When I saw the trailer for Pet Sematary (2019), with John Lithgow as Jud Crandall, I felt excited. I’m usually skeptical of remakes, but since I liked the remake of IT (2017) with Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise the clown, I’m kind of hopeful for upcoming horror remakes. And then it occurred to me: I hadn’t read the book. I’d seen the 1989 film more than 20 times – sometimes just playing it in the background at home while I did chores. I really like the movie, but I didn’t know what I was missing until I soaked up the novel.
In case you don’t know, Pet Sematary is a story about the Creed family, who moves to Ludlow, Maine, and into a house beside the town’s pet cemetery (misspelled “Sematary” by local children who made the sign). Strange things occur as Louis Creed discovers what lies beyond the Pet Sematary – breaking his grip on sanity and morality.
I had some traveling ahead of me, and I wanted to make sure I read the book before the remake hit theaters. So the night before I headed off to Austin, Texas, for SXSW, I kicked off the Pet Sematary audiobook on my way. As soon as I began the audiobook, I was hooked. I listened during my drive. When I stopped for gas, I didn’t linger so I could finish the next chapter. After a few hours, when I rolled into Austin, I could already tell there were differences between the novel and the 1989 film. But I turned off the audiobook and began live-music-binging.
On my way back to Houston, traffic was bumper-to-bumper for about 40 minutes on Highway 71. A car had blown up about a mile head, stopping all traffic. I was listening to the audiobook as I drove past the burned up car – an ashy shell without wheels. It happened to coincide with the scene in the novel when we find out that Louis Creed may have purposely chosen a grave sealant that’s easy to break open. It got creepy in the car for a minute. But I couldn’t turn off the book.
The novel left me with all kinds of questions about why certain aspects were left out of the 1989 screenplay. The movie from 1989 is good, but the novel is wicked awesome.
What do I like about this book? More than a few things…
Game Changer: The Preface
At the beginning of the novel, Stephen King writes about how he never intended to publish this book because he was horrified by what he had written (he literally scared himself). How could The Master of Horror scare himself with his own writing?
That’s because Louis Creed and his family are characters inspired by King and his own family, at a time in King’s career when he moved his family to a small town to teach at a college. The house the Kings lived in sat in front of a road, like that of the Creed’s home in the book. One day, while King was outside in the front yard, his little boy took off running toward the road. King managed to catch his son before a truck could hit him. Shaken by the possibility of losing his son, King wrote Pet Sematary – a novel that explores the “what if” of a grieving parent. This context changed the way I interpreted the entire story.
Good Character Development
The novel gives more attention to developing Louis Creed’s character – a doctor who figured working in the university clinic meant minor sprains and venereal disease treatments. He likes the Ramones, drinks beer, makes loves to his wife Rachel, and manages the day-to-day tasks of being a dad. He detests his father-in-law, who disapproves of him. We also learn that Louis regards Jud as a father figure.
The character development is incredibly important for the sake of contrast in this story. Louis and his wife Rachel are depicted as a typical American couple – which makes the story even more frightening – as if this could happen to anyone innocent – to any family. The novel takes us through what happens to an ordinary family who moves to a cursed place, and explores how we perceive death, and how we reject it. When the ones we love die, and we think we’re given the power to resurrect them, “S
One of the scariest characters in the novel is the demon spirit responsible for all this havoc, a demon (or the devil himself) called the wendigo. Through the description of the wendigo, we are given some of the scariest scenes in the book. It’s in the characters’ confrontations with the wendigo, mainly through the resurrected corpses, that shows us how powerful, omnipresent, and sinister this evil really is.
What’s a wendigo?
The wendigo is a demon of Algonquian Native American origin with glowing eyes and an insatiable hunger for human flesh.
In King’s novel, the wendigo cursed lands that were occupied by the Micmac Indians (land that would later become Ludlow, Maine). When the Micmacs figured out the land was cursed, they abandoned it, leaving behind a burial ground. The wendigo cursed the soil, causing anyone buried there to be resurrected into a homicidal, sometimes cannibalistic, version of themselves.
