Digging Deeper: Stephen King’s Sources/Allusions in Pet Sematary

As can be seen from my recent series of posts, I have been in a Pet Sematary frame of mind lately. Prior to the release of the new film adaptation, I reread Stephen King’s 1983 novel (one of my personal favorites). At the time of my reread, there was a lot of media buzz about how the new film was reworking the source novel, which got me thinking about King’s own literary sources for (and pop cultural allusions in) Pet Sematary. Here are a (grave)dirty dozen examples that I was able to excavate:

1.Most obviously, King’s novel is inspired by W.W. Jacobs’s classic 1902 weird tale, “The Monkey’s Paw.” King invokes Jacobs’s story of ill-fated wishing in an epigraph, and within the narrative itself, King’s protagonist Louis Creed calls the piece to mind: “And suddenly Louis found himself thinking of the story of the monkey’s paw, and a cold terror slipped into him.” King picks up on Jacobs’s theme of compounding bad decisions: Louis (who’s slow to learn that “sometimes dead is better”) plants not just Church, but also Gage and Rachel in the sour soil of the Micmac burial ground. While the frightfully resurrected son Herbert in “The Monkey’s Paw” is wished away from the doorstep in the nick of time, Gage returns all the way home, to devastating effect: “What comes when you’re too slow wishing away the thing that knocks on your door in the middle of the night is simple enough: total darkness.”

2.In epigraphs to all three parts of the novel, King quotes (or more accurately, paraphrases) the Gospel story of the resurrection of Lazarus. This Bible tale of revival underlines Jesus’s divinity–his power, as the son of God, to perform miracles. By contrast, the ironically-surnamed Louis Creed is “a lapsed Methodist” who “did not attend church” and who had “no deep religious training.” His calling forth of Gage from the grave is a decidedly more unholy (and unwise) act.

3.At one key point in the novel, Jud tellingly says to Louis: “But bringing the dead back to life…that’s about as close to playing God as you can get, ain’t it?” Pet Sematary clearly aligns with the theme of Promethean transgression in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. A sardonic Louis will even go on to refer to the returned Church as “Frankencat.”

4.Church also hearkens back to the titular feline in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat.” While not shaded the same color, Church reflects the black cat in his uncanny return from the dead. His macabre tormenting of Louis also parallels the ruinous effect of the antagonistic black cat on Poe’s narrator.

5.In journeying into the deep, dark New England woods, King follows the literary trail of Nathaniel Hawthorne. King scholar Anthony Magistrale (in  Landscape of Fear) explicitly links the works of the two writers:

Hawthorne’s woods are a place of spiritual mystery; in them, young Goodman Brown, Reuben Bourne, and minister Arthur Dimmesdale must confront their own darkest urges. In Pet Sematary, Hawthorne’s historical sense of puritanical gloom associated with the forest is mirrored in King’s ancient Micmac Indian burial ground. Dr. Louis Creed, like so many of Hawthorne’s youthful idealists, discovers in the Maine woods that evil is no mere abstraction capable of being manipulated or ignored. Instead he finds his own confrontation with evil to be overwhelming, and like Hawthorne’s Ethan Brand and Goodman Brown, he surrenders to its vision of chaos and corruption.

I would just expand upon Magistrale by positing that all the “soil of a man’s heart is stonier” rhetoric in Pet Sematary is a deliberate nod toward Hawthorne’s story “Ethan Brand.” Just as Brand, in his obsession with unpardonable sin, has his own heart transmute into marble/limestone at story’s end, a woebegone Louis Creed at novel’s end refers to “the stone that had replaced his heart.”

6.Exactly one paragraph after mentioning the Creature from the Black Lagoon, King returns to the world of Universal monster movies, as Louis uncharitably characterizes his in-laws as “Im-Ho-Tep and his wife the Sphinx.” The allusion to The Mummy is fitting, in that the film (like Pet Sematary) centers on a troublesome resurrection.

