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Saturday, February 20, 2016

Pet Sematary

Gather 'round, boys and girls, as your friendly blogger tells you the story of the first Stephen King novel he ever tried to read.

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 Herman Munster Fred Gwynne. With the possible exception of Gwynne, I don't feel like either lead really brought it. Both were sort of blandly attractive, inexpensive and not very memorable. Since literally 95% of this novel takes place from Louis's perspective, you've got to have a truly great actor in the lead, and Dale Midkiff just isn't that actor.

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.
Well before I started reading it, I thought of Natalie Portman as Rachel, Louis's wife and the female lead. One reason is that she's the right age, another is that she's Jewish, like the character, and a third reason is that when Natalie Portman cries, you want to cry with her. No mother should have to go through what Rachel goes through, and Portman will bring that idea to the fore.
Jud Crandall was the hardest role to cast, and the one I think I'll get the most disagreement with. As I mentioned, he's 83, but a hale, hearty 83. When Louis first meets him, he assumes him to be a very healthy-looking early 70's-ish. I'd forgotten this detail (that he doesn't look his age) when I started reading this time around, and was thinking about the possibility of Robert Duvall, but when I read that line describing how young and healthy he looked despite his age, I thought, why not go even younger? Fred Gwynne was 62 when he played the role. I thought about Jon Voight or Jeff Bridges, seriously got stuck on Bridges for a bit, but then settled on Kris Kristofferson, who's 79 but could pass for mid-sixties. However, Kristofferson is slowing down of late, and doesn't look as tough as he used to, so if he ages too badly, Bridges can step up without much difficulty. Bridges is 66, and looks maybe 60 at the earliest, so I think he's in danger of looking too young, which is why I chose Kristofferson.
Aside from the two Creed kids, that's literally all the major roles. I cast a few of the others, however. Specifically, Steve Masterton, the PA who works with Louis at the University, and maybe doesn't get a lot of page time but there's a scene later in the book where he tries to get the Creeds to pull together following their tragedy, and it's really effectively done for a character who's not really major. It made me want to see the movie beef up the character, and I chose Aldis Hodge to play Steve, because he came closest to matching how I pictured the character.
Norma Crandall is Jud's wife, who in the movie is dead before the story but in the book is just old and infirm, and dies later. I thought she should be included, since a scene where Louis saves her from a mild cardiac event is what prompts Jud to help Louis bring Church back to life. She could be played by just about any older actress, but I chose Grace Zabriskie.
There are two more characters who work with Lou, and although they're not large roles, both of them are very present characters who are involved with the funeral and I felt they needed to have faces put to them. The first is Louis's chief nurse, Charlton, who isn't described apart from being older and kinda hard-faced. An image came to my mind as to how she looked and sounded, but I couldn't place an actress to her until I saw a picture of actress Gillian Armenante, and realized that was just how I was picturing her.
The other is Surrendra Hardu, the night doctor who is of Indian descent. There's a lot of middle-eastern actors who are gaining popularity in Hollywood, and I figured this was an opportunity to see another one get some work. I picked Irrfan Khan, who just looks like a doctor to me.
Rachel's father, Irwin Goldman, is not a huge role, either, but damn if he's not memorable. The classic father-in-law from Hell, Irwin causes quite a scene at Gage's funeral. He's described as looking pretty old for his age, bald and with a permanent scowl on his face. His wife Dori is also in the story, but she does so little I didn't see a point in casting her. Irwin, however, made me instantly think of Richard Schiff.

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.
So that's Pet Sematary and thank Christ it's over. I don't think I'll ever read this one again, not because it's bad but because it succeeds so well at what it wants to do. It might be a while before I'm fully okay again.

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.


  1. That's a fantastic King-fandom origin story! I enjoy reading and hearing about how people got into King.

    I'd love to know how many King fans have been borne out of somebody refusing to let them read King. I bet there are a lot; denying kids things like that in their formative years only enhances the allure, I'd imagine.

