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Let the Wild Rumpus Start: Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (Part 3)


Let the Wild Rumpus Start: Stephen King’s <i>Pet Sematary</i> (Part 3)

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Let the Wild Rumpus Start: Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (Part 3)

Death may not mean dying, but something worse...

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Published on June 5, 2024

Book cover of Pet Semetary by Stephen King

Welcome back to Reading the Weird, in which we get girl cooties all over weird fiction, cosmic horror, and Lovecraftiana—from its historical roots through its most recent branches. This week, we continue Stephen King’s Pet Sematary with Chapters 11-15. The novel was first published in 1983. Spoilers ahead!


“The soil of a man’s heart is stonier, Louis. A man grows what he can… and tends it.”

Peace returns to the Creed household, thanks to Louis’s concession about neutering Church. Ellie, surprisingly, doesn’t fret about the “very small operation.” Louis explains that afterwards Church will stay in their yard instead of roaming around, and, crucially, that he’ll no longer cross the road. To which Ellie says, “Yay!”

After seeing Ellie onto the school bus, Rachel kisses Louis and says she’s “sorry [she] was such a bitch.” This is her frequent apology after she’s gotten her way, but Louis keeps the thought to himself. Gage, stationed at the door, observes, “Bus… Ellie-bus.” He’s growing up fast, maybe too fast for his parents.

Louis leaves for the infirmary. All’s right again between him and Rachel, but he still wonders whether Zelda’s death was the root cause for Rachel’s blow-up. Again, he knows to keep his mouth shut. Once Church is “fixed,” they won’t need to worry about pet semataries anymore.

Driving into the campus this first day of classes, Louis is struck by the sudden surge in traffic. Joggers are an additional hazard; he has to brake hard to avoid hitting a pair. He gets another start in the infirmary parking lot, where their single ambulance is missing. Joan Charlton, the head nurse, reassures him that the ambulance is only out for radiator repairs. Her first patient of the day was “your basic college hypochondriac,” whose opposite is the jock who’ll play with bone chips to avoid being benched. She tempers her cynicism with a wink. “I don’t take it to heart, Doctor,” she says. “Neither should you.”

His PA, Steve Masterton, is struggling with Blue Cross’s latest pronouncements, so Louis orients their two new candy-stripers, then tackles inventory. He’s jerked from the task by Masterton screaming for help. The first thing Louis sees in the waiting room is blood, a lot of it. One candy-striper’s sobbing. The other, white-faced, fists her mouth into “a big revolted grin.” Masterton kneels by a boy sprawled on the floor. Outside, a crowd presses against the windows.

Charlton hustles one candy-striper into closing the drapes, then going with her for a stretcher. Louis examines his first patient at the university. The boy’s about twenty, tanned and muscular. He’s also going to die. His neck’s broken, and his collarbone juts from his twisted shoulder. Half his head is crushed, exposing his brain. With their ambulance out of service, they call the campus police to arrange for transport to the nearest hospital.

Masterton explains that four students brought Victor Pascow to the infirmary, but he doesn’t know exactly what happened. Louis sends him to round up these students and put them in a room well away from the victim. He’s left alone with Pascow, trying to stabilize his neck as he opens eyes with blue blood-ringed irises. He gurgles, speaks slurred syllables. Louis delivers the standard lie that he’ll be all right. Then, with a mirthless grin, Pascow croaks out, “In the Pet Sematary.”

Louis tries to convince himself that the words are an auditory hallucination. “What did you say?” he whispers. Clear as a mimic bird, Pascow replies, “It’s not the real cemetery.”

With no religious or occult bent, Louis is ill-prepared for this phenomenon. Pascow goes on: “The soil of a man’s heart is stonier, Louis. A man grows what he can… and tends it.”

“Who are you?” Louis asks. The answer’s oblique: “Injun bring my fish… Keep clear, us. Know—” Then Pascow shudders. His eyes lose their vacancy and lock onto Louis’s. Then “everything [in Pascow’s body] lets go at once,” and he dies. Louis draws back, feeling his own consciousness slipping away. By pinching his gums, he staves off fainting.

Now that the “dying Sibyl” has delivered his prophecy, people fill the room: staff, police. It turns out Pascow was hit by a car while jogging with his fiancée, who’s sobbing in the room where Masterton sequestered her. They haven’t had an accident like this in six years, a cop says. “Bad way to start the semester,” he adds. Louis agrees, then starts making calls.

The man who smashed Pascow into a tree was speeding. He was arrested for DUI and vehicular manslaughter. After dealing with the authorities and press, Louis tries to immerse himself in routine paperwork. When Charlton informs him that the blood-soaked waiting room carpet will be replaced in the morning, he gives himself a sedative. Rachel calls, having heard about Pascow on the radio. She urges Louis to come home.

He arrives to find the kids are with a neighbor. Rachel gets him into a bath and administers some sexual healing. After dinner and more amorous therapy, he picks up the kids and gets them and himself into bed. Despite Rachel’s efforts to bring him back to normality, he expects thoughts of Pascow will keep him awake. Instead he’s nearly asleep when Rachel tells him Church is going to the vet the day after tomorrow. Then he “slipped away from everything, down a hole, sleeping deeply and without dreams.”

