Sometimes dead is better. This is a frequently said comment by one of the central characters in this novel about coming to terms with loss.
It's one of the fears that I suppose we all have where we suddenly lose someone close to us, worse if that someone is our small child. In the preface Stephen King explains how a near road accident involving his very young son inspired this book. Yes, I know that fear.
The story starts when a family lose their beloved cat to a busy road. Close by is an ancient burial ground where local children made a pet 'sematary', complete with a misspelled sign. There are stories of it having the power to resurrect the dead. So of course the protagonist buries the family cat there while his wife and children are away. What harm can it do?
The cat returns from the dead but he is not the same. Less feline grace, smellier and with a new ambitious hunting prowess. The family aren't so keen on the cat anymore. They become quite mean to him as well, especially the protagonist (the husband and father). Let it be noted that I won't turn against my cat if he becomes less fragrant or graceful. Not impressed with this at all.
From cats the focus naturally moves to humans. The themes run throughout the various characters in their ability to accept death and to acknowledge the guilt associated with injury and illness. There are no-go areas when it comes to talking about death, expressed initially when the cat dies and the husband chooses not to tell his wife or children. This leads to him becoming secretive while his wife and her family suppress their guilt concerning a family death no one mentions.
There are some tense moments in this book; the psychological aspects are covered in great depth and understanding, especially the trauma of death, and the gory bits are vividly described. A couple of sections are really quite chilling and there is the hint of the supernatural juxtaposed with the unreliable protagonist as he becomes more unstable. This is well done and convincing.
This is a bleak and depressing work of dark fiction where the chances of a happy ending are practically nil.
Unfortunately there are too many waffly bits that tend to drag on without adding to the overall pace of the story. Pet Sematary would be much better as a novella where the thought provoking tale leaves us wondering what we would do in the same situation. Instead I was wondering when the book would end.
Other books by Stephen King: Mr Mercedes, Gerald's Game, The Dark Half
Originally published in 1983
Best Selling Psychological Fiction
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