It was 1988 and I was but a bloggerling. I had never read, or watched, horror, or at least not on purpose and had no real desire to. At the time, I was a complete fraidy-cat, one who had nightmares for weeks after the Large Marge scene from Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and who looked away in the final moments of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
But even if I'd wanted to, my parents, a Baptist minister and his almost superstitiously religious wife, would never, under any circumstances, have allowed it. I don't just mean in the house; I mean at all. When a friend of mine had a birthday party, his mother rented two films for us to watch; Coming to America and Halloween 4. His mother told my parents what the movies were, and I was told very strictly to stay long enough for the first movie and then to come home. So, at age 11, I got to watch Eddie Murphy being fellated but not a killer slashing up teenagers.
We had a tiny little church that didn't even have its own building (we met in a school), and my father made it his practice to personally visit each new regular attender, and to bring his family with him. One such visit was to a young single woman, and I barely remember it, except that she had a book on her coffee table with a single, terrifying two-letter title, It, written by a man I'd never heard of.
My father, however, did know about him, despite never reading him, and he mentioned the book while we were there. I could practically write a book about my father and Stephen King, but that's not the point. The point is, that title awakened something in me, even though I didn't know it at that moment.
I had a friend at the time. He was also a pastor's son, but his my parents made his look like pot-smoking hippies. He was three years my senior, and his brother was one year older still. This made them practically adults in my eyes. I credit this friend with my present-day nerdiness. While the title of It woke up a dormant need to be scared, my friend's collection of comics, toys and the like sparked off my appreciation of all things geeky. I'm not sure he knew that, so if you're reading this, Michael, thank you.
Anyway, I can't remember how it came up, but I told him about learning who Stephen King was. Between this conversation and the church visit, I had seen several books of his at the library, including Christine, The Shining, 'Salem's Lot and Pet Sematary. It turned out, my friend was a King reader, at the time, anyway, as was his older brother, and both of them assured me that if I were to read one sentence King wrote, I would be in immediate need of a change of underwear. My friend showed me his copy of Pet Sematary. Stamped on the back were the words that would follow me around for a couple of years: "The most frightening book Stephen King has ever written."
At the time, I decided, okay, that's enough for me. If it's that scary, and Stephen King is known for horror, I don't want anything to do with it.
Cut to midway through eighth grade.
I had spent several years treating King's books like a bus crash. I didn't want to be involved, but every time I saw a book of his on the shelf somewhere, I wanted to pick it up and look at it. I kept wondering about that Publishers Weekly quote. What made the story of a pet cemetery so frightening? Why, out of all these scary-looking books, did that one get the honor of being called "the most frightening?"
I brought this up with another friend (I lived elsewhere by that time) and it turned out, he had a copy and had read it. Before I knew what was happening, I had asked to borrow it. He agreed. And thus, Stephen King stopped being a name I merely heard about, and became someone I had actually read.
At least partially. See, I was terrified of what my parents would do if they caught me with a Stephen King book. My parents were pretty particular about what I read, and not just in the sense of making sure I stayed away from stuff that was too violence, sexual or scary. My mother honestly believed that horror of any sort was straight from Satan, and that reading it or watching it opened up doors that led you down dark paths, farther and farther away from God.
So I only read it at school, or in the bathroom at home (meaning I had to wait until no one was even close to the bathroom door when I went in or out), and if I was really daring, once I'd gone to bed. I was terrified that my parents would see the light on under my door and then the jig would be up. I did manage to read a significant amount of it. I got as far as the Creed kids at the dinner table, Ellie asking Gage to say "shit", and then I started feeling like I'd had it long enough that my friend might expect it back soon, and I had enough of it left to go that I became convinced that eventually my parents would catch me with it. I gave it back to my friend unfinished.
Years later, in my early twenties, now a stepfather myself and with several other King novels under my belt, I read this one again, this time all the way through.
It is at this point that I must warn of spoilers, as there's almost no talking about this story without discussing the ending.
This is Kingian horror at its best, and I mean that in every sense of the term. First, it's overt horror, which King engages in surprisingly infrequently (see my last post), and second, it's horror that manages to scare you and to move you on a deeper level. It's a meditation on death, and how different people deal with it; both the idea of it and the reality of it. It's about how a rational human being can be driven to the deepest irrationality by the inability to face and accept death. Death and grief are the theme from practically the first page, though it doesn't really become evident until the middle.
It does so in such a way as to really get under the reader's skin. It brings you face to face with just about the worst kind of death that could possibly exist; the death of a young, innocent child. The first time I read it all the way through, it was hard enough to read, but this time, now the father of an adult woman (that's the stepdaughter, but I'm the only father she's ever known), a fourteen-year-old son and a sixteen-month old, well, it nearly undid me. Cujo was just the warm-up. For a bit, I hated King for making me feel this death so deeply. I looked at my own kids and thought the only thing worse than one of them dying would be my wife dying and...oh my god KING YOU BASTARD!