    I think you are right on the money with your idea for having this be directed by a prestige filmmaker. I'm not a fan of Inarritu, and thought "Birdman" was as overprasied a movie as I've ever seen, but I'd be happy to see what he did with King as source material.

    I give your entire cast (especially Gosling and Zabriskie) thumbs-up except for Taylor Lautner. I don't think he can actually act, and if you put somebody who can't act in that role -- coughwitnessthefirstmoviecough -- it could drag the whole movie into the toilet.

    1. Bryant, have you seen The Revenant yet? I agree completely about Birdman. I wouldn't say I hated it, and it was skillfully done, but that's one Best Picture I can't imagine will look good ten or even five years from now. In my mind, though, The Revenant is a far superior film and probably worthy of a Best Director award.

    2. No, I haven't seen "The Revenant," and I feel bad about it. I work at a movie theatre, for Pete's sake! But apart from some of the really big releases, I've been in a near-complete state of movie avoidance lately. More an issue of not wanting to be at work than of not wanting to see the movies, but whatever you attribute it to, the end result is that I've seen so few of the big Oscar-type movies this year that it's shameful.

      I'd have liked "Birdman" more if it hadn't won so many awards. It simply wasn't the best movie of the year, end of story (for my tastes). An experiment, and a not particularly great one.

      I liked "Babel" a lot, though, so I've got nothing against Inarritu. I suspect I'd enjoy "The Revenant."

    3. The post below was meant to be in reply to this one, but I forgot to ask; Bryant, what do you think about Jeff Bridges as Jud? He's unquestionably not the right age, but neither was Fred Gwynne, and to be honest, Bridges is starting to look like an old grandpa type.

    4. Bridges is a great actor (and a great screen presence -- not always the same thing), so he'd be fine with me. I don't think he has to be the same age as in the novel; that could easily be fudged.

    5. That's true. As I've reflected on this novel in the past few weeks, I've realized that Jud's excellent health really only matters because otherwise the trip to the cemetery would probably kill him, and his advanced age is just so he could have been around long enough to know the history of the town. There's no reason he couldn't know just as much at 70, though.

  2. Interesting picks. This is a great illustration of what I was talking about in the last post. I know the story as well as anyone could without having read the book or seen the movie in its entirety, so I should know better, but I automatically think, "an Oscar-winning actress to play the wife in Pet Sematary?" I have no doubt it's very skillfully written, explores truly deep fears that are almost taboo, and likely has some amazing insights like almost all of King's works, but somehow even I apparently don't give it proper respect. Yet you've had acclaimed actors cast in the other adaptations, so I can only conclude that I'm having that reaction because it's overtly a horror novel.

    I'm kinda curious what you mean by comparing Ryan Gosling to Brando. He's a very good actor; I don't mean to suggest otherwise, just not sure what you meant by that comment. Is it the tendency to be in some pretty edgy movies? Is he super-methody or excessively egotistical? If he balloons to 350 pounds and starts acting like a madman, I'm all in for a Gosling reality show.

    I'm glad you addressed the age of Jud. I had no idea the character was 83. When you said Jonathan Banks might not be old enough, I looked up Fred Gwynne's age and was tempted to point out what you ended up addressing on your own, that he's several years older than Mr. Munster was at the time of filming. Kristofferson could work, although I don't know where he's been for the past decade or so. Jeff Bridges is an interesting idea, but I almost think he's too vibrant to believe as an old man, even though he kind of is one. I still think Banks would be really interesting as Jud, because he almost seems like he could be believable there, and we've seen him convey sage wisdom before. Just my two cents.

    1. Yep, there it is. People still think of genre films as films that don't require, in fact shouldn't have, great actors in them. Even fans think that way sometimes. Think of the first film, which could have been a showcase of great acting that starred, say, William Hurt, Jodie Foster and Robert Duvall. Instead we get bargain-basement Dale Midkiff, Ex-Tasha Yar and Ex-Herman Munster.

      Early Brando, before he went nuts, is what I compare Gosling to. Gosling is a transformative actor who compels you to watch him. He's definitely got a Stanley Kowalski vibe to him.

