It was the scariest thing I’d ever read.
The fear didn’t start there, but it reached its greatest height in chapter 58. Louis had sent his wife and daughter away, so he could be alone to do what he had to do. He climbed the fence into the graveyard with tools for digging. The ground where they had buried Gage was still loose. Losing his mind all the while, he bundled his infant son up into a tarp and took him to the place beyond the pet cemetery, the one that Jud had showed him when they found the dead cat. After that, he’d gone back home, passing out in bed, drained by his grief and the terrible power of that place.
Jud’s body jerked awake, almost falling out of his chair. Something was in his house. There was the faint squeaking of hinges, the creaking of old floorboards. The sound of small feet, shuffling through the living room. I can even remember some of the lines . . . he could smell the thing which had come into his house . . . the door opened and let in shadows, one of the shadows was more substantial than the others . . . the thing that had come into his house was still indistinct, but Jud could hear it breathing . . . and the cat was there, the damned cat, but it wasn’t alone.
And the line that gripped me so tightly . . . then his eyes moved in the other direction and fixed on the thing which had come in with the cat . . .
After a line like this, there wasn’t much description necessary. I don’t think there even was that much, as this was a writer who’d seen a thousand scary movies, read a million scary stories. He knew that sometimes less is more, that sometimes it was best to leave the monster obscured by the dark. If all you’ve got is a cheap rubber mask, you let the imagination of the audience fill in the blanks, for we can come up with something far worse than whatever you put on the page or the screen.
So there was little description of the boy. There was the smell, that terrible irreversible stench of the grave. One of his eyes was staring off eerily into space, the other one fixed on Jud, and then he spoke. He was just a child, no more than a toddler, and he spoke with a toddler’s tiny voice. But he said, “I’ve come to send your rotten, stinking old soul straight to hell. You fucked with me once. Did you think I wouldn’t come back sooner or later and fuck with you?”
I was thirteen years old.
I’d already been writing stories since I was a child myself, from derivative tales of boys rescued by collies to old men avenged by puppets, but this was one of the first times I’d really been inspired. This was the first time I’d read something and said, holy shit, I wanna do this too. My heart was pounding. It was fear, but it was more than just that: it was dread. I’ve heard many people speak ill of Stephen King since then, calling him everything from overrated to a hack, braggart friends who claimed that they could write better than he did. Maybe some of that is even true, but in that moment all that I could think was . . .
This is the scariest thing I’ve ever read.
It took a while before anyone made a movie from Pet Sematary. There had already been a bunch of Stephen King on the big screen by then, with varying degrees of success, but this was the one I was really looking forward to. I had spent endless hours in darkened theaters and living rooms with my friend Dave, watching every scary movie we could find. We’d definitely seen some shit, and even become a bit jaded about horror films. Someone’s gonna jump out now, one of us would say. Yeah, it’ll be the cat, the other would reply. We still jumped too sometimes but had long ago stopped being scared. We’d definitely not felt dread in a long time.
But then there was Pet Sematary in 1989 . . .
Okay, it wasn’t that good. Fred Gwynne was pretty spot-on for Jud, and they got it right when it came to Victor Pascow, the kid who gets nailed by a car near the beginning of the book. But otherwise . . . the casting was off, some of the acting pretty wooden, and I wasn’t sure if that cute little kid would be able to inspire fear. Still, as the moment of truth crept closer . . . that scene from the book that I just described above . . . I was literally on the edge of my seat. Dave and I looked at each other in the darkened theater, cringed, and steeled ourselves for the terrible reveal . . .
No, man. That’s not it. That’s not the Gage-thing from the book. This kid has not been slammed into by a damn semi-truck, not at all. What is that, a bