hits the bestseller list with Stephen King's name on it, Pet Sematary is a book full of horrors, the kind of book designed to make you draw up your feet and tuck them firmly underneath you while you are reading it just in case anything truly vile should find its way into your home and begin creeping across your floor in search of a tender bit of young, uncooked meat for a snack. King intends to scare us, and it's hard to imagine that anyone could read this book without at least a few episodes of goosebumps. And yet, while the book is certainly a model of competent writing and the effect is certainly spooky, it could have been a much stronger story had it been told from a different perspective. This paper examines the character of Victor Pascow as a way of delving into the important themes in the book and the ways in which the book might have been a more interesting one had different themes been given different weight.
In a quite compact nutshell, Pet Sematary presents us with the story of a place that has been used as a burial ground since ancient times. For reasons complex and themselves quite ancient, this ground has acquired magical powers: Those things that are buried in it return to the world of the living, although not quite as themselves - and not transformed for the better as well.
The story is possessed of a strikingly gothic sense of horror in part simply because of King's descriptions of things that go down into the earth and then - in a reversal of the natural order, in which things that are interred become over time one with the earth - come back out again instead. But the story is also frightening, and even more disturbing than it is frightening, because King uses this story to remind his readers of those things that humans are fundamentally and primordially frightened of - especially death of those that we love and of ourselves.
King reminds us in this book that we are indeed more paralyzed by fear itself than by any particular variety of ghoulie or ghostie or long-leggedy beastie. It is the unknown that frightens us, and one of the greatest of all unknowns is the exact nature of that transformation that occurs between life and death.
The story focuses on the Creed family, and it is more than anything Louis Creed's story. But we know from the very first paragraph of the book that Louis is not an entirely trustworthy narrator, at least from the perspective of those of us who do not live in Stephen King's Maine where such people (at least if we are to be guided by his novels) must be three-a-penny. The novel opens with an extraordinary statement by Creed, a statement that is important not only for its chillingly disturbing quality but because it takes us immediately to a place in which the usual divisions of the world - between life and death, between holy and profane, between human and animal - will not be adhered to.
Louis Creed, who had lost his father at three and who had never known a grandfather, never expected to find a father as he entered his middle age, but that was exactly what happened...although he called this man a friend, as a grown man must do when he finds the man who should have been his father relatively late in life. He met this man on the evening he and his wife and his two children moved into the big white frame house in Ludlow. Winston Churchill moved in with them. Church was his daughter Eileen's cat.
It is Jud Crandall, the rather suspiciously kindly neighbor of the Creeds, who introduces them to the powers of the Pet Sematary when Church is hit and killed. Jud doesn't explain what powers lie in the secret burial patch and Louis Creed doesn't ask - and this failure of his to stop and ask questions at the beginning prove terrible. But in fundamentally important ways, it is neither Crandall nor Louis Creed who are the instigators of the action but rather Pascow. Pascow, who at the beginning of the book is hurt in a bicycle accident and bleeds to death from his injuries, is one of those fey characters we recognize from Celtic myths and classical literature.
As Pascow tries to warn Louis of the horrors that lie ahead for the Creed family, we recognize in him one of those Cassandra-like figures who knows and speaks the truth but is always, in each age albeit for different reasons, ignored or, at best, misunderstood. Pascow is a voice speaking with an ancient wisdom, and so becomes in some ways the voice of the Micmacs, those people who once owned all of the land around Ludlow before the land like nearly everything else that they owned was taken from them.
Although it is difficult to see this at the point in the narrative when we are reading about Pascow's death, it is clear by the end of the novel that we should view his character as if he were one of the Furies, one of those elemental creatures that exist to ensure that there is a sort of eternal balance in the world. Pascow is a symbol of past wrongs that have never been made right, like the decimation of the Micmacs' hunting lands and the Micmacs themselves. And he is also a symbol of present wrongs or at least of present imbalances: One thing that the Creeds (and especially Louis) fail to understand is the power of death's dominion and the absoluteness of the human need to acknowledge death. Failing to understand how entirely death cuts the world in half has awful consequences, and Pascow is an emblematic reminder of this.
Although the themes in this novel are certainly common enough for this novel to have had any one of scores of predecessors - after all, fear of death, fear of loss, the terrible consequences of reanimation run like swift spring rivers through much of what has been written in the world - it is difficult not to think that at least in some measure King was inspired by W.W. Jacobs's short story "The Monkey's Paw," which also has the power to bring the dead back to life as well as the power to remind us that some things are indeed better dead.
But the horror in that short story comes about from what we do not see, not from what we do see. That story ends with the raising of a corpse, but the grief-stricken father in this story puts the dead back in its place in time, wishing upon himself eternal grief in exchange for not upsetting the divine order of the world:
But her husband was on his hands and knees groping wildly on the floor in search of the paw. If he could only find it before the thing outside got in. A perfect fusillade of knocks reverberated through the house, and he heard the scraping of a chair as his wife put it down in the passage against the door. He heard the creaking of the bolt as it came slowly back, and at the same moment he found the monkey's paw, and frantically breathed his third and last wish.
The knocking ceased suddenly, although the echoes of it were still in the house. He heard the chair drawn back and the door opened. A cold wind rushed up the staircase, and a long loud wail of disappointment and misery from his wife gave him courage to run down to her side, and then to the gate beyond. The street lamp flickering opposite shone on a quiet…