My rating: 2 of 5 stars
How good or bad a writer is Stephen King? With the collapse of modernist and postwar hierarchies of artistic value that valorized realist fiction and intricate formal structures, American literary culture switched from dismissing King as a trashy genre-monger to canonizing him as a popular classic very suddenly around the beginning of this century—too quick, I think, for a considered judgment of his literary merit to have been made. To make such a judgment for myself, I selected in this Halloween season what is often said to be his scariest novel: Pet Sematary (1983).
It begins when Dr. Louis Creed takes a job managing the infirmary at the University of Maine and moves his family—his wife Rachel, his six-year-old daughter Ellie, his toddler son Gage, and their cat Winston Churchill (Church for short)—from Chicago to a small town called Ludlow. There he meets his elderly neighbors, Jud and Norma Crandall, and Jud, a laconic and authoritative presence, becomes a surrogate father figure for Louis as the younger man approaches middle age and struggles with the demands of work, parenting, and marriage.
When Jud shows the Creeds the titular misspelled cemetery where generations of Ludlow children have buried pets run over by trucks on the highway that passes between the Crandall and Creed residences, it spurs a debate between Louis and his wife—who traumatically lost her sister to spinal meningitis—over how best to prepare their children for the inevitability of death. Death intrudes, too, into Louis’s professional life on his first day at the infirmary, when a mortally injured young man who’s been hit by a car cryptically warns Louis with his dying breath about the burial ground.
Despite this hint of the unreal, for the novel’s first 100 pages or so (of about 400), it is a quiet middle-class domestic drama of the type that, as far as subject matter goes, might have been written by John Irving, John Updike, or Jonathan Franzen. This domestic drama veers into horror when the family pet, Church, is run over on the highway. How will Louis tell his daughter, who loves the cat and who has already become fearful of death after her visit to the Pet Sematary? To spare Louis this grief, Jud brings him to the place behind the Pet Sematary—a MicMac (i.e., Mi’kmaq) burial ground long said by the tribe to be poisoned and afflicted by the Wendigo. Whatever is buried under a cairn in its stony ground will walk again, and Louis duly deposits the dead cat. When Church returns, however, he is different—graceless, predatory, and smelling of the grave.
From here, the novel’s midpoint, its spiral narrative structure—echoed by the spiraled cairns in the burying ground—becomes clear: the plot is like a dream that compulsively rehearses our anxieties in tightening circles of terror. Automotive death has struck first a stranger and then a pet, and now it claims a member of Louis’s family when Gage strays too close to the truck-ridden highway. We have already had a hint that the MicMac burying ground somehow calls people to it and compels them to share its secret, that it is an irresistible temptation passed down the generations. But even if it weren’t, how could Louis resist the lure of somehow recovering his dead child? As Jud paternally tells Louis after they bury Church, in what will become the novel’s refrain,
“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 any 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.” (King’s ellipses)
In other words, a man’s got to do what a man’s go to do. The novel’s second half methodically and meticulously works out the inevitabilities of this plot until it comes to a bloody, murderous, and preposterous climax as the resurrected Gage toddles around slaughtering everyone and swearing like a sailor—or rather like a knock-off of the possessed Regan MacNeil:
“Norma’s dead, and there’ll be no one to mourn you,” Gage said. “What a cheap slut she was. She fucked every one of your friends, Jud. She let them put it up her ass. That’s how she liked it best. She’s burning down in hell, arthritis and all.”
I am glad I read Pet Sematary since—assuming it’s representative of his work as a whole—it dispels several clichés about Stephen King that might impede an honest assessment of his work.
First is the idea that King’s fiction is particularly “lowbrow,” whether we want to deride or praise it on that basis. In the old phrenological brow system, the lowbrow referred to scarcely literate sensationalism for the barely-educated. The novel I just read, on the other hand, is larded with allusions to the Bible, medieval romance, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and more, all made in the implied expectation that the reader shares King’s knowledge of these authors and subjects. Incorporating such erudition into popular fiction to raise it above mere pulp hackery is not lowbrow but what in the old days they would have called middlebrow.
The brow system is now gone, since what was considered highbrow—the Western Canon—has been relegated to a fringe interest or cult object, while the new highbrow, arguably, is leftwing sociological commentary that takes middle- and lowbrow artworks as its critical text. The inverse-snobbery that governs the present cultural status system forbids us to dismiss King as unworthy of the canon, since we are told that we can no longer believe in aesthetic hierarchies any more than in social hierarchies. We reserve the right to condemn the occasional racism and sexism that abrades King’s well-meaning liberalism—for instance, while we no doubt appreciate Pet Sematary’s ahead-of-its-time land acknowledgement, its representation of indigenous territory as a space menaced by vast and demonic entities can hardly cheer the contemporary highbrow-reader-as-ideology-critic:
The Wendigo, dear Christ, that was the Wendigo—the creature that moves through the north country, the creature that can touch you and turn you into a cannibal. That was it. The Wendigo has just passed within sixty yards of me.
