We’re kicking off the high holy spooky season, and in honor of the month, I am starting off with Stephen King. Today we are talking about one of the darkest books I’ve ever read, and I’ve read some bleak stuff, but this book has the distinct advantage of not only scaring the hell out of me, but scaring its author just as much. Yes, kiddos, Pet Sematary is the one novel that King himself is on record as having said that scared him so much that he stuck it away in a drawer and tried to forget about. Now, if a book scares that dude so much, can you imagine the effect it had on us mere mortals who get freaked out when the ice maker kicks on in the middle of the night? I mean, not that it’s ever happened to me. But I’ve heard those ice makers can be scary.
The book begins with an introduction by King himself, talking about the inspiration for this story, which came from his own life. He and his family had moved to a small town in Maine as part of his professorial work, and a roadway ran alongside the house on which 18-wheeler trucks often sped by and hit dogs and cats. Well, as luck would have it, King’s daughter Naomi had a pet cat that was hit and killed by one of these trucks, and the night after they buried the poor creature, King heard his daughter raging against the loss of her beloved pet. He writes “Anger is the sanest response to grief that a thinking, feeling human being can have” in admiration of his daughter’s anger at God for taking her cat. I certainly can relate. I was enraged at the death of people I loved in life, particularly my father, for many years and I agree that giving vent to that anger is what keeps us from going nuts. But, that’s where we part ways with sanity in this book.
The plotline, if you’ve never read the book (or seen one of the two film adaptations of it) tells the story of the Creed family when they come to Ludlow, Maine. Just letting you know right now that there are some major spoilers below. Louis Creed is the father, a doctor, and a man who is pretty much at home with the concept of death. His wife Rachel has spent most of her life denying the reality of death and as such, has a rather morbid attitude toward it. Their children Ellie and Gage and their pet cat Churchill, Church for short, all settle in at the new house, alongside which – yup, you guessed it, a roadway runs on which 18-wheeler trucks frequently speed by and have been known to kill many neighborhood cats and dogs, which are buried in a pet cemetery behind the Creed’s new house. Their neighbor, Jud Crandall, befriends the family, particularly bonding with Louis and tells him about the cemetery beyond the one where pets are buried and how that place is cursed and can bring things back to life, but not in any good way.
Church the cat is killed by a truck, buried in the pet sematary – yes, that’s how it’s spelled in the book – by Louis, and comes back as a nasty, mean, smelly cat – and pardon the Friends reference – who is nothing like the sweet, gentle cat that he was in life. When Gage is tragically hit by a truck and dies, Louis in his devastation and grief, digs up his son’s body – one of the most intense and awful scenes in the book – and reburies him in the pet sematary. Well, if you’re guessing that little Gage comes back as a monster, you’d be right. He kills Jud, kills and partially eats his own mother and Louis is forced to kill him again. Louis then takes Rachel’s lifeless body to the pet sematary, thinking that perhaps this time it will work and she will come back as herself and not as a demonically-possessed body like Gage did. But, of course, Rachel too is possessed by the evil Wendigo spirit and the book ends with her dead, soulless body coming back for her husband and calling him “Darling” before she presumably kills him too.
Grief is part of life, part of everything because we, as human beings, attach ourselves to people, to pets, to homes, to jobs, to so many things that are innately temporary. It’s natural to grieve the loss of something you love. It’s when that grief takes a dark turn that you run the risk of destroying others or even yourself. It does beg the question, though, of what would you do if someone you loved more than your own life died and you had the chance to bring them back knowing they’d be……different? Would you do it? Would you play God and take the risk of bringing someone back who was possibly going to be a monster? Not being a parent, I can’t relate to that fear of losing a child and that’s the lens through which this book was written and that’s significant. I have nephews whom I love and one in particular who is like my own child, but again, I am not his mother and I can only imagine the sheer horror of losing a child, a part of your body that grew under your heart, that you helped create. I don’t want to imagine it, actually. So that is another reason why this book is just so affecting and awful and yet so compelling at the same time because it does go down that rabbit hole and not only explores the idea of losing a child, it goes full on balls to wall and explores the absolute darkest depths of the human heart and the truly awful things we do in the name of love.
Death is most definitely a part of life, but for most of us, it’s also the ultimate mystery, the place from which there is no return, and that is as it should be. It doesn’t do any good to mess with the natural order of things in life, and nowhere is this more terrifyingly demonstrated than in this book. This is summed up in the famous words of Louis’s neighbor Judd Crandall.
