Terry Heller Writing Projects
Terry Heller Home Page

Love and Death in Stephen King's Pet Sematary

Terry Heller 
Department of English 
Coe College 

Introduction

This essay was commissioned and written in 1992 for a collection on Pet Sematary that was scheduled to join the Starmont Press series of collections on Stephen King's horror novels. The closing of Starmont Press after the death of its owner shifted the contract for this collection to Borgo Press and a new, but delayed production schedule. Then in 2000, Borgo Press went out of business, leaving the book without a home and without another likely publisher, after 8 years of valiant work, including final editing, by the collection's editor, Douglas Keesey of California Polytechnic State University. 

     At that point, I decided that I lacked the time to review the research and revise this essay for submission to journals, even though I believe it offers an interesting and provocative reading of Pet Sematary. Therefore, the essay appears here, where I hope readers who are interested in one of King's more intriguing novels will find it and enjoy it. 

Copyright 1992-2001 by Terry Heller 
You have permission to download and print this for personal use. 
   I would appreciate being informed if you plan to print multiple copies for teaching purposes. 
   You must obtain permission for any commercial use of this writing. 
Contact:  theller at coe dot edu.


Love and Death in Stephen King's Pet Sematary

"So the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other's shoulder-blades, and be content." 

Ishmael in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (97).


      "But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can't stand it. I been there before" (Twain 362). With these words, Huckleberry Finn abandons the society that promises him family love if he is willing to pay a price in personal freedom and integrity. He will flee into Indian Territory, crossing the border between the domestic and the wild. Leslie Fiedler argues that this move is archetypal in American literature. Ever since Irving's "Rip Van Winkle," "the typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat -- anywhere to avoid `civilization,' which is to say, the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage, and responsibility" (Fiedler 26). Looking at Stephen King's Pet Sematary (1983) from within this context suggests an interpretation that seems to reveal a good deal about how that novel may work as a gothic tale, for in American gothic fiction, the male's escape from the domestic is often into a nightmare such as that typified by the night journey of Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown. 

     Burton Hatlen has argued persuasively that when supernatural evil appears in King's novels, it usually functions as a visible manifestation of personal and social forces that otherwise tend to remain hidden (Hatlen, see especially 83). In Pet Sematary, the Wendigo may be seen as a supernatural manifestation of Dr. Louis Creed's desire to escape responsibility for holding his family together. When the dying student, Pascow, warns Louis not to go into the Indian Territory of the Micmac Burial Ground, he emphasizes that the price of crossing the border will be the loss of all that Louis loves. The warning presupposes the temptation, the secret desire that Louis does not know he has felt already. At the root of this desire is the hope for a personal exemption from mortality. Louis entertains a wish to escape death throughout the novel, resisting it before Gage's death and giving in to it afterwards. Once he turns himself over to the Wendigo in the attempt to bring Gage back to life, Louis works for the destruction of his family, though without conscious understanding of what he is doing. And one of the things that makes this novel so horrifying is that, unconsciously, Louis has wanted this destruction all along. 

     I need to be very clear at the outset that I do not believe Louis's true desire was to destroy his family; I agree with King's statement that in this novel he created a most sympathetic group of characters (Bare Bones 100). Rather, my argument will suggest that Louis, like most people, contains conflicting desires. Consciously, he loves and wants to preserve his family, but unconsciously he rebels against their dependence upon him, especially against the feeling that their needs restrain him from realizing something essential in himself. And this unconscious rebellion is, at its deeper levels, connected directly with his fear of death. In Love and Will, Rollo May argues that human mortality is at the root of our ability to love, and he quotes Abraham Maslow to that effect: "Death, and its ever present possibility makes love, passionate love, more possible. I wonder if we could love passionately, if ecstasy would be possible at all, if we knew we'd never die" (May 98). In Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, the young protagonist, George Willard, when he becomes aware of his own mortality, finds that he wishes to draw near to other people at a spiritual level (Anderson 235, 240-1). Louis Creed's experience demonstrates the opposing movement: to achieve immortality one may have to surrender the power of loving. 

     In this essay, I will develop a reading of Pet Sematary that shows how we can make sense of the novel as a story of the escape and objectification of Louis's repressed desire for exemption from death. I will develop this interpretation by focusing on the Wendigo, showing how it objectifies Louis's repressed desires, what those desires are, and how they are revealed in the novel. It will be helpful to examine how the Wendigo, the novel's principal monster, appears and functions before we look into Louis's repressed desires. 