This Week’s Metrics

The Degenerate Dutch: It’s 1983, and the disabled students in the “Front File” are unlikely to get decent accommodations.

Libronomicon: Unsurprisingly, Louis’s main literary references are kids’ books: Where the Wild Things Are and The Cat in the Hat. Both are fundamentally books about strange creatures bringing chaos to ordinary lives, though with an eventual restoration to normalcy. Rachel goes for a Sayers mystery, not so different when you think about it.

Madness Takes Its Toll: Louis reacts to the dying boy’s unlikely words with “a swooning, mad terror”.

Ruthanna’s Commentary

I swear the scariest thing about this book is the degree to which my childhood decade has become another country. Louis wonders who to call about a dying boy—it isn’t 911, because that didn’t go statewide in Maine until 1988. His nurse and volunteers don’t have CPR or first aid training, but do think it’s reasonable to slap people who’re panicking. Disabled students are “pushing grimly through their college years” with no help from the ADA, passed in 1990.

I’d like to imagine that medical professionals have gotten over being dismissive of the symptoms of sick young women, but… no. Maybe that bit will seem out of date in another 40 years?

The healing power of your wife meeting you at the door in lingerie also feels awfully outdated. Or at least… I guess Rachel knows the bastard, and knows that this is totally what he would want after dealing with the gruesome death of a teenage patient. And it’s 1983, so it’s not like a man would actually want to talk about feelings. The soil of his heart is stonier, after all. He’s had hot sex, and he’s fine.

Women, when not soothing men’s suppressed emotions with alternatives to talking, continue to be a source of panic and screaming—to be treated with slaps and sedatives and “deliberate harshness” rather than scantily clad boyfriends (at least on-page). At the clinic, only Louis pulls himself together despite his inner turmoil. I guess that’s why they pay him the big bucks ($67k per year—it’s 1983, did I mention). 

But Ruthanna, what about the first hints of “the nightmare”? This is not a treatise on how much the 80s sucked actually. The supernatural shows itself briefly, for the first time, through the mundane horror of Victor’s death. A boy with his head caved in shouldn’t be able to talk clearly, and he certainly shouldn’t know Louis’s name, or mention the Pet Sematary, or drop folk wisdom about the soil of a man’s heart. Something is speaking through him. Something older and stranger, and with a disturbingly Joker-esque grin.

Something that says the Pet Sematary isn’t the real cemetery. The real cemetery is, I presume, the prototypical Indian Burial Ground. Perhaps the local kids, who tend the sematary so carefully, also pick up some trace of the cemetery that their community does the opposite of honor. 

Eighties white American culture had only a vaguely conscious awareness of its bone-piled foundations. But that vague awareness sure did make everyone nervous. The possibility of paying for colonial privilege is scary. Fear pads itself with urban legends and ghost stories, King’s one among many.

The other scary thing here is cars. In some ways this story is an inverse Christine, with no possessing spirit required to make the things deadly. Mothers Against Drunk Driving was founded in 1980, a turning point in treating DUIs as a serious problem rather than a fact-of-life source of tragedy and poor-taste jokes. Louis is constantly aware of the truck-infested road in front of his house, the pedestrians and bikers he nearly hits on his way to work, the out-somewhere ambulance, a series of barely-averted collisions. Driving is a stream of counterfactuals and almosts; if you’re lucky you stay in the timeline where the almosts are worse than reality. Think about it too hard and you might turn in your driver’s license—but then you’re the one biking or walking on the other side of the equation.

This is not going to be a book about lucky drivers.

Anne’s Commentary

Poor Carla and Judy, the rookie candy-stripers whom Louis and Nurse Charlton have barely oriented before all hell breaks loose—hell in the form of blood, intracranial fluid, exposed brains, and, for lagniappe, a protruding collarbone. As a former candy-striper, I feel for them. The term candy-striper, I understand, is less frequently used nowadays. It refers to the red-and-white striped jumpers (over white shirts) that female volunteers wore. They were usually high-schoolers or college students considering a medical career.

I worked in a general hospital affiliated with the Catholic Church and so partly staffed by nuns who could be as hardcore as King’s Charlton while managing to keep their white bibs and coifs crisply starched. I earned my own headdress of honor after a year’s service: a red-and-white striped cap I failed to keep crisply starched, but then, only the stripers determined to become nuns did that. My worst experiences were far less dramatic than Carla and Judy’s. I got called out for having runs in my white pantyhose, thus exposing leg skin. I dropped a bedpan while the chaplain was making his daily rounds. I inadvertently walked into a quarantine room. Then there was Leo, a patient with a lively form of dementia that made him come on to all us nubile stripers. Despite being strapped into a geri chair, he one day leaned way forward, arms extended, trapping me between the wall and his bed. I escaped by scrambling across the bed, for which I got called out for immodest if resourceful behavior.

