Something greater than the gross-out
Stephen King has recently joined the elite corps of celebrities whose well-known names and less familiar faces make them ideal subjects for the "Do you know me?" series of American Express commercials. With the smashing success of Brian de Palma's film based on King's first novel,
Carrie, King became hot. His productivity through bestseller after bestseller--The [quoteright]Stand, The Shining, Christine--has endeared him to publishers and filmmakers, and won him an enthusiastic readership. The public's appetite for horror fiction is currently at one of its periodic highs, thanks in no small part to King's work, and King continues, with few exceptions, to satisfy.
Dick and I have read his novels when we wanted a dependably good read (and a break from heavy-duty verbiage), when we wanted to be taken somewhere and brought safely back again, when we wanted escapist entertainment that, if not straining our intelligence, did not insult it either. King does all this with a dazzling show of special effects--and with a promise of possibilities, an inkling of depths, not yet realized in his work. As Dick has put it, "I'd like to be around when that guy writes a real novel." With Pet Sematary, Stephen King comes closer to that accomplishment.
King is an acknowledged master of the macabre. All the jacket blurbs will tell you that. His vivid imagery makes the products of his dark imagination appallingly real, and his gift of characterization brings you into the scene with a kind of immediacy that quickens your breath, makes your pulse race, and causes a cold lump of dread to gather in your gut. He wields a potent assortment of devices--tricks of the writer's trade, employed with craftsmanship and skill--to achieve effects that rivet the reader's attention and trigger almost cathartic emotional responses. He aims for the viscera, not the cerebrum.
A favorite stylistic device of King's, for example, is his handling of detail. He makes use of proper names such as product brands to turn set and props into the recognizable, everyday world we all inhabit, as familiar and unremarkable as our own neighborhood supermarkets and department stores. The soft drink is a Coke, the bread is Wonder Bread, the car is a Chevy, and the show on TV is Johnny Carson. This device has the effect of situating the characters in a known place --the place where we ourselves live. (It also anchors the novels firmly in time and space: they are unmistakably set in the mainstream American culture of the late twentieth century. I see this as an indication of King's native modesty. Unlike Lawrence Sanders, who included parenthetical explanations of expressions such as "spaghetti straps" and "XK-E" in The First Deadly Sin as though anticipating the puzzlement of future and foreign readers, King writes for the audience of here and now. Should his work survive a century hence, it will require pages of explanatory footnotes.)
One effective technique for creating horror is to begin with ordinary people in commonplace circumstances and gradually to introduce into the scene elements of the bizarre, the supernatural, the menacing and ultimately terrifying stuff of nightmares, or worse, the sensations that cause our flesh to creep in dark, lonesome moments when our confidence in the sane, predictable cosmic order is suspended long enough to make us dread to glance behind us. As the characters move beyond the safe, normal confines of their everyday world, the reader is drawn along with them, daring neither to wonder nor to doubt that the same things could happen to him. King employs this technique to perfection: his principal characters typically belong to an unexceptional family in an average sort of city or town, and even when he endows them at the outset with abnormal characteristics or circumstances (as he did with the principal characters in Carrie, Firestarter, and The Dead Zone), we first encounter them in ordinary settings familiar to us all: a public high school, a gas station, a playground. The family in Pet Sematary is as normal as box hedges, as American as breakfast cereal, as likable as a Disney cartoon, as genuine as Beaver Cleaver. If darker possibilities lurk beneath the smiling faces, you would never know it as the parents and two young children drive up to their new home in a small and very old town in Maine.
Another device typical of King's fiction is the use of the omniscient point of view, which functions to sustain suspense by revealing the events fragmentally through the eyes of various characters. The reader gleans pieces of the truth from characters who each know only part of it, and the sense of foreboding builds as its awful shape becomes increasingly apparent. A special trick of King's, used in several of his novels, is the introduction of characters who appear only long enough to perform a single act or make a single remark that furthers the development of the story. King depicts them in miniature, with a deft sketch that permits us to see them complete in two dimensions as they play their unwitting part in the main action and then move on. The lightning rod salesman in The Dead Zone, for example, exchanges remarks with a bartender that foreshadow, to us but not to either of them, the disaster about to befall an entire class of graduating high school students.