     The Wendigo appears in two quite different realms in Pet Sematary. Louis first meets it in the dream land beyond the deadfall, where its forms are somewhat vague and mythical. He later meets it in the ordinary world, where it inhabits the body of his dead two-year-old son, Gage. The dream land occurs in a physical setting as well as in Louis's dreams. It is the realm of the Indian Woods, where the Micmac Burial Ground is. King sets up this wilderness carefully. It is said to be haunted, to evade ownership, to be a place where one can easily get lost, to have vague, perhaps non-existent boundaries. Pascow tells Louis to remain on the pastoral side, where the scenery is beautiful, family is unified, and even children learn to accept death as final (87). When Louis sees the Wendigo in the wilderness and again later in a nightmare, it is a grotesque, laughing god, a face with up-tilted, yellowish-gray, gleaming eyes, mouth drawn down in a rictus, lower lip turned out, blackish-brown, worn down teeth, ram's horns for ears, black pulsing veins in the lips, flared nostrils expelling white vapors, a long, pointed, dirty-yellow, scaled and peeling tongue, with a white worm underneath it (362, 390). This realm, then, is a physically existing dream land, like Goodman Brown's forest, where the dark man waits to welcome erring humans into his fellowship. And like Hawthorne's forest, the Indian Woods exists at two levels, as an actual place and as the realm of nightmares, where humanity's darker fears take physical form and from which they threaten to escape if encouraged. 

     Within the world of the novel, the Wendigo is physically confined to the wilderness unless someone buries a dead being, especially a human being, at the Micmac Burial Ground. Then, the Wendigo may send a physical manifestation of itself into the outer world by inhabiting the body of the dead one. If the dead one is human, the Wendigo's power in the ordinary world is increased. What is this Wendigo? What rules apply to it? What does it want, especially of Louis Creed? 
 
 

     "You saved Norma's life, and I wanted to do something for you, and that place turned my good wish to its own evil purpose. It has a power . . . and I think that power goes through phases, same as the moon. It's been full of power before, and I'm ascared it's coming around to full again. I'm ascared it used me to get at you through your son" (275). This is Jud Crandall's theory about the power centered in the Micmac Burial Ground. Jud is trying at this point to persuade Louis not to attempt the resurrection of Gage. Jud believes that those who come back are not the same as those who are buried, that in fact the revenants are demons. The story Jud tells about the burial and return during World War II of Tim Baterman is intended to illustrate this point. 

     Jud's theory and demonstration provide a clear and direct explanation of the Wendigo's purposes. Jud believes that at some point in Micmac history, this burial ground was abandoned, apparently because its sacredness was reversed as a result of burying victims of cannibalism there (156-7). Jud's experience with the revenant Tim Baterman suggests that the Wendigo wants human bodies to be buried in the unholy burial ground. The one time this has happened in Jud's experience, a demon was loosed temporarily on the community. This demon did little physical harm, though it drove Baterman's father to madness and suicide. The evil that Jud remembers most vividly was that the demon revealed what it knew, the bad things about the people it met, information that destroyed or threatened to destroy trust and love between husband and wife, parent and child (271-2). 

     The Wendigo seems to be a personification of evil, and its purpose, like evil in numerous stories from Shakespeare to William Blatty, is to undermine some essential aspect of the faith that makes life meaningful and preserves people from despair. Though the Wendigo is confined to the Indian Woods, except when it can inhabit a dead body, its influence seems nevertheless to extend beyond that area. At various points in the story, that power is felt to draw Jud and Louis to bury Church, to influence the truck driver who kills Louis's son, to help Louis send his wife, Rachel, and their daughter, Ellie, to Chicago so they cannot interfere with his plans to resurrect Gage, to prevent Jud from interfering with this plan, and finally to draw Rachel back to her death at the hands of the demon/Gage.
      Once one sees what may be the extent of the Wendigo's power over distance and its knowledge of persons and events, one wonders about how Louis becomes involved with it. At what point does he come under its influence? Does it nurture him from his birth, laying out a fate for him that must lead to his final encounter with the demon/Rachel? Or does it become interested in him only when he arrives in Ludlow? Why does it not continuously draw likely victims to it and use them in the way it arranges the fate of Louis Creed? These questions imply that we might consider the Wendigo not as the cause of Louis's fate, but as the agent of his repressed wishes. The Wendigo becomes active because Louis comes to it; its power depends upon human agents coming to it with purposes of their own, just as Jud did. And when they do, it makes real the secret purposes lurking beneath the consciously acknowledged ones. When Jud says that the Wendigo turns his good wish to its own evil purposes, he may mean that it gives Jud's own evil wishes power over his good wishes. 