Leo got slapped by the ward nun. They got away with stuff like that at the time. I suppose Charlton gets away with slapping Judy, too. But the nuns and “civilian” nurses at my hospital were good for us stripers, making sure we got well-acquainted with the unpleasant and downright gross sides of nursing. You found out if you were suited to medical work fast.

The one thing the nurses shielded us from was death. We weren’t allowed in the ICU or emergency room. If there was a moribund patient on our ward, we weren’t assigned to them. The morgue was strictly off-limits; I never learned where exactly in the labyrinthine basement it was. Not that I dared to try. It would have cost me my limp but treasured cap.

Louis Creed doesn’t expect to face death on his first official day as infirmary administrator. He’s just taken care of the Church problem, and the worst ailments he expects to treat routinely are colds, flus, cuts requiring a few stitches, sprains, lice infestations, and STDs. He’s alarmed when he notices their one ambulance missing—what could’ve happened bad enough to require its use? Nothing, just a mechanical problem. Earlier, having nearly collided with joggers himself, he can wonder that there aren’t more serious car-student interactions on campus.

Omens, doc. Wait, you’re “a man with no deep religious training, no bent toward the superstitious or the occult.” You wouldn’t believe in omens. Never mind. You’re about to get bitch-slapped by some flat-out supernatural phenomena. A man dying of brain damage that precludes any vocalization beyond groans suddenly speaks clearly, and grins. That’s bad. He names the Pet Sematary, then adds, “It’s not the real cemetery.” That’s worse, because how could Pascow know what’s been so much on Louis’s mind lately? The weirdness ratchets up. Pascow addresses Louis by name, saying: “The soil of a man’s heart is stonier, Louis. A man grows what he can… and tends it.” Pure non sequitur, or does it legitimately follow mention of a cemetery? And… doesn’t it sound like something Jud Crandall might say?

In fact, Crandall says this exact thing in Chapter 22, ten chapters ahead of the Pascow death scene, making whatever’s speaking from his near-corpse prescient. “The soil of a man’s heart” statement recurs six more times in Louis’s internal monologue. If Pet Sematary were an opera, the music accompanying the “soil of a man’s heart” would be the work’s most ominous leitmotif.

Shaken as he is, Louis asks Pascow a cogent question in “Who are you?” Pascow cannot be speaking for himself. Someone or something must’ve possessed him. Or is it a serial possession, with several personae using Pascow as their speakerphone? The first speaker’s followed by one (or more?) using pidgin English. “Injun bring my fish” sounds like the recipient of a sacrifice or tribute. “Keep clear, us. Know—” sounds like a group that knows better than to deal with the sacrifice recipient. Finally Pascow’s eyes clear and find Louis’s, making Louis think he’ll speak again, in what, Pascow’s actual voice?

But Pascow’s out of words.

Who was he, in those last minutes of his life? The answer’s critical, because that who is probably the presence that’s dogged Louis since his arrival in Ludlow and that first manifested strongly in the dread-seizure that gripped Louis as he carried Gage upstairs for a nap. Previously it may have caused the mini-crises that welcome the Creeds to their new home: Ellie’s fall, Gage’s bee-sting, Louis losing the house keys. It may have set up the “Sybil’s” communication between Louis and Pascow, first by getting rid of the infirmary’s ambulance via poltergeist tweaking of the radiator, then by inducing a vulnerable (drunk) motorist to speed through the jogger-ridden campus.

Later, another driver will get the urge to speed just in time to commit manslaughter.

What it’s coming down to, I sense, is Dr. Montague’s “aidao domo,” the House of Hades, a habitation born bad. In the Creeds’ case, their new house may not be the badness epicenter, just unluckily close enough to feel its influence.

And so Ludlow joins King’s pantheon of evil-plagued towns: ‘Salem’s Lot, Castle Rock, Derry. Like these places, Ludlow knows darkness. Knows it to its core, where death may not be dying, but something worse.

Next week, we go from the hills to the ocean in Seanan McGuire’s “Sister Dearest Sister, Let Me Show to You the Sea”. You can find it in Ellen Datlow’s The Devil and the Deep anthology. icon-paragraph-end

About the Author

Ruthanna Emrys


Ruthanna Emrys lives in a mysterious manor house in the outskirts of Washington DC with her wife and their large, strange family. She makes home-made vanilla, obsesses about game design, gives unsolicited advice, occasionally attempts to save the world, and blogs sporadically about these things at her Livejournal. Her stories have appeared in a number of venues, including Strange Horizons and Analog. Ruthanna Emrys lives in a mysterious manor house in the outskirts of Washington DC with her wife and their large, strange family. She makes home-made vanilla, obsesses about game design, gives unsolicited advice, occasionally attempts to save the world, and blogs sporadically about these things at her Livejournal. Her stories have appeared in a number of venues, including Strange Horizons and Analog.
Learn More About Ruthanna

About the Author

Anne M. Pillsworth


Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “Geldman’s Pharmacy” received honorable mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Thirteenth Annual Collection. She currently lives in a Victorian “trolley car” suburb of Providence, Rhode Island. Summoned is her first novel.

Learn More About Anne M.
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