Monday, October 29, 2007

I Don't Want To Live My Life Again

The following is a paper I wrote last year for Writing About The Humanities class. Since this was intended to be read by academics types and "horror laymen," I apologize if anything in here seems completely obvious and painfully spelled out to people who love the genre in general and Stephen King in particular. Sorry also for the weird and inconsistent paragraph spacing, I've not yet mastered the art of copying from Word documents and pasting into Blogger (any advice, anyone?) In any case, I hope you enjoy it.

I Don’t Want To Live My Life Again:
The Supernatural and the Real in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary

What elevates the writing of Stephen King above that of any other popular horror author is not only his ability to conceive of things that are scary, but his understanding of fear as a psychological force. To our jaded contemporary eyes, the fantastic is often not all that frightening when we know it to be fantasy. We may quiver at the cold, stitched-up visage of Frankenstein’s monster, but we are comforted by the knowledge of his off-screen existence as the gentlemanly actor Boris Karloff. What makes a horror story truly frightening and truly great, whether it's in a novel or on the screen, are characters that we connect and relate to. Not only do they interact with the horrific in a way that we feel we ourselves might if faced with such a situation, but their psychological makeup is unraveled as the story unfolds. This makes our fear harder to dismiss, makes it harder to put the book down or turn off the TV, telling ourselves that it’s only a story. King created one horror’s greatest marriages of the real and the unreal with his 1983 novel Pet Sematary.

Shortly after his family moves to rural Maine, the novel's protagonist, university MD Louis Creed strikes up a friendship with his neighbor, a salt-of-the-earth old timer named Jud Crandall. In a friendship-extending gesture, Jud takes the family for a walk and shows them a little graveyard, built and maintained for children as a resting place for their dearly departed pets, many of whom were killed on the nearby road. (The misspelled title of the novel comes from the wooden sign painted by one of the children.) This greatly upsets Louis’s five-year-old daughter Ellie, who comes to the realization that her cat, Winston “Church” Churchill, will eventually die during her lifetime. This sparks an argument between Louis and his wife, Rachel, who believes Ellie is too young to grasp the concept of death.

Then, while Rachel, Ellie and one-and-a-half-year-old Gage are away during Thanksgiving, Church is run down by a car. Jud convinces Louis, rather than planting the cat's body in the backyard, to take him up the path beyond the Pet Sematary to a clearing in the woods that used to be a Micmac Indian burial ground. He then proceeds to explain the supernatural ability of the place to return the animals buried there to life. Sure enough, Church returns the next day, although he displays a noticeable sluggishness, a seeming loss of his agility and alertness, and a newfound enjoyment of leaving slaughtered birds on the front doorstep. However, when Louis’s family return, they assume his behavior is due to his being neutered several weeks before.

Much later, in a tragic coincidence, Gage is killed by a truck on the same stretch of road. The family is plagued with grief, with both Rachel and Ellie cast into near-catatonic states of depression, and Louis practically going mad with the knowledge that he has the power to bring his son back if he chooses to do so. Despite Jud's warnings (in the forties, one of the locals resurrected his boy, who was slain in WWII, and the young man came back as a malicious ghoul), Louis abruptly packs his wife and daughter off to his in-laws’, digs up his child and reburies him in the Micmac burial ground. Gage returns to life as a murderous, demonic imp, and in doing so destroys Louis's family and crushes what lingering sanity he has left, setting him on a downward spiral toward dementia and disaster.

The continued appeal of monsters due to their psychological subtext is a fascinating subject, and a powerful tool for the great storytellers of the horror genre. Dracula is seductive creature who represented a Victorian English fear of erotic, ethnic infiltration of impressionable Victorian women. Frankenstein's monster is one of fiction's great tragic figures, a misshapen orphan who is like the Elephant Man in his doomed quest for acceptance. The werewolf, like Mr. Hyde and the Incredible Hulk, is a manifestation of repressed anger that takes on the shape of a rampaging beast. Martian invaders of 1950’s movies were often thinly veiled examples of communist paranoia, and atom bomb-birthed behemoths like Godzilla spoke to the public’s fear that science could easily spell the end of the world. And yet zombies remain some of the most popular monsters of all, due to their ability to represent a multitude of subtexts. Zombies were once living beings like you and me; zombies are us. The films of George A. Romero were pointed allegories of race relations, consumerism, Vietnam and Watergate-era cynicism in the guise of blood-soaked, survivalist splatter fests. In Pet Sematary, however, the subtext is not social, but personal. Rather than representing the horror of America at war with itself, the reanimated Gage Creed is a personification of the darkness that lurks behind the happy exterior of intimate human relationships.