     This view of the Wendigo is consistent with what may be its best known earlier appearance in Algernon Blackwood's story. There, the Wendigo is "the Call of the Wild personified, which some natures hear to their own destruction" (Blackwood 196), one of the "savage and formidable Potencies lurking behind the souls of men, not evil perhaps in themselves, yet instinctively hostile to humanity as it exists" (Blackwood 205). In Blackwood, the Wendigo is a spirit of wildness that allows the supernatural satisfaction of the uncivilized side of masculine desire. What evidence is there of uncivilized yearnings in Louis? 

     Louis's supernatural experiences begin the day he consents to the castration of Church, the family cat. When the subject of castration first comes up, Louis is shown to be unsure why he canceled Church's first appointment in Chicago: "It wasn't anything as simple or as stupid as equating his masculinity with that of his daughter's tom, nor even his resentment at the idea that Church would have to be castrated so the fat housewife next door wouldn't need to be troubled with twisting down the lids of her plastic garbage cans--those things had been part of it, but most of it had been a vague but strong feeling that it would destroy something in Church that he himself valued--that it would put out the go-to-hell look in the cat's green eyes" (29). The spirit of wildness would be gone, and Church would lose that part of himself that is most vulnerable to the call of the Wendigo in Blackwood's tale, the wanderlust (Blackwood 196). In this instance, the masculine cat's freedom to roam is a threat to a feminine sense of order. It is interesting that in Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, a book King alludes to more than once in Pet Sematary (e.g. 76, 82), Max, the main character, wears a cat suit on his journey away from a restraining mother and into the land of the wild things, some of whom look a little like the Wendigo. After the move to Maine, Church's freedom becomes a threat to Rachel and Ellie's desire for continuing stability in their family, for they begin to fear that Church will wander onto the dangerous road and be killed. Immediately after first discussing this threat with Jud and remembering his earlier feelings about the prospect of castration, Louis returns to his sleeping family on their first night in their new home and thinks interesting thoughts. Seeing his family asleep, he goes to Gage in particular, where his heart fills "with a love for the boy so strong that it seemed almost dangerous," and then, in his sleep, he dreams of himself and Gage--without the women--in Disney World (31). When he later announces his willingness to let Church be castrated, he finds he has put his finger on what Rachel really wants, and there is at least a hint of resentment in his recognition that their fairly serious fight over what he should tell Ellie about death seems to have resolved itself by settling their disagreement about whether Church should be castrated (65-6). 

     Further meanings emerge from this issue after Church is castrated, particularly when we compare Louis's observations of Church after the operation with his earlier reactions upon visiting the deadfall on the day after Pascow's dream warning not to pass beyond it--which is also Church's "last day as a card-carrying tomcat and ladykiller" (99). When Louis visits the deadfall he experiences multiple, internal voices. The voices of his family and of Pascow require him to behave responsibly by restraining his wanderlust; in the tone of a slave master or foreman, this voice orders him not to climb the deadfall. Another voice seems to acquiesce with "Okay, boss" (99-100). But a silent agent, his resisting unconscious, sends him right up the deadfall, just far enough so he can glimpse a path beyond it. It is clear that he wants to exercise his masculine freedom to cross borders and leave civilization behind, and it should be clear that something in him believes there is a paradise of bachelors, rather like his vision of Disney World, that he might reach by this route. When Church returns home from his surgery, Ellie's welcome and her exclusive attention--which includes a severe rebuke to Gage for trying to touch the cat--may remind us of Rachel's sexual reward to Louis for agreeing to allow the castration (101). And Louis is saddened, not only by the change in Church, but by the fact that the women seem to notice no change at all (101-2). To them, Church is just as he is supposed to be, but to Louis it is clear that Church no longer wants to go outside or to cross the road. This is what Louis sees his women demanding of him, that he not cross the deadfall, that he not go outside the boundaries they have set for him. Though the months preceding Gage's death include the best sexual relations of the Creed's marriage, there is something in Louis that chafes at this, that does not like the fact that the women have had their way at the expense of something vital in himself and in Church. 