The wendigo has horns of a ram, with a spirit that can speak through the bodies of those who resurrected from the Micmac Indian burial ground. Post-resurrection, the flesh of the undead remains damaged as was at the time of death and during decrepitude.
Side note: Other sources suggest that the wendigo in this novel is the same demon that takes the form of Pennywise in Stephen King’s IT.
The 1989 screenplay written by Stephen King himself almost completely leaves out the wendigo demon. We see a blue light around the patch of twigs that separates the Micmac burial ground from the Pet Sematary, and one glimpse of a rammed headed version of his father-in-law’s face, but not much development or backstory about this demon.
Since I hadn’t read the book first, I didn’t know what I was missing in terms of spook factor and understanding why all the death happens in the first place, ESPECIALLY as it regards the wendigo. I’m really hoping we get some wendigo in the 2019 remake.
More Wendigo: Cool Scene in the Novel Not in the 1989 Film
A scene in the book that shows you a bit more of what the wendigo is capable of, in terms of possession and the overall fear-factor, is the intervention between Bill
This scene takes place in Jud’s memory, including himself as a young man, and three other younger men of Ludlow, as they approach Bill Baterman about his son Timmy. In a nutshell, Timmy was shot and killed in Italy, fighting during World War II. His body was shipped back to his hometown in Ludlow for proper burial. His father, Bill Baterman, grief-stricken, knew about the powers of the Micmac burial ground, and buried his son’s body there.
People in town started calling the police, reporting sightings of Timmy Baterman, staggering around town like a zombie, when he’d been reportedly dead. So, when Jud and the guys go over to the Baterman’s house to tell Bill that his son is totally scary, Timmy comes outside all creepy-like, and tells each one of the young men what their darkest sins and secrets are.
This is one of the creepiest scenes in the book. It also shows us what the wendigo is like when it starts speaking through the dead – shows us how wicked he is, and how easily he can infiltrate men by serving them their own fears.
As Usual – King’s Use of Dialect is Strong
King writes Jud Crandall’s dialogue with a little local slang, and this slang supports his stake in the story. It gives us the impression of his age, and his wisdom – that he’s lived in Ludlow, Maine a long time; he knows the land, has been part of its history, and he’s seen a whole lotta spooky shit go down. He knows what he’s talking about and may be hiding a thing or two. Combined with more memories and dialogue from Jud – Jud is our closest tie to the setting – a spokesperson for place that is cursed by evil, and that which will ultimately destroy the Creed family. Jud says it plainly with, “Sometimes, dead is
Side note: I also really liked the dialect in Stephen King’s novel, Dolores Claiborne.
The dialect in this novel is very well done and purposeful. Jud’s accent is endearing, relatable, and haunting as he explains the rules of this fictional universe – the terms of burying your own at the Micmac burial ground:
“The soil of a man’s heart is stonier, Louis.
A man grows what he can, and he tends it.
‘Cause what you buy, is what you own.
And what you own…
always comes home to you.”
Is it a Good Read? Hell Yes.
I didn’t know what I was missing by not reading the book first before watching the 1989 film. Through the novel, we gain more experiences, thoughts, and feelings of the central characters on their ride to hell and back. By learning more about Louis, Rachel, and Jud’s characters, we become more connected to them. In this connection, we are more inclined to feel scared for or attached to the outcomes of the Creed family and friends. It begins with the flow of ordinary, loving, and mundane family life that then sours as each character experiences the pull of an evil, supernatural curse, followed by deranged behavior played out with provocative scenes.
This novel puts us in touch with grief and introduces us to a force that manipulates its victims through that grief. By writing the book, King explored what it would’ve felt like and what he may have been capable of if his own son had died on that road. The possibilities, charged by gut-wrenching sorrow, turn perverse and terrifying.
The book gives us quality time with a demon and key details about this fictional universe. I look forward to seeing how true to the novel Jeff Buhler’s screenplay is in the 2019 remake.
(Even if you’ve seen the 1989 film multiple times, read the book for the best full-bodied (and terrifying) experience. Or if you haven’t tried an audiobook before, you’ll probably enjoy Pet Sematary narrated by Michael C. Hall on Amazon.)