09 October 2012


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 14

My original plan was to have one Readalong post a week and to discuss nine chapters per post, but I really can't wait until Friday. So I may do two a week, one on Friday and one on whichever day happens to be free.

Now, in case anyone is still wondering whether Pet Sematary was the right choice after all, let me share what I found in this edition's new introduction from Stephen King himself:

"When I'm asked (as I frequently am) what I consider to be the most frightening book I've ever written, the answer I give comes easily and with no hesitation: Pet Sematary.

It may not be the one that scares readers the most--based on the mail, I'd guess the one that does that is The Shining--but the fearbone, like the funnybone, is located in different places on different people.

All I know is that Pet Sematary is the one I put away in a drawer, thinking I had finally gone too far.

Time suggests that I had not, at least in terms of what the public would accept, but certainly I had gone too far in terms of my own personal feelings. Put simply, I was horrified by what I had written, and the conclusions I had drawn . . ."

So in one sense, it's the right choice, and in another sense, it's the wrong choice. =P But I'm really, really happy with it and will explain why in this post. The rest of the introduction discusses how Pet Sematary came to be written--probably an oft-told legend among veteran King readers. But I haven't read it yet and won't get back to it until after I'm done with the whole novel.

Chapters 1 to 9

Let's start by getting the funnybone moment out of the way. This new edition of Pet Sematary is unfortunately sprinkled with typos. But it's easy to forgive them when they include a gem such as . . . "They wee in a natural clearing." (ROFLMAO!!!)

In these first nine chapters, the Creed family move into their new home, get as settled as possible, and find out they may have bitten off more than they can chew. When their new neighbour Jud Crandall is showing them the woods behind their house, he remarks, "I know it sounds funny to say your nice little house there on the main road, with its phone and electric lights and cable TV and all, is on the edge of a wilderness, but it is." Well, yes, it sounds funny for a few seconds--but you don't have to have been raised in a city all your life to notice that the words have tapped not your funnybone, but your fearbone. For it's true that no matter how comfortable and "civilised" we believe we've become, we still remain at the edge of a wilderness we don't entirely understand.

There are so many things to discuss, and if others want to bring up something I haven't, I will totally welcome those comments. But for the sake of focus I will pick the main thing that fascinated me in these chapters, which is the contrast between Ellie's reaction to her new kindergarten and her reaction to the pet cemetery.

In one sense, both are rites of passage: one is just more socially acceptable than the other. (And of course our culture would pick the wrong one.) We read that before Ellie gets on the school bus, she looks back at her parents one last time . . . and what she sees in their faces "convinced her that the time was gone, and everything which would follow this day was simply inevitable--like the progress of Norma Crandall's arthritis." Notice the jarring juxtaposition of little girl and old woman: a reminder about where we all end up. It is the first crack in Ellie's innocence--but a crack that is as necessary to her maturity as the crack in an eggshell is necessary to the maturity of a bird.

Now, I support rites of passage for the young. I also know that rites of passage are not supposed to be painless. Inasmuch as they are a symbolic death and rebirth, they are going to hurt. My personal favourite is Santa Claus (which I explain in detail in my Punk Catholic Thought of the Year): I can't think of a gentler, more benign channel for the inevitable pain of growing up than this cultural play. But it couldn't be any further from what happens to poor Ellie.

After Ellie's first day at a new school, she comes home happy, beaming and full of news. ("We sang 'Old McDonald'! Mommy! Daddy! We sang 'Old McDonald'!") After Ellie's first day at a cemetery, she comes back . . . wrong. =P And while Louis Creed thinks the best way to deal with it is to give his daughter a lecture on the natural sciences, Rachel Creed takes a more emotional approach that I hope to discuss in greater detail in a future Book Club meeting.

Since nothing supernatural has happened yet, let me say that I don't think that Ellie's trauma is the pet cemetery's fault. (Will I have to eat these words? LOL!) Death is a part of life that we all have to deal with sooner or later; Ellie just wasn't ready to have that reality waved in her face.

Nor were her parents prepared to help her through it. I'm starting to suspect neither of them "survived" their own version of the same rite.

What are your thoughts on Chapters 1 to 9?

1. Do you agree that we all live on the edge of a wilderness too big for us to control?
2. Do you think that rites of passage (symbolic death and rebirth) are necessary?
3. How would you deal with it if your five-year-old daughter were frightened into tears by the pet cemetery?

Image Source: Pet Sematary by Stephen King


Angie Tusa said...

1. I was at first going to say that I couldn't think this in a literal sense living in the middle of a suburb like I do. But then I realized that it only takes a 30 minute drive to reach forests or swampland around here, so really the wilderness isn't that far away!

In a more figurative sense, it's definitely true. Most of us have our day to day lives figured out, but when a new challenge surfaces, it's not unlike having to face untamed wilderness while we attempt to cope with it. And you never know when those problems are going to hit you.

2. I think at least some rites of passage are necessary. Santa is a difficult one for me, because I still remember the upsetting way the truth was revealed to me. But as someone who lost a lot thanks to a major hurricane and came out of it both more confident and financially secure, I have a strong belief that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. So rites of passage certainly tie heavily into that.

3. I have a strong belief that our pets have souls and make it to the afterlife with us, so I'm sure I would try to impart the "gone but not really gone" view.

As far as my overall thoughts on the book so far - I really like that King takes his time setting the scene and most importantly letting us get to know this family. On the surface it might seem like the book is dragging its feet, but in reality, there's a lot of important character and setting building going on here.

Jenny said...

It's very interesting that King thinks this is the worst one he's ever written...I haven't read it but the movie wasn't THAT scary. Interesting.

Enbrethiliel said...


The wilderness is much farther away from me than it is from you, but our seasonal flooding has a similar effect to your hurricane. My location is relatively safe, so I'm unlikely to be flooded out, but it is always fascinating--in a depressing sort of way--to watch the news and see how the shock of losing one's most ordinary possessions and daily routines can bring out the "jungle rules" in many people.

Incidentally, during Mass yesterday, the priest observed that Filipinos don't seem to have the fear of death that, say, Americans do. We're more fatalistic: if it's your time, then it's your time. And there were many people who refused to leave their homes even when the waters were waist-deep because they preferred drowning with their stuff around them to surviving with no possessions. He explicitly drew a contrast between them and Americans who willingly leave all their worldly goods behind during an evacuation. Obviously, a healthy fear of death is vastly preferable to this kind of fatalism. The people who died because they wouldn't leave definitely failed that rite of passage.

By the way, I just read the next nine chapters, and I have a better idea of what you mean by King taking his time. I didn't feel that way at the start and actually enjoyed meeting the Creed family and taking that leisurely hike to the pet cemetery--but now I just want something to happen. And well, something does, as you already know, though I won't elaborate yet. The next nine chapters are reasonably action packed, but they also leve me with the sense that something bigger is about to blow and that I'm being teased. =P

mrsdarwin said...

You almost -- almost -- make me want to read this.

Enbrethiliel said...


That word "almost" . . . it's like a red flag to a blogger . . . ;-)

Enbrethiliel said...


Jenny -- I'm so sorry that your comment was routed to my Spam folder and that I only saw it a few hours ago. I hope it doesn't happen again, because I love reading what you have to say.

I've seen the movie adaptation of Pet Sematary, but I don't remember it very well. What I can recall seems like an insult to the source material. (I thought something similar when I read King's Christine two years ago.) This novel is scary!

But don't take it from me! Read it yourself. ;-)