When it is time to bring the reader face to face with the thing of horror, King does not spare the particulars. All the senses are engaged. We hear the slithery approach, we smell the fetid breath, we see the suppurating flesh, we quiver at its loathsome touch. And we taste the coppery tang of our own fear.
"Fear makes us blind," writes King in the foreword to Night Shift, a collection of early short stories, "and we touch each fear with all the avid curiosity of self-interest, trying to make a whole out of a hundred parts, like the blind men with their elephant.
"We sense the shape. Children grasp it easily, forget it, and relearn it as adults. The shape is there, and most of us come to realize what it is sooner or later: it is the shape of a body under a sheet...We're afraid of that body under the sheet. It's our body. And the great appeal of horror fiction through the ages is that it serves as a rehearsal for our own deaths.
"...[the horror writer] takes your hand and he enfolds it in his own, and he takes you into the room and he puts your hands on the shape under the sheet and tells you to touch it here...here...and here..."
Stephen King uses the devices at his command to show us the body under the sheet. And the tricks he employs with such masterly skill and confidence, and to such strong effect, are a pleasure to observe, much as the fingering technique of a Montoya or the brushwork of a Cezanne excites admiration. But these are nonetheless superficial elements, the bows and ribbons in which the story is wrapped. The story beneath must also be sound.
Plot is the element King considers most essential: in the same foreword, he writes, "[The horror story] must tell a tale that holds the reader spellbound for a little while, lost in a world that never was, never could be. It must be like the wedding guest that stoppeth one of three. All my life as a writer I have been committed to the idea that in fiction the story value holds dominance over every other facet of the writer's craft; characterization, theme, mood, none of those things is anything if the story is dull. And if the story does hold you, all else can be forgiven." Although not quite as forgiving as King, recalling the failure of Cujo, I find that all of King's work does uphold this premise. His earlier novels are, above all, stories. The Shining and Christine are ghost stories; the former is a tale of a haunted hotel, the latter of a haunted car. Salem's Lot is a vampire story, and Cujo is a monster story, the monster in this case being a rabid dog. In Pet Sematary the story line is as strong as in any of the other books: given the opportunity to play God, a man is too human to resist. But here the story is not all. In the same sense that Carrie is "about" telekinesis, The Dead Zone is "about" clairvoyance, and Firestarter is "about" a child whose mental powers can ignite fires, Pet Sematary is about death and resurrection. That is a qualitative difference.
The main character is a doctor, a man who confronts issues of life and death--plays God, if you will--in his profession. His name, Louis Creed, occurs as the first two words of the novel. An author's choice of names for his characters is not dictated by chance; we might not be mistaken if we expected this book to tell us something about King's own beliefs. I think it does, but whether it does or not, the name is a signal that there is something here that is meant to be taken seriously.
"All tales of horror," writes Stephen King in Danse Macabre, his study of the horror genre in our culture, "can be divided into two groups: those in which the horror results from an act of free and conscious will--a conscious decision to do evil--and those in which the horror is predestinate, coming from outside like a stroke of lightning."
With Pet Sematary, King moves from novels of "outside evil," as he terms it, to a story of "inside evil." And the result is a work that surpasses the grocery-checkout paperback appeal of his earlier novels and ventures into the nameless terrain between popular fiction and literature.
I had delayed reading this particular novel, even though I've kept up with King's work since encountering The Stand and gone back and read his earlier fiction. Against my better judgment I even read Cujo, reviews of which had justly warned that the story did not adequately reward the reader's endurance through its revolting scenes. I do not take much pleasure in the gag reflex, and unless the story both supports the nasty parts and in the end delivers the expected sigh of relief, I consider the author's wallowings in gratuitous grue to be cheap trickery, not my idea of entertainment. So I picked up Pet Sematary warily, bearing in mind a review that had cautioned that this novel was not really a horror story, it was just grisly, and had said something like, "You know what's going to happen, and it does. Yuck."
Yes, you do, and it does, and it is. But this book cannot be dismissed quite that easily. Pet Sematary is different.