     This look at Louis's response to Church's castration makes fairly clear his repressed anger toward Ellie and Rachel as well as its main cause in his sense of being hampered, restrained, unmanned by their demands for domestic stability. Louis's resentment may well be the cause of Church's death; if we believe that the Wendigo expresses Louis's unconscious will, then the cat's wandering may be the Wendigo's carrying out of Louis's wishes to remove a reflection of the self he resists becoming, to punish Ellie for hurting Gage, and to punish both Ellie and Rachel for having their ways with him. That he feels hostility toward Ellie and Rachel becomes especially obvious on the morning after he and Jud bury Church. On that morning, some of Louis's restrained desires break loose (142-3). The women are away in Chicago. Louis believes Church is dead and buried, having no clear notion as yet that the cat will come back. He declines to return Rachel's phone call, unwilling to deal with her mother, with her, and with Ellie. He imagines hurting them with the news of Church's death. He enjoys making an elaborate meatloaf sandwich and thinking about how they would react to his smelling like a pig and eating like a pig were they there. In violation of Rachel's wishes, he drinks his milk directly from the carton, and then goes to bed "without even washing his teeth" (143). Kept from the women, this childish behavior cannot offend them, yet he enjoys it precisely because it would offend them if they knew. Jud also represses anger toward his wife, a resentment that is mirrored in the Creed marriage. 

     We get a glimpse of the dark side of Jud when his wife, Norma, has her heart attack on Halloween. Jud is asking Louis to examine her because she has been refusing, out of fear, to see a doctor about her chest pains. He says, "If we can catch her one night, gang up on her, I think--" (106). Here Jud breaks off, and something secret and never spoken passes between the men. Jud was talking about forcing her to be examined, but something else entered his mind. Louis is never able to account for this: "All he could remember for sure was that curiosity changed swiftly to a feeling that somewhere something had gone badly wrong" (106). They are looking at something true in each other's eyes when Norma has the attack. This "something" remains unexplained until two incidents come together at the end of the story. One incident is Jud's confession--as part of the tale of Tim Baterman--that he was sexually unfaithful to Norma. This is paired with the revelation, probably true, by demon/Gage just before he kills Jud that Norma was joyously and mockingly unfaithful to Jud with all of his friends (381). Taken together, these events suggest that Jud has unconsciously suspected Norma's behavior, that his image of ganging up on her to examine her recalls this suspicion, and that it may lead directly to Norma's heart attack, assisted by the Wendigo. The attack, in turn, allows Louis to save her, which allows Jud to be grateful enough to feel good about leading him to resurrect Church. This gratitude, in turn, is revealed to have a dark side, since bringing back Church serves Louis in his own self-destruction and, therefore, is the dark side of what Jud would want for the "son" who saved his unfaithful wife when Jud wanted her dead. This spiralling of motivations points toward the terrifying inevitability of the Wendigo's enacting dark wishes. Consciously, Norma and Jud have kept their infidelities and suspicions from each other and, thereby, have preserved a happy marriage, but when the power of the Wendigo is loosed, it magnifies and realizes repressed desires. 

     These events are mirrored almost precisely in Louis's marriage. He too has been sexually unfaithful to Rachel, in an incident that he represses (103). And he has good reason to believe Rachel has had other lovers, though probably before their marriage, because she claims to have learned at Girl Scouts the masturbation technique she shows him in the bathtub the evening after his agreement to castrate Church (81). Louis feels resentment of Rachel and Ellie on several grounds, but his core problem has to do with mortality, as is shown in his elaboration of the Disney World fantasy. 

