her “with a gasp of dragon’s breath.” Rachel cries. Louis “damn near” does. Only Gage is happy; for once, he has his parents to himself.

Ellie returns with a cry of joyous defiance: “We sang ‘Old MacDonald’! Same one as in the Carstairs Street School!” Take that, Time. Some things do remain the same.

Louis and Rachel can relax now, right? Yet Louis feels “a moment of terrible panic” and thinks “We’re really going to get old…No one’s going to make an exception for us. [Ellie’s] on her way…and so are we.” Shortly afterwards, a “premonition of horror and darkness” strikes him as he carries Gage upstairs. He almost sees a ghost brush by him, though he believes only in “psychological cold pockets.”

The ghost is another of Time’s masks, as is the “cold pocket” that plunges Louis into remembering his uncle’s coffin showroom.

It’s a glimpse of Time’s ultimate mask, and the next chapters force Louis into more prolonged contemplations of Death. Jud takes the Creeds to the pet cemetery, a circle of mementos mori bordering the wilderness they hadn’t realized lay so close to their house. The hike takes them first to a hilltop view of the Penobscot River Valley, in all its late summer mellowness. The River is arguably Time’s most cheering mask. It springs to life upland, is swelled by tributaries on its descent, then empties into the sea, which is Eternity. Don’t like the Eternity mask? The River is ever reborn through oceanic evaporation and rain, thus proclaiming that Death isn’t the end.

The pet cemetery, with its naive gravestones, is less reassuring, though you could see it as a testimony to enduring love. Ellie’s taken by the place’s novelty. Louis initially finds it amusing. Rachel’s never fooled. She’s hypersensitive to Death, having confronted it too early in her sister’s torturous passing.

Louis’s amusement wanes when he sees what lies beneath a marker he wrests out of the hungry earth. He’s further creeped out by the too-convenient blowdown-barrier to what lies beyond the cemetery. Back home, Ellie digests Pet Sematary’s lesson. Death will come even for Church, as it came for those other cats. She’s not reasoned out of her sense of injustice by Louis’s metabolic time-clocks. They’re too impersonal – she needs a Somebody Responsible to howl at. Reason failing, Louis can only hold her while she cries, and trust that her tears will be the “necessary first step” to accepting mortality.

Much Ellie’s elder, Rachel hasn’t achieved even an uneasy peace with Death. Unable to bridge this gap in their mindsets, Louis lapses into a condescension he spared Ellie. He and Rachel won’t be hugging it out for a while.

Jud and Norma, people from a different time in Time, give Louis perspective. Judd offers this metaphor: Death is a visitor frequent enough to stroll uninvited into your house, where it might sit down for a civil supper or bite your ass. Remembering Jud’s “terrible certainty,” Louis hears the old man’s voice merge with his own mother’s, as she’d sounded when breaking the news of his cousin Ruthie’s death. Ellie and Rachel aren’t the only ones who’ve ever screamed unreasoning defiance at Time’s Death-mask. Because Louis loved Ruthie, she couldn’t be dead! To which his mother replied, with the same terrible certainty as Jud, that Ruthie was gone.

Dead is dead, adult Louis thinks. What else do you need? His answer suits his profession: You need to take action while life permits, even if it means condemning Church to prophylactic snipping. Ironically, the bulletin board where he posts his surrender note boasts Rachel’s no doubt humorously intended credo: THINGS TO PUT OFF AS LONG AS POSSIBLE.

As if old monster Time would submit to putting things off a millisecond longer than It dictated.

Ruthanna’s Commentary

My kids’ first encounter with death was a dearly loved friend-of-the-family dog. It wasn’t their last. One of the downsides of a big group household, rarely discussed in platitudes about it taking a village, is that the large number of beloved pets and grandparents and elders leads inevitably to regular mourning of pets and grandparents and elders. It never gets okay – but you do get practice. Rituals and candles and gatherings, honest talk about what death means and what we get to hold onto, gravesites to visit and heirlooms to use daily. It makes an impossibly hard thing not so much easier as doable.

Mainstream American culture is very bad at death. We prefer to keep it delicately out of sight, to deny it as long as we can. And this preference was much worse in the 80s. Nowadays if you want to read a book about the realities of mourning and burial, or hire a death doula, or find a meet-up to talk about mortality, those resources exist. But Rachel speaks for the (somewhat) exaggerated mainstream of her culture. Her trauma from her sister’s death – it sounds like not only her first but her only major experience with death – makes sense of her dramatic reaction. And Louis’s experience as a doctor fully justifies his greater willingness to admit that death is inevitable, better to think about and prepare for in advance.

I really wish I trusted King not to turn this into a gender thing, with Louis the rational man and Rachel the emotional woman. And Ellie, for all he recognizes her reaction as a reasonable first encounter with an unreasonable concept, “almost menopausal.” Where is he even getting that? Rachel is definitely not menopausal, and speaking of things people didn’t discuss with their doctors in the 80s. And then of course the contrast is enhanced by Louis overcoming his own prejudices about spaying cats.

The Sematary is clearly the center of how kids in this town learn to handle death. It’s where they practice mourning, and learn the solemnity and respect that death and the dead deserve. Children need these things: need responsibility and their share of mystery and knowledge, as a compensatory map to living in a world where living stops. Deny them that, and you get, well, Rachel.

Why did Rachel agree to go to the Sematary in the first place? In fact, she insisted on it. I can’t tell whether she was hoping it would somehow be okay, or whether she wanted to see it in person so she had standing to object. Or maybe it was okay until she heard Ellie crying, and broke open her own carefully-built walls of denial.

This is not, of course, a mimetic literary novel about coming to terms with death, failing to come to terms with death, or how mortality interacts with the breakdown of American marriage. (We were also particularly freaking out about divorce in the 80s, because no-fault divorce had only recently become widely legal.) This is a novel in which we’re going to learn what’s worse than death being an absolute end, and why you shouldn’t build your solemn ritual ground on top of someone else’s solemn ritual ground that you stole.

The foreshadowing gets stronger in these chapters, whispering “boo” from the brush on either side of the carefully mown path. There’s the too-convenient blowdown at the edge of the Sematary, which would not seem too-convenient if not highlighted as such. There are two separate nightmare images of the dead coming back, shambling gory corpses that refuse to lie down. There’s Ellie’s furious refusal of theodicy. And there’s Jud and Norma’s long litany of all the different ways animals can die: the cars and the fights and the illnesses, not to mention the wars and pandemics that take humans into other burial grounds. The generational differences in death’s familiarity, how often it shows up at your house and how often it bites your ass.

One of my favorite mourning poems is Edna Saint Vincent Millay’s Dirge Without Music: “I know, but I do not approve. And I am not resigned.” I have a feeling we’re going to find out the failure modes of all three of those attitudes in the coming chapters.


Next week, join us for another story about the dangers of not letting go: Nnedi Okorafor’s “Dark Home.” You can find it in Jordan Peele’s Out There Screaming collection. icon-paragraph-end



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