I think why this story resonates with me so much is because I am not afraid of most things, but the concept of a body reanimating without a soul to anchor it, a body that comes back from the dead and that is just a shell, is possibly the only horror trope that freaks me out so much that I cannot handle it. Ghosts? Meh. Vampires? Bring it. Demons? Cool. But a reanimated corpse? For whatever reason, that concept is one that I truly loathe and fear. And I’m not talking about zombies in the sense of the Walking Dead or Night of the Living Dead. Those zombies are dumb and kind of funny. No, what I’m talking about is the horror of the reanimated body of someone you loved in life but who is certainly that person no longer. And if you saw the 1985 film adaptation of this book, you will understand what I say when I say that the movie version FUCKED ME UP big time. I’ve rarely ever had nightmares in life, but that movie gave me some of the worst dreams I ever remember having, even to this day. The absolute worst scene, and I mean, worse than Gage being hit by the truck, worse than Gage slicing Jud’s Achilles heel and eating him, worse than Rachel coming back from the dead and kissing her husband with her eye oozing goo as she wields the knife……was Zelda. Zelda is Rachel’s sister who died when she was young of spinal meningitis and how she is portrayed is possibly one of the absolute freakiest and most terrifying things I’ve ever seen in a film. Behold….the horrifying Zelda!
Death is natural, inevitable, as are the things we do to prove we are still alive when someone dies. That’s why sometimes when we are grieving we binge-eat junk food. It’s comforting. And this book has a whole lotta food in it. There’s key lime pie, there’s pizza that Louis forgets to pick up on his way home from planning to disinter his son’s body (one can only wonder why he felt the need to order pizza after that), there’s cheese and meat, there’s quiche, hell there’s even a reference to rat cheese! But for me, I chose this particular food passage because it illustrates the sheer banality of the Louis Creed’s life, the calm simplicity of family, home and work, before it is shattered into devastating shards of grief and pain and the insanity of losing a child. Because after all, what is more ordinary, more boringly comfortable, more predictable, than meatloaf?
There was some leftover meatloaf in the refrigerator. Louis cut it into slabs, put them on a slice of Roman Meal bread, and added two thick rounds of Bermuda onion. He contemplated this for a moment before dousing it with ketchup and slamming down another slice of bread. If Rachel and Ellie had been around, they would have wrinkled their noses in identical gestures of distaste – yuck, gross.
Comfort food, by definition, is ordinary, homely, the really kind of boring food that we association with happiness, usually from our childhood and made by someone with whom we felt completely safe and protected. Meatloaf is definitely in that category, though I don’t have any kind of recipe from either my mom or my grandmother. So it’s something I perfected as an adult and eating it now is always comforting to me. I can only imagine how comforting it would be if I were fighting off the body of my resurrected child who was possessed by the murderous, cannibalistic spirit of a Wendigo! Anyway, here is my method for good old meatloaf.
1 tablespoon each of olive oil and unsalted butter
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
3 ribs of celery, finely chopped
6-7 baby carrots, finely chopped
7-10 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 tablespoons of Worchestershire sauce
1 small can tomato sauce
Dried herbs, any type. I usually use dried parsley, dried thyme, dried rosemary and perhaps a pinch of herbes de Provence.
A half pound of lean ground beef
A half pound of ground pork sausage
2 large eggs
1 heaping cup of breadcrumbs
In a large skillet, melt the olive oil and butter together and sauté the onion, celery, carrots, garlic and dried herbs together over medium heat until the vegetables are soft and the onion is translucent, about 10-15 minutes. Flavor with a bit of salt and pepper to taste.
Turn the heat to low and add in the Worchestershire sauce and about a tablespoon of the tomato sauce, mix together and simmer very gently for another 5-10 minutes, then allow to cool for about 15 minutes. Heat your oven to 385F at this point.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the ground beef and ground pork, the eggs, the breadcrumbs, another tablespoon of Worchestershire sauce, and about 3 tablespoons of the tomato sauce. I just use my very clean hands to mix everything, but you can use a large spoon if you want more dishes to wash. Leave to rest while the vegetable mixture is cooling.
Mix the cooled vegetables with the meat-egg-breadcrumb mixture and make sure everything is well combined. In a loaf pan lined with tinfoil, put the meat and press it in well so the meat fits snugly into the pan. Pour over the remainder of the tomato sauce, or you can use ketchup if you are so inclined, but I hate ketchup so it’s tomato sauce for me.
Bake the meatloaf for about an hour then leave to cool another 30 minutes. Lift the meatloaf out of the pan using the ends of the foil so it can cool more evenly, otherwise it will crumble if you cut into it if it’s still too hot.
Get two thick slices of bread, any kind you like though if we’re going full on Americana comfort food, I’d use plain old white bread here. Toast it and slather with mayonnaise and mustard, then put as big a hunk of meatloaf between the two bread slices, and attempt to cram it into your mouth. You may have to cut it in half and start with small bites because this is a monster of a sandwich, but damn, this meatloaf is tasty, if I may pat myself on the back here. Just not Zelda’s twisted-ass back, though!