     When Louis and his family first arrive at Ludlow, they are under considerable stress, having driven from Chicago to Maine--a new home and new job--with the cat, five-year-old Ellie, and not quite two-year-old Gage in their crowded station wagon. As Louis feels this stress, he has a momentary vision of escape (16). He envisions abandoning his family in a restaurant, while he flees to Orlando to become a medic at Disney World. In his vision, Disney World is a cartoon land where characters
 Mickey Mouse are immortal. This vision returns repeatedly in the novel, especially when Louis is under stress with his family, and it achieves its fullest realization during the early morning hours after he has planted the dead Gage in the Micmac Burial Ground (374-6). In the conscious vision preceding sleep, he and the restored Gage have run away, and they work together as medics at Disney World. They go on forever staving off temporarily the deaths of others, and remain immune themselves, having faced down in New England their fantasy symbol of death, "Oz the Gweat and Tewwible." Their Oz is, instead, "that gentle faker from Nebraska." Rachel and Ellie are pointedly not in this vision. The dark side of his paradise comes into Louis's consciousness when he falls asleep: "His dreams of Disney World had seemed to blend naturally and with a deadly ease into dreams of that thing. He dreamed it had touched him, spoiling all good dreams forever, rotting all good intentions. It was the Wendigo, and it had turned him into not just a cannibal but the father of cannibals" (390). In his dream, he is gathered at the burial ground with all those he knows who have been connected with the cemetery, and all are touched there by the Wendigo and transformed into their dark opposite selves. 

     Both Jud and Louis repress hostility toward their women that sometimes comes to the surface. The Wendigo, too, is often particularly offensive to women; see for example, Jud's mother's reaction to the resurrected Spot (162) and Norma's reaction to the returned Tim Baterman (268). Noticing this pattern also helps to make sense of Jud's oracular pronouncement about the Micmac Burial Ground after the burial of Church. Jud, under the influence of the Wendigo, falsely counsels Louis not to ask questions about what they have done, to "accept what's done, Louis, and follow your heart" (141). In the process he says, "And the things that are in a man's heart--it don't do him much good to talk about those things, does it? . . . No, . . . It don't. . . . They are secret things. Women are supposed to be the ones good at keeping secrets, and I guess they do keep a few, but any woman who knows anything at all would tell you she's never really seen into a man's heart. The soil of a man's heart is stonier, Louis--like the soil up there in the old Micmac burying ground. Bedrock's close. A man grows what he can . . . and he tends it" (141). From an ordinary point of view, these statements make little sense. There are secret things in a man's heart that he ought to follow without questioning? He especially should not talk about these things with women? A man's heart is like the Micmac Burial Ground, but a woman's heart is different? It is hard to make sense of these ideas except as advice to let repressed desires grow despite the opposition of women and without rational consideration of meanings and consequences, to preserve at any cost the masculine wish to transgress boundaries. And it is hard to avoid reading this as advice to tend the resentments that float up as loosened stones from the bedrock of hard and cold, repressed desires. Such advice undercuts the concluding statement to accept what's done and follow one's heart. One can accept death and move on; most would consider this sane. Or one can accept what Louis does not yet know he is accepting, the possibility of giving immortality to his repressed resentments by turning them loose on the world, especially his family, in the form of demon revenants. Which heart is he to follow? Couched clearly in terms that affirm masculine assertion, Jud's mediation of the Wendigo's "will" recommends letting the dark heart of repressed desire loose. Louis carries this message home, acts it out in the absence of his family, and goes to bed without even washing his teeth. 

     We can see in Louis's heart, then, repressed desires to harm Church (after his castration), Rachel, and Ellie, desires that the Wendigo helps to enact. But does Louis also harbor secret aggression toward Gage and Jud, the remaining two main victims of the Wendigo? 

     In Louis's Disney World fantasy, Gage is always a child. The dream takes place in a stopped time, where the son never grows up. This fantasy is opposed, therefore, to his dream of Gage's perfect life, in which the boy grows into an Olympic champion--a dream filled with hostility toward Rachel and her family (275-78). Why Louis secretly does not want Gage to grow up is made fairly obvious in the story. Children grow up to replace their parents. Norma says that aging and death are something one must accept (33), but there is something in Louis, and also in Rachel, and Ellie, that resists accepting. When Ellie returns excited from her first day at kindergarten, Louis sees sadness in Rachel's eyes, and he feels a moment of panic: "We're really going to get old, he thought. It's really true. No one's going to make an exception for us" (35). Only moments later as he carries the sleeping Gage to bed, he feels his first terror in the novel: "such a premonition of horror and darkness struck him that he stopped--stopped cold. . . . He held the baby tighter, almost clutching him, and Gage stirred uncomfortably" (35). At Norma's funeral, Louis reflects with some bitterness on how the old are replaced and forgotten: "God save the past, Louis thought and shivered for no good reason other than that the day would come when he would be every bit [as?] unfamiliar to his own blood--if Ellie or Gage produced kids and he lived to see them" (215). He tells Ellie that one reason old people die is to make room for the young, and Ellie responds, "I'm never going to get married or do sex and have babies! Then maybe it'll never happen to me! It's awful! It's m-m-mean!" (215). It is interesting that the child who so completely expresses Louis's secret longing survives to the end of the novel. 