For one thing, the imagery in this novel, termed by some reviewers "the worst yet" for gruesomeness, is really less extreme than in several of the other novels. The diseased bodies in The Stand, the billows of blood in The Shining, and even the slavering of Cujo all were more graphically repulsive. King has written in Danse Macabre "I recognize terror as the finest emotion, . . . and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud." When King does go for the gross-out, he doesn't miss. But more frequently he horrifies or terrifies. In earlier novels, it often seemed as though he were simply showing off his knack for producing those reactions. In Pet Sematary, however, he rarely evokes them for their own sake. The disturbing images are there: the student whose skull has been crushed, the small slaughtered animals, the shattered body of the child. But their place in the story is warranted. The true horrors in this story are internal, emotional, arising less out of the sensory impact of such scenes than out of the real-world tragedy that occurs and the consequent growth of an obsession in the mind of a man.
In all his previous novels, King is employing his manifest talents to produce a thumping good yarn (the disappointment of Cujo notwithstanding) and not much more. He entertains us, he delivers creeps and thrills and shocks and ultimately satisfying resolutions of things, and that's where they end. Quoted by Douglas E. Winter in a joint interview with Peter Straub published in the February, 1985, issue of Twilight Zone magazine, King has called his work "the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and a large fries." The observation, even if a bit too self-deprecating, was nearer to the truth before Pet Sematary than it is now.
Most of King's familiar devices are present in Pet Sematary, employed to full effect: the detail, the characterizations, the inexorably merging plot elements, the chills. But Pet Sematary has more. One of the most outstanding differences is structurally fundamental: in each of the other books, the thing of horror comes and gets the main character; it's "outside evil." This Is the case whether the outside evil is the dark, compelling force of Antichrist proportions in The Stand or the destructive powers of the adolescent Carrie, who herself did nothing to acquire her telekinetic abilities. In Pet Sematary, the horror does not come after Louis Creed; he goes and gets his own. Whereas there are elements that could be called "outside evil"--the Micmac burying ground, where dead does not mean gone, and the Wendigo, noxious beast whose touch calls forth unnatural impulses--Creed is not their agent. The burying ground furnishes the occasion for him to break the normal rules of living and dying, but it does not force him to do so. The Wendigo essentially has a walk-on part, as though the author felt obliged to supply a critter of some sort.
No, the evil here is inside. Creed does make his own choices, and he owns the consequences. A recurring theme is that of his having "bought" the thing that destroys him. Adequately warned, he persists in a course of action that is against both nature and his own deepest sense of right and wrong. He is driven by the profoundly human passions of grief and love and by one thing more: a lust to possess the power placed within his reach.
In that action, Louis Creed assumes some of the dimensions of the tragic hero in the classical sense. He is brought low by his own doing, and his tragic flaw is that most classical of sins, hubris. He elects to play God, making choices of life and death for others. Not a great man, Louis Creed is nonetheless a good man, one who loves and works and tries.
Whereas the purpose of the earlier novels is to entertain, the purpose of Pet Sematary is to teach a lesson. And the lesson is a highly moral one. It has to do with responsibility. "I've just got this little mess to clean up, Rachel, okay?" thinks Creed. "Because it's my mess." Creed had not left the partially dismembered crow on the welcome mat, its eye dangling torn and bloody from the socket. But he knew who had, and he knew why, and no one but him could be held accountable for it.
The burden of that hideous responsibility is not enough to deter Creed when the stronger temptation arises, when the subject is immeasurably dearer to his heart, when the grip of the power-lust has already tightened around his soul. We know long before he faces this choice that it will come, and we know what he will do. And even as we abhor what he is about to do, some part of us urges him on, even though, or perhaps precisely because, we would never confront such a moment ourselves. King applies his genius to making just such a choice not only plausible in terms of human emotions but nearly irresistible. Would we have the strength to undertake the grim task to which Creed sets himself? Ah, but that is not the question. The question is, would we have the strength to refuse it?
We observe the process by which Creed cons himself into going ahead; we don't really witness a moral struggle within him. This is one of many respects in which Pet Sematary falls outside the realm of literature. But the point is not that it fails to be literature; it does not aspire to be. The point is that, intentionally or not, King has produced a novel several notches closer to literature than anything else he has written in the horror genre. Maybe that "real novel" is not so far off.
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