      Banks is just so dour. Jud has some dour scenes, but he's a friendly, nice guy, and Banks is such a sourpuss. I'm sure a role for Banks is coming up, though. I've not forgotten about making sure I find a place for him.

      You're right that Bridges feels vibrant, which is why I went with Kristofferson, who is still acting (Texas Rising) even if it's not as much as he used to. That said, I really think Bridges could knock this one out of the park.

    2. I wouldn't dare bet against Jeff Bridges. I think you're right that he is starting to show some age. I asked myself the other day if I'd believe him as a man in his fifties, and it's shaky. Banks does have a dour face, but I think as much as anything it's a function of Mike Ehrmantraut being his most recent and by far his most famous role. He was on an episode of Modern Family as Ed O'Neill's brother that was fairly amusing, so he's got it in him to be something other than grumpy. But I thought that Fred Gwynne was a pretty good actor too, so maybe there's a reason I'm not a casting agent.

      This is a tangent, but speaking of Brando, if you want a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction look into Hollywood, I loved Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau. It's streaming on Netflix, and I thought it was pretty damn amusing.

    3. Stephen King is one of (if not THE) most widely-read novelists of this or any other era. The notion that adapting his stories to film doesn't merit Oscar-calibre talent confuses and annoys me. Of course it does!

      Banks would be a great choice for Cort.

    4. I hope you understood that I don't believe King's stories are undeserving of major talent. On a previous post, Josh and I discuss people's perception of horror at length, and I was using the point to illustrate that because of the previous adaptation of Pet Sematary, even I unwittingly default to conventional thinking sometimes.

    5. Not only does King's work deserve Oscar-caliber actors, but more of it should be recognized by the Oscars. To date, only Carrie, Misery, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile have. Several times I've finished a King story and thought there was an Oscar-caliber film waiting to be made out of it, and this was true of Pet Sematary. But as Aaron and I have discussed, people perceive "horror" as all one big genre of silly films that don't really have any artistic or intellectual merit, and King gets lumped in there, too. It's stupid, but it happens all too often.

  3. Tell me about it. Most of the things I love as an adult are things either my mother or father tried forbidding. The exception is fantasy. My dad loves it and so do I. But then, my father prefers "safe" fantasy, where it's a foregone conclusion that the good guys will win, and he stresses the idea that there has to be a character to root for, by which he means someone he 100% likes. This is one reason why he can't get past the first book of the A Song of Ice and Fire series.

    I think Taylor Lautner is a better actor than he's given credit for, because mainly people know about him thanks to the Twilight franchise and assume that no one involved with that franchise could possibly be talented. This ignores the involvement of the unquestionably talented Billy Burke, Anna Kendrick, Dakota Fanning, Michael Sheen, Lee Pace, Christopher Heyerdahl and of course Graham Greene. Lautner's not likely to win awards any time soon, but he's got more range than you'd believe having just seen him in Twilight or even Abduction. In the ill-advised but strangely charming The Ridiculous Six, he's the comic relief and he does his job perfectly. I'd never have guessed that he could play a role like that so well.

    Birdman was probably the most lightweight film of Inarrittu's career. Watch Babel sometime. He's a very important filmmaker and I think he could really turn this story into the prestige film it deserves to be.

    1. I'm not a "Twilight" hater. They're okay. I'm not exactly the target audience, but I've seen them all and can't manage to hate any of them. I've never seen anything from Lautner that indicates range, but I'm no expert on his work.

      I've seen "Babel." It was great.

    2. I saw after posting this that you had seen Babel. It was that, more so than Birdman, that made me think of Inarrittu for this.

      As for Twilight, I agree with everything I've heard Stephen King say about it. My oldest daughter used to love it, and thus I was forced to sit through the first two films. Nowadays she's matured and thinks they're stupid.

      That said, there's some fine acting talent in them. Same with how Glee has a lot of fine actors but the show itself is capital-D dumb.