He told himself not to be ridiculous, to be like Jud and avoid ideas about what might be seen or heard beyond the Pet Sematary—they were loons, they were St. Elmo’s fire, they were the members of the New York Yankees’ bullpen. Let them be anything but the creatures which leap and crawl and slither and shamble in the world between. Let there be God, let there be Sunday morning, let there be smiling Episcopalian ministers in shining white surplices…but let there not be these dark and draggling horrors on the nightside of the universe. (King’s italics and ellipses)
Further, the new anti-brow brow system might also condemn King for his own “elitism,” i. e. his evident and actual literary aspirations, signaled by his knowing references to “The Hollow Men,” “The Second Coming,” and other such monuments. Yet as a reader who still prizes the apt and inventive use of literary language, I will take King at his implied word and ask if he can live up to the authors he cites—a question that has nothing to do with whether or not we can accept his fantastic premise or even approve of its crypto-politics.
Another misconception is that King is or should be scorned for purveying “genre fiction.” While old-guard critics of various stripes might have scorned King for not writing realist novels, few people today would take such arguments seriously. There may be persuasive ethical and political reasons to prefer realistic to fantastic fiction, as critics from Georg Lukács to Iris Murdoch to James Wood have compellingly claimed, but it’s not an idea you would derive from the pluralistic history of fiction itself, including some of the very greatest fiction. To condemn King for his ghosts, monsters, and demons is also to condemn, for example, William Shakespeare, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Brontë, Henry James, Franz Kafka, and Toni Morrison—an untenable position.
Yet Pet Sematary is, as I mentioned above, an overbearingly realist novel for much of its excessive length. Given its subject of a father fearful that his loved ones will die, it even resembles one of the most popular realist novels of its era, The World According to Garp. As a realist, though, King lacks both social and psychological subtlety. His metropolitan upper-middle-class family experiences little small-town culture shock when it moves from Chicago to Ludlow and is resolutely lower-middle-class in its daily pleasures—beer and sugary cereal—despite Rachel’s coming from urbanity and money. As for psychology, King tells us in the first paragraph that Jud will be Louis’s father figure, the kind of thematic conclusion a good psychological realist will let us reach on our own from the evidence of the story itself. And this is without mentioning the coarsely obvious religious symbolism—too flagrant for good realism—in the names Creed and Church.
A good fantasist, too, will refuse to bully us through an over-elaborated narrative. Kafka does not dilate on the exact biology of insect transformation nor does Morrison burden us with the mechanics of haunting. King, by contrast, is so invested in making his fantasy credible that he weighs down his novel with too much detail, too much thought, too much chatter, too much explanation, too much speculation, until the ineffable mystery, mired as it is in humdrum detail, becomes almost comic:
The Pet Sematary. What was beyond the Pet Sematary. The idea had a deadly attraction. It made a balance of logic which was impossible to deny. Church had been killed in the road; Gage had been killed in the road. Here was Church—changed of course, distasteful in some ways—but here. Ellie, Gage, and Rachel all had a working relationship with him. He killed birds, true, and had turned a few mice inside out, but killing small animals was a cat thing to do. Church had by no means turned into Frankencat. He was, in many ways, as good as ever.
You’re rationalizing, a voice whispered. He’s not as good as ever. He’s spooky. The crow, Louis…remember the crow?
“Good God,” Louis said aloud in a shaky, distracted voice he was barely able to recognize as his own. (King’s italics and ellipses)
This problem of “rationalizing” the mystery even occurs at the micro-level of the sentence, as when King ruins his scary near-climactic description of the Wendigo by noting that one of its “peeling scales…flipped up and over like a manhole cover and a white worm oozed out”—a description that blunts even its own over-the-top attempt to disgust with that distractingly urban, modern image of the manhole cover.
This inadvertent silliness bedeviled the first horror novels too, as we’ve seen in these electronic pages before. Back in the 18th century, both Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe tried to leaven the Enlightenment’s faith in reason by combining the modern realist novel’s mundanities with the enchantments of ancient and medieval romance, and both anticipated King in producing unintended comedy when their Gothic enigmas were dispelled by too many disenchanted grasps at psychological and sociological credibility. In this way, reason has its revenge on the romancer. Other, wiser writers, far more serious opponents of the arrogantly rational, such as the aforementioned Kafka and Morrison, understood by contrast that it is best just to put the mystery down on the page with authority and let it stand. If it is good enough and strange enough, the reader will believe it is true even if the author does not cede literary authority to the rationalists by attempting to make it merely plausible.
Pet Sematary is an intermittently powerful novel in its clumsy and blundering way—it moves, in fact, like its own resurrected feline, without grace but with an undeniable bluff and killing force. When Jud describes trying to bathe his own returned childhood pet as akin to “washing meat,” or when King evokes the terrifying death-throes of Rachel’s sister or narrates the suspenseful process of robbing a modern grave, we can’t fail to believe him and keep turning the pages. And since so many of today’s ostensible “literary” novels are really jumped-up adolescent fantasies, it is refreshing to read a slightly older popular thriller about the fears and responsibilities of actual adults.
King, however, can’t sustain these virtues. His style is too undisciplined. The novel is full of what I call “first draft prose,” prose written when it all comes out in a visionary rush and then must be shaped into a form that can preserve and transmit the vision rather than muddying it with bad syntax, irrelevant details, obvious symbolism, inept metaphors, or instantly dated slang and clichés—all of which flaws make King nearly unreadable to anyone reared on more careful writers. These mood-destroying lapses exist at the level of plot too, as evidenced by the novel’s conclusion, a schlocky EC Comics gorefest whose simplistic implication—that Church and Gage are alike possessed by the evil Wendigo—makes a mockery of whatever insight into human motivation King had attempted in the preceding 350 pages. A slim nightmare of a short novel is buried somewhere in Pet Sematary, but the book we have is only half alive.