I was reminded of King’s novel by – of all things! – a clip from the 1980 episode of The Muppet Show, featuring Linda Ronstadt. One of the sketches in the show had Rowlf the dog singing: ‘The Cat Came Back’, updated from the song by Harry S. Miller, originally written in 1893.
The Muppet version’s a hilarious sketch and hearing the following lyrics from the chorus prompted me to re-read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary:
But the cat came back
She wouldn’t stay away
She was sitting on the porch
The very next day
The cat came back
She didn’t want to roam
The very next day
It was home sweet home.
Yep! A nostalgia trip back through Muppetville brought me back to King’s creepy classic for the second time! As a double-whammy, the song is also mentioned in the course of the story.
In Pet Sematary, Doctor Louise Creed and his wife, Rachel, fall in love with their new home in Maine. They have two children: daughter, Ellie, and son, Gage, who is still a toddler. They also have a cat, Church (named after Winston Churchill). The location of their home is not without its drawbacks: there is a wide road with trucks that thunder back and forth across it at every hour. Their elderly neighbor, the wise and friendly Jud Crandall, saves Gage from wandering into the road before they have even set foot into the house. After Ellie spots the narrow footpath leading into the woods, Jud senses their curiosity and takes them on a guided tour. It’s a long trek that snakes right into the heart of the woods and leads them to a place, created and maintained by children over many generations, called the Pet Sematary. Rachel is immediately spooked by the place as it triggers her phobia of death, relating to the tragedy of her deformed sister, Zelda, a victim of Spinal Meningitis. Ellie is fascinated by the grave markers and Jud explains that cemeteries are places of remembering, where the dead rest and the markers speak. Rachel takes the children to see her folks, but Louis declines the trip because of tensions between him and the in-laws. While the family are away, Church is found dead on Jud’s front lawn, presumably another road-kill victim. Jud leads Louis past the Pet Sematary, to an ancient Micmac burial ground and instructs him to bury the cat there. Afterwards, he urges Louis to keep the incident a secret. The next day, the cat is back, but its nature is markedly different. Tragedy soon strikes again and this time Gage is killed by a speeding truck. Will Louis’ grief drive him to the burial ground again? I first read this novel in 1983, when I was 15. The ending made the hairs rise up on the nape of my neck and the story stayed with me ever since. It was a treat to read it again after so many years.
The characters are rich and there are some brilliantly described passages, particularly the long trek through the woods, where the loons howl in the distance. There are also lines of narrative and dialogue in both the book and faithful 1989 movie adaptation that resonate in the memory: ‘Each buries his own … The soil of a man’s heart is stonier … A man grows what he can and tends it … What you buy is what you own … And what you own, always comes home to you.’
This is one of King’s best stories about tragedy, loss, bereavement, and the high price that can come from giving in to temptation.
Don’t be tempted to mess with burial grounds – Micmac or otherwise. As Jud Crandall warns: “What you put up there, isn’t what comes back. Sometimes, dead is better.”
Stephen King sets the tone for this story brilliantly from the beginning: Death is a mystery and burial a secret.