7.Louis is equally allusive in the scene when Church is first discovered lying dead on the side of road. Conscious of the “eerie and gothic” nature of “the whole setting,” Louis invokes Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights: “Here’s Heathcliff out on the desolate moors, Louis thought, grimacing against the cold. Getting ready to pop the family cat into a Hefty Bag. Yowza.

8.During Halloween season, Ellie Creed hears “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” at school, and her excited recounting of it when she comes home leads Gage to babble about “Itchybod Brain.” Washington Irving’s genteel ghost story furnishes a moment of amusement for the Creed family, who don’t realize they are about to experience much grimmer horror. The Headless Horseman prefigures the hinted-at decapitation of Gage during the tragic accident in the road (when later robbing his son’s grave, Louis notes “the grinning circlet of stitches which held Gage’s head onto his shoulders”).

9.King’s woods-haunting, human-possessing antagonist in Pet Sematary traces back to Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo.” The creature (drawn from Native American mythology) in Blackwood’s classic narrative is sensed moving around the hunters’ campsite, just as Louis Creed hears “crackling underbrush and breaking branches. Something was moving out there–something big.” Blackwood’s Wendigo leaves a noxious aroma lingering; King’s Wendigo is similarly marked by its “eldritch, sickening smell.” King’s novel (particularly as it builds towards its climax) also picks up on Blackwood’s association of the Wendigo with menacing wind.

10.Pet Sematary alludes to classic films about the undead, from White Zombie to Night of the Living Dead. Jud points to the former when he says to Louis: “You know, they have these stories and these movies–I don’t know if they’re true–about zombies down in Haiti. In the movies they just sort of shamble along, with their dead eyes starin straight ahead, real slow and sort of clumsy. Timmy Baterman was like that, Louis, like a a zombie in a movie, but he wasn’t. There was something more. There was somethin goin on behind his eyes.” Indeed, unlike “George Romero’s stupid, lurching movie zombies,” figures such as Timmy Baterman and Gage possess (thanks to the Wendigo’s reanimation/infiltration of their corpses) a fiendish intellect.

11.Timmy Baterman and Gage convey dirty secrets of the grave, tormentingly taunting the living by voicing the vile deeds of their deceased loved ones. King appears to borrow such explicitness from The Exorcist (cf. the Pazuzu-possessed Regan’s profane exchanges with Father Damien). Gage is positively demonic in his shocking revelation to Jud that his wife Norma cuckolded him and had a secret kink for anal sex: “What a cheap slut she was. She fucked every one of your friends, Jud. She let them put it up her ass. That’s how she liked it best. She’s burning down in hell, arthritis and all. I saw her there, Jud. I saw her there.”

12.In Pet Sematary, King makes several connections to his own oeuvre. Early on, Cujo is alluded to, when Jud notes: “Lots of rabies in Maine now. There was a big old St. Bernard went rabid downstate a couple of years ago and killed four people.” The town of Jerusalem’s Lot is mentioned in passing, as well as Derry and Haven–fictional locales that King would make famous in subsequent novels such as It and The Tommyknockers. Pet Sematary also anticipates The Dark Half when Louis discusses the concept “that the fetus of one twin can sometimes swallow the fetus of the other in utero, like some kind of unborn cannibal, and then show up with teeth in his testes or in his lungs twenty of thirty years later to prove that he did it.” The most extensive connection, though, is with The Shining. The Creeds, like the Torrances in the earlier novel, have their family ripped apart by the evil machinations of a Bad Place (The Micmac Burial Ground and the Overlook Hotel, respectively). Plot devices used in both novels form clear parallels: Rachel Creed’d desperate quest to return home to Ludlow from Chicago recalls Dick Halloran’s Florida-to-Colorado odyssey, his attempt make it back to the Overlook in time to save Danny. If there’s any doubt that King had The Shining in mind when writing Pet Sematary, consider this line that the character Steve hits Louis Creed with: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, you know.”

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