At least one of my readers is likely going to want to skip this one. King has hit me with child death several times now, like in the aforementioned Cujo and to a slightly lesser degree in 'Salem's Lot (that poor baby!), but that was kid gloves compared to Pet Sematary, which I still hold to be the most emotionally devastating book that King has ever written.
It focuses on Louis Creed, a doctor, who takes a job running the infirmary at the University of Maine, and thus moves his family, including his wife Rachel, five-year-old daughter Ellie and nearly 2-year-old Gage, to the nearby rural town of Ludlow.
By the way, if you Dark Tower fans need a clue that this story doesn't take place on our level of the Tower, how about the fact that in our world, Ludlow is nowhere near the University of Maine, nor is it close to Bangor or Bucksport, which in this novel are called the two closest towns. For that matter, both Bangor and Bucksport are south of Ludlow, while in the story it's between them. There's also a direct tie to Cujo, as a character mentions a dog that went rabid, killed his owner and had to be shot. Cujo takes place in Castle Rock, which according to various sources is supposedly in southern Maine, not northern coastal Maine, where real-life Ludlow is. Also, Route 15, which plays an important role in the story, doesn't run through Ludlow.
Okay, geeky obsessing over, back to the story.
At first, everything seems normal, even good. Ellie loves her new school, all of Louis's family loves their new home, and right away they make a friend in charming 83-year-old neighbor, Jud Crandall, who becomes something of a surrogate father to Louis. Side note; when you read this, do you hear his name pronounced the French way? I see "Louis" and I think it's pronounced "Louie", whereas "Lewis" would make me think the "s" is pronounced. Anyway...
Jud shows them around town, and it's through him that two important details come up. One is that Route 15, which is the road that runs right past both their homes, is very dangerous, as giant trucks routinely speed down it on their way to or from the Orinco Plant in Bucksport. It's killed numerous pets, and seeing as the Creeds own a cat, Winston Churchill, or Church for short, they need to keep a close eye on him. For that matter, make sure their kids stay in the yard. We call this foreshadowing, everyone.
Jud also shows them the burial spot where, for decades, kids have been taking their pets after they died, due to the highway and other incidents. There's a sign painted above its entrance, spelled "Pet Sematary", for those who have always wondered why this book's title is misspelled.
But one night, while his family is out of town and Louis is by himself, Jud calls him and tells him that Church has been hit by a car. Then, Jud takes Louis to the real pet cemetery: an ancient Micmac burial ground that has been a hushed secret of the town since its founding. Nothing buried there remains quiet for long...
Now, I've said quite a bit, and you might be able to judge for yourself where this is going, but still, the journey getting there is one I think you'll still...well, not enjoy, really, but be enthralled by nonetheless.
For an adaptation, I could see this going the way of the art film, being a modern day "prestige horror film" in the vein of The Exorcist or The Omen. Thus, I want an artsy director. The man who helms this has to be someone who can reach through the screen and grab our grief sense and make it not just a tear-jerker but a mood alterer. Who can make an impact like that? Probably Alejandro Gonzalez Innarittu, who makes us feel every leg of the hero's journey in The Revenant.
For a cast, this one seemed to almost cast itself. There were a few roles that threw me for a bit, but ultimately, this one was rather easy. I should mention something, though. One is that, as I'm sure most of you know, this has been adapted before. The leads were played by Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby and
My choice is Ryan Gosling. Like Louis, he's 35 and in good shape, physically a great match for the character, and I think more than able to take on the devastating work this role will need. Gosling is practically today's Brando, and if there's an actor that can make us feel everything Louis is going through, Gosling is that actor.
Finally, there's Victor Pascow. I had no intention to cast him when I started reading, but after this re-read, I decided his scenes were important enough that I'd want a known actor to play the character. He's a college student who gets hit by a car on Louis's first day after classes start, and for reasons King chose to leave mysterious, his ghost is the one trying to warn Louis about the dangers of the Micmac burying ground. As he's a jogger and described as muscular, I couldn't stop seeing him as Taylor Lautner.
My next read, once my nerves are settled, is Cycle of the Werewolf, which I already know I won't be doing a full post on. After that it's the rest of Skeleton Crew, The Talisman, Thinner and Dolan's Cadillac. After that, that's it. Ha ha. See what I did there?
I don't know which of these will be getting full posts. The Talisman for sure, and maybe one or two more. Either way, I'll probably be doing a "skipped stories" post next.