     Whether Louis represses hostility toward Jud that may lead to his death seems more difficult to establish. It is suggestive that demon/Gage passes up an easy opportunity to kill Louis in his sleep, going instead to kill Jud and await Rachel, but there is much other interesting though indirect evidence to suggest that part of Louis wants Jud dead. "Louis Creed, who had lost his father at three and who had never known a grandfather, never expected to find a father as he entered his middle age, but that was exactly what happened" (15). This is how the novel opens. Because Louis sees Jud as his father, we may infer that he would harbor toward Jud the same repressed feelings he imagines Gage harbors toward his father, a desire to replace him. After Gage's death, when Jud tries to persuade Louis against resurrecting the boy, Jud confesses his fear that by taking Louis to the cemetery with Church, he may have helped cause Gage's death (275). Because Louis both wanted and did not want Gage's death, he has a cause for anger against Jud insofar as he believes Jud's fear justified. And Jud's story of the resurrection of Tim Baterman shows the revenant son bringing about the death of his father. This sort of evidence reveals that the theme of sons' resentment toward their fathers is present but muted in the story. Why it should be muted is suggested by Joseph Reino in his discussions of the father/son motif in King's early novels. King's father abandoned the family when King was two, and Reino connects this biographical event with motifs in King's fiction, such as the vanished father and the overcurious child (Reino 1-8). Louis lost his father at three, and Gage dies when he is two, repeating this separation from two points of view. It is reasonable to assume that the feelings that arise from King's early loss of his father would not spill easily and directly into his novels, and so it may not be surprising that the feelings of the abandoned son are not directly present in the book. However, the book is replete with the themes of abandonment and of resentment toward father figures outside the relationship between Jud and Louis. 

     Consider for example Irwin Goldman's abandonment of his daughter, Rachel, at the deathbed of the older daughter, Zelda. Remember how Ellie comes apart as her father ignores the warnings of her dreams and then sends her away. And, especially, consider Louis's relationship with his father-in-law. Irwin plays almost too obviously the Freudian role of master of the primal horde, opposing Louis's marrying Rachel, trying to buy him off, making him feel guilty about their premarital sex, and later blaming him for Gage's death and Rachel's suffering, viciously beating Louis, and toppling Gage's coffin at the viewing. In both of the major crises in their relationship, Irwin touches real causes for guilt that Louis feels--forbidden sex with Rachel and hostility toward Rachel and Gage--while at the same time making outrageous suggestions that justify converting Louis's guilt to anger toward Irwin. When Irwin seems about to transform himself from the evil father into a good father, the Wendigo in Louis must struggle to maintain the hatred that helps keep him determined to resurrect Gage. It appears that were Louis able to reconcile with his father-in-law, he might successfully move toward rejoining those of his friends and family from whom he has cut himself off and, thereby, resist the urge to bring Gage back (297-99). 

     Jud and Irwin, then, are opposed father figures in Louis's mind--the good father and the evil father. Louis's compulsion to resurrect Gage seems to entail resisting the good father and preserving the evil father, or so it works out when Irwin tries to become a good father. There is, then, a kind of logic to the death of Jud, the good father figure. This logic is supported by other events as well. In his dreams on the night after re-burying Gage, Louis deals in two ways with the divided father. In the Disney World fantasy, Oz the Great and Terrible is the evil father, associated with the mystery of eternal death (344), that Louis and Gage keep at bay, having overcome him, so that for them, Oz is only the ordinary showman of Frank Baum's novel (374-76). In the nightmare that follows, Louis becomes the evil father, "not just a cannibal but the father of cannibals" (390). Like Ligeia, in Edgar Allan Poe's story, by overcoming death, Louis becomes death from a mortal point of view (Heller 119-20). In this nightmare, Jud and several other men appear with the animals and people they have reburied, and all are equated with Louis, cannibals and fathers of cannibals. Jud is among them, thus transformed from good to evil father. Interestingly, Rachel is the only woman in this nightmare. Her appearance is not only prophetic of her death, which may occur even as Louis dreams it, but it also indicates how completely Louis has replaced Irwin, for the dream also shows that Louis will become his wife's father in her second birth. Like Stoker's Dracula, Louis dreams himself the immortal father of a predator horde, and also like Dracula, Louis has found a means of reproduction that does not require women and that seems to promise an end to death, monstrous and false though this proves to be. 

     Louis cannot have what he "really" wants, which might be described as the fantasy of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. In that fantasy, the boy can freely cross impossible borders to the land of monsters, romp with them, and return home to find his supper ready for him. Were Louis's consciously chosen and repressed desires reconcilable, then such a male paradise might be possible. He might be able to live forever, indulge his wanderlust to enjoy freedom from restraints, and still maintain a loving, secure family. In his reality, these desires do not mesh, and he must restrain some of them. The Wendigo, in effect, reverses these restraints, revealing that the freedom of rejecting civilization, adulthood, and mortality is an empty and barren terror, a waste land not unlike T. S. Eliot's, to which the book alludes directly in the description and function of the Micmac Burial Ground and indirectly in several paraphrases and echoes of Eliot's poetry (e.g. 372). In Louis's world, one overcomes Death, the evil father, by becoming the evil father, a father of cannibals. 

     Louis's repressed hostilities, when they become manifest, reveal a resentment toward parents, children, and women, which might be read as a rejection of human relationships and of physical existence itself. At the center of these hatreds is a resistance to boundaries and limits, especially the confines of human mortality. Louis resents Rachel because she restrains his wanderlust. Behind this is the deeper outrage at the human situation, expressed by Ellie when she protests against the old dying to make way for the young. This is vexation at mortality itself, a state for which elements of the Judeo-Christian tradition try to hold women responsible. Gail Griffin finds a similar anger in Stoker's Dracula. She says that male dominated cultures tend to project the fear of the inner animal onto women; "woman inspires man with fear of his own carnal contingence which he projects upon her" (Griffin 143). The repressed desire that is turned loose in this novel may be characterized as a masculine fear of the mortal, physical body, of which women--with their multiple associations with the production and early care of that body--have become symbols. And associated with women in this regard are sexuality and fathers, father-gods who, through sexual union with mortal women, beget mortal sons and then abandon their sons to death. Huck Finn and Captain Ahab and Louis Creed hate their absent fathers and flee their would-be mothers and wives, to go where the wild things are, to escape domestication and death. Each in his own way, these men ignore Ishmael's realistic advice to accept the universal thump and to comfort each other in this brief life with a loving hand upon the shoulder. 

     I would like close this essay by reflecting upon some of the oddities of this novel and its history. Among the oddities are its structure, its ending, and a series of what appear to be interesting editorial errors. These oddities may connect with King's professed reluctance to publish Pet Sematary

     In structure, the novel seems to be divided into two roughly equal and distinct parts. The first is an almost pastoral narrative of a reasonably happy family settling into their new home in Maine. The second part--beginning with Gage's death--fits almost precisely the pattern of the overreacher plot so ably described by Noël Carroll in The Philosophy of Horror. This plot includes the preparation for an experiment (scientific or magical) that usually includes a justification for it, followed by the performance of the experiment, the onset of the monster it produces, and then one or more confrontations between the monster and opposing forces until the conflict has been resolved in some way (118-120). The overreacher plot is common to a large number of horror stories, but the long pastoral prologue may seem strange, even after one sees that part of what King does with this section is to set up the family relations and the repressed opposition to these relations that the Wendigo will act out. 

     Among possible editorial errors, one of the most interesting is King's shifting of the furniture of the Creed bedroom. Sometimes they sleep in a double bed (179), and sometimes they sleep in two singles (31, 89). Another involves how Norma Crandall dies. First, it is a cerebral accident (194). Later, Louis remembers it as a heart attack (373). When Jud tells Louis that the Micmac Burial Ground forced him to take Louis there, he says, "mostly you do it because you want to. Or because you have to" (168), but later, Louis remembers him to have said, "but mostly you do it because once you've been up there, it's your place, and you belong to it" (178). Any of these may be editorial errors, or they may be subtle moves of various kinds. For example, Louis's memory lapses may reflect the shift in his consciousness as he gives way to his repressed desires. Taken together, though, they at least suggest unresolved ambivalences in King himself, nodes of difficulty reflected in the novel's two opposing parts and that appear as well in the history of the book that King has given in interviews and essays. 

     King has made his feelings about Pet Sematary fairly clear. He has implied that he was not able here, as he was able in The Shining (1977), to bring what frightens him under control by writing about it (Bare Bones 15). He has stated his own and his wife's reluctance to publish the novel (Bare Bones 100). In a 1985 interview, he said, "If I had my way about it, I still would not have published Pet Sematary. I don't like it. It's a terrible book--not in terms of the writing, but it just spirals down into darkness. It seems to be saying nothing works and nothing is worth it, and I don't really believe that" (Bare Bones 144-5). Douglas Winter reports King saying that he did not enjoy writing the book and would not have published it except that a contract dispute obliged him to (Winter 131-2). 

     The suggestive apparent editorial lapses, the reluctance to publish, the opinion that the book "spirals down into darkness"--these elements, of course, point toward another anomaly of King's plot. This story does not end when Louis successfully destroys demon/Gage. Driven to madness, Louis takes his dead wife to the Micmac Burial Ground. He is followed to the deadfall by Steve Masterson, his associate at the University of Maine medical clinic, a man who is very much like Louis in background and beliefs. Surely his name is meant to suggest Stephen King, and in interesting ways. Masterson feels drawn to help Louis with his task, but he resists this temptation and then runs screaming out of the world of this novel, never to return. He does not see what is reserved for the reader, the final image of Rachel's dead hand on Louis's shoulder and her final expression of affection for him. This image, on the face of it, seems to be without meaning and, therefore, has led more than one reader to ask why the book ends this way. 

     King's preceding novels, in their originally published versions, usually leave at their ends a sane, reasonably good remnant of the cast, a character or two who can carry on in their saddened worlds, to prepare for the promised next appearance of horrors. But at the end of this story, Louis returns from his rumpus with the wild things to find the monsters occupying his home. This image seems to assert that the horrors of Pet Sematary cannot be set aside; the alternatives are love and death or death alone. When the dead really are gone, and one accepts this, then one goes on, as Norma Crandall says one must with aging; otherwise "you ended up in a small room writing letters home with Crayolas" (33). If we refuse to accept death, whether of loved ones or of the self, if we will not let the dead be dead, then there is only that small, loveless, insane room, where the cold hand falls upon the living shoulder, and the dirt-filled voice says, "Darling." 


Return to Terry Heller Writing Projects
Return to Terry Heller Home Page

Sources Cited and Consulted 

Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. New York: Penguin, 1919, 1976. 

Baum, L. Frank. The Annotated Wizard of Oz, Michael P. Hearn, ed. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1903, 1976. 

Blackwood, Algernon. "The Wendigo," in Best Ghost Stories, E. F. Bleiler, ed. New York: Dover, 1973. 

Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror. New York: Routledge, 1990. 

Fiedler, Leslie A. Love and Death in the American Novel: Revised Edition. New York: Dell, 1966. 

Griffin, Gail. "`Your Girls That You All Love Are Mine': Dracula and the Victorian Male Sexual Imagination" in Dracula: The Vampire and the Critics, Margaret L. Carter, ed. Ann Arbor: UMI Press, 1988. 

Hatlen, Burton. "Good and Evil in Stephen King's The Shining," in The Shining Reader, Anthony Magistrale, ed. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, 1991. 

Heller, Terry. The Delights of Terror. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987. 

King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. New York: Berkeley, 1981. 

King, Stephen. Pet Sematary. New York: NAL, 1983, 1984. 

Magistrale, Tony. The Landscape of Fear: Stephen King's American Gothic. Bowling Green, Ohio: Popular Press, 1988. 

Magistrale, Tony. The Moral Voyages of Stephen King. Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, 1989. 

May, Rollo. Love and Will. New York: Dell, 1969. 

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: Penguin, 1851, 1972. 

Reino, Joseph. Stephen King: The First Decade, Carrie to Pet Sematary. Boston: Twayne, 1988. 

Sendak, Maurice. Where the Wild Things Are. New York: Harper, 1963. 

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic. Richard Howard, trans. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1970, 1975. 

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1885, 1985. 

Underwood, Tim and Miller, Chuck, editors. Bare Bones: Conversations on Terror with Stephen King. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988. 

Winter, Douglas. Stephen King: The Art of Darkness. New York: NAL, 1984.