The notion of a baby zombie, which would ordinarily seem like an exercise in pushing the boundaries of good taste, becomes a serious moral dilemma for Louis Creed. King paints Louis as a loving husband and father, but one who plays his cards close to his chest, and quietly struggles alone. The stress of fatherhood is not something he ever talks about and very rarely even admits to himself, choosing instead to repress his darker emotions. He is also a doctor - therefore a rational man - and many of his inner monologues in the novel involve attempt to explain the abnormal in logical terms. After the specter of Victor Pascow, a student who died in his care, appears to him one night and leads him up to the Pet Sematary bearing a warning of doom, he dismisses the dried mud and twigs on his bare feet the next morning by reasoning that he must have sleepwalked while dreaming. Even after Church returns from the grave, Louis tells himself that he must have buried the cat alive while he was unconscious, not dead.

As someone in the profession of saving lives, he is all the more grieved that he was ineffective at saving the life of his own son. The ability to actually bring someone back from the dead represents a “final frontier” in the field of medicine, but, like Frankenstein's man-made creation, the result bears disastrous consequences. Although Dr. Creed is more multi-faceted and human than Dr. Frankenstein, Pet Sematary still sees fit to punish him, not only because he tampered with dark forces, but because he did not consider his son’s feelings about being resurrected from the dead.

The fact that Louis is a doctor also gives him a somewhat simplified view of his family life, and of people in general. I myself find that doctors often seem to look at their patients the way a mechanic looks at a car, as if a physical ailment is merely a problem that either can or cannot be solved. Though he loves his family, it seems at times that he wants to “cure” them when they go through personal problems. As Terry Heller explains, Louis is a man with conflicting morals (Love and Death). Although I do not necessarily agree with all of the Freudian and Oedipal baggage that Heller attributes to his character, I do agree that Louis is a mixed-up soul. There are times when he grows tired of his fatherly responsibility and misses his more carefree days as a pot-smoking, Ramones-listening med student. This is evidenced in his initial reluctance to get Church neutered, for fear of killing the "go-to-hell look" in the old rascal’s eyes. When Louis has the house to himself, he takes great pleasure in eating artery-clogging breakfast sandwiches, drinking the milk from the carton, and going to bed without brushing his teeth. He also fantasizes numerous times about becoming a medic at Disney World, a place which no doubt represents a kind of Never-Never Land that is free of adult problems and familial obligations. During the drive to Maine at the beginning of the book, he contemplates leaving his family in a restaurant and fleeing to Florida, and when the dream reoccurs later on, Gage rides with him in his Mickey Mouse-eared ambulance, but his wife and daughter are nowhere to be found.

Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, a favorite bedtime story of Ellie’s, is also alluded to several times. It’s a fantasy that is appealing to Louis because it’s one in which “[a] boy can freely cross impossible borders to the land of monsters, romp with them, and return home to find his supper ready for him” (Heller). The dark power of the Pet Sematary represents not only a forbidden land of monsters, but also a presumed “easy way” for Louis to make things right with his family, as opposed to the “hard way” of sitting down and talking about it. But, much like the Dark Side of the Force in one of our most popular modern-day myths, the quick and easy path rapidly turns a man with good, if misguided intentions into an agent of evil.

