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Pet Sematary ()

I have no argument with the view that Stephen King is a master storyteller.  But he has, either consciously or no, limited himself to being only that; he is content to simply tell stories without trying to imbue them with any depth or signifigance.  His well chronicled shortcomings, overuse of pop product placements, weak endings to most of his books, etc., are annoying, but they are not fatal.   The thing that keeps him from being considered a really first class writer is his general unwillingness to grapple with serious ideas in his fiction, or, when he does deal with them, to simply put his own gloss on classic concepts.  Pet Sematary amply illustrates all of his strengths and weaknesses.

Dr. Louis and Rachel Creed and their two children, Ellie (5 years old) and Gage (a year old), have just moved to Ludlow, ME.  They live on a surprisingly busy road for such a rural setting, but there's a thriving local chemical company.  Jud Crandall, an aged neighbor, befriends Louis and shares beers and local lore with him. Then when Ellie's cat, Church, is killed, Jud shares the darkest bit of local lore; the nearby "Pet Sematary" is actually capable of regenerating life.  Louis hoping to avoid breaking Ellie's heart, decides to bring Church back to life, but the horrid smelling misshapen beast that comes back from the grave is pretty creepy.  The rest of the story is pretty obvious--Louis will inevitably bring back a person, with catastrophic results for all.

The reason that King sells a kajillion books is because he makes the whole thing grippingly creepy, striking just the right balance between the peacefulness and the mystery of his bucolic setting. Supposedly, King put the book aside several times while he was writing it because it was scaring even him.  And it is truly scary at times.  But overall the book will not stand even mild critical scrutiny.  First, it is totally predictable--as soon as the secret power of the cemetery is revealed, you know exactly where the plot is headed (for the thickheaded, there's even the added element that Rachel Creed can not deal with the concept that those she loves will one day die).  Second, perhaps he's his own worst enemy, but King makes the reborn cat so creepy, that I didn't buy someone trying to do the same for a loved one.  The key to any good horror story is, of course, to keep the audience on your side so that they are willing to suspend their disbelief, but his grip starts to slip here and, after a reasonably good set up, the book sort of tails off to it's gory conclusion as even King seems to lose interest.

But the most important weakness is that the whole thing seems derivative and devoid of fresh ideas.  It reads like a grab bag of elements ranging from Frankenstein to The Monkey's Paw.  The central premise of trying to return animation to dead flesh is so well trodden that unless you have some startlingly original twist to put on it, perhaps it is best left alone.

Final Verdict:  a perfectly acceptable airplane or beach book, but it's not likely to provoke any thought nor to linger long in your mind.


Grade: (C+)


See also:

Stephen King (4 books reviewed)
Book-related and General Links:
    -Life & Times : Stephen King (1947 -- ) (NY Times)
    -REVIEW: (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: SOMETHING LURKS IN LUDLOW (Annie Gottlieb, NY Times Book Review)
    -Official Stephen King Web Presence
    -Stephen King Page
    -Unofficial Stephen King Homepage
    -Stephen King Website
    -Stephen King WebRing
    -Stephen King Links Springboard
    -Stephen King Links
    -Reader's Choice: Stephen King Novels
    -ESSAY: The Metamorphosis of  Stephen King (Elizabeth Hand, VLS)
    -The King of Death: Andrew O'Hehir peers into the terrifying world of one of our most important writers -- and recommends five Stephen King novels for newcomers. (Salon)
    -ARTICLE: A Case for Sherlock: The Double Helix of Crime Fiction and Science: The detective story has become a touchstone for academic criticism, raising issues that have become cultural obsessions. There have been examinations of the detective as skilled reader of cryptic texts and of the detective novel as a bourgeois morality tale.