Louis’s transformation is gradual, because the “rules” of the supernatural force are not explained outright. The reader slowly begins to understand how the telepathic powers of the Pet Sematary as the characters themselves do. As it happens, the Micmac burial grounds became spiritually contaminated long ago, when victims of cannibalism were buried there. It became the habitat of the Wendigo, a monstrous evil spirit of Native American folklore. But, like the spirits of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, it is not omnipotent; it needs assistance from human beings to wreak havoc on the world. As Jud theorizes, the restlessness of the Wendigo occurs in cycles, like the phases of the moon. In the past, it resurrected various children’s pets that came back not too much worse for wear, but when finds a human with enough recklessness and grief, it latches onto them, causing said person to attempt to become its master, when they are really its slave. When a body is buried there, they return not as themselves, but as a vessel for the Wendigo’s spirit. Louis, Jud, Church, Gage and even Rachel become part of a deadly domino chain, pawns that the creature uses to its will. The actual goal of the creature remains unforetold, even at the conclusion of the book, which ends with one of the most chilling cliffhangers ever written.

Although the supernatural horror is one of dubious power and influence, its marriage with everyday, real-world horrors really makes a true work of genius. Death is such a horror: one of the few things that human beings, with all our knowledge and development, still have no control over. For the Creeds, it starts off innocently enough, with the death of a pet. It’s something that everyone who has owned one can relate to. Even though we know that the feline or canine lifespan is only a fraction of our own, and that they will die someday, it’s still unbearably sad when they do. Reportedly, the demise of Church was inspired by the death of Smucky, King’s daughter Naomi’s cat, and Ellie’s monologue (when Louis explains that God takes all the cats in the world up to Kitty Heaven at some point or another, she tearfully cries “But he’s my cat! Let God have his own cat!”) was transcribed word for word from a tantrum she threw after its burial (AllExperts). Smucky’s name is even referenced on one of the gravestones in the Pet Sematary: “Smucky the Cat. He was obedient.

Then, there is the death of Gage. Even though it happens all over the world, we still regard the death of a child as the worst atrocity that fate can allow. As a rule, fathers are not supposed to bury their sons. In a fair and just world, it should simply never be. For Louis, the violent death of his child, and the subsequent grief that beseeches his family, is a real-world horror greater than any supernatural one that can be brought about by the Pet Sematary. The best-case scenario, Louis reasons, would be that in his resurrected state, Gage would resemble a slightly mentally retarded child, and if so, of course he and his family would still love him. And whatever the worst-case scenario could be, Louis goes to sleep with his syringe on the bedside table, repeatedly telling himself he can handle it.

Another real-world horror is Zelda, Rachel’s older sister, who has been a skeleton in her closet since childhood. Zelda suffered from spinal meningitis, which withered her away to a shrieking, bed-ridden, bony monstrosity. Demanding constant care and attention, Zelda stunk up the bedroom she was confined to with the smell of death and disease, and became a manifestation of all that Rachel feared. “Oz the Gweat and Tewwible” from Frank L. Baum’s book was her favorite literary character, which is what Rachel began to see her as – a fairy tale monster, a real-live boogeyman, who existed in her home. Rachel secretly hoped that Zelda would die, and suffered not only from the guilt of feeling such a thing toward a member of her family, but also a fear that somehow Zelda knew what she was thinking. When their parents visited relatives during Passover, they left the two of them in the house alone, and Zelda finally did die from deliberately choking on her food. The trauma was so great that Rachel found it so hard to deal with death as natural occurrence well into adulthood. It’s why she gets so angry with Louis for allowing Jud Crandall to show Ellie the Pet Sematary, and why the grief over Gage’s death drives her nearly insane. When finally comes face-to-face the reborn Gage, she actually mistakes him at first for Zelda, returned from the grave to take revenge.

The image of young Gage, clad in his dirt-caked burial suit with a surgical scalpel in hand, about to pounce on his mother after killing Jud Crandall, is one of the most frightening in any of King’s books. But the true horror of Pet Sematary lies in the living, loving and caring human mind, and the choices it is doomed to make when faced with the supernatural. It is not a tale of the innocent being menaced by an evil force, it is one in which the hidden guilt, repressed emotions, and conflicting desires are brought into the light by the supernatural. The Wendigo spirit has the power to influence people, cause fatal accidents, and resurrect the slain, but it is Louis Creed who actually does the work that unleashes it from the confines of the Micmac burial ground, allowing it to destroy everything he holds dear. And perhaps the scariest thing about Pet Sematary is, in Louis’s place, don't you think you'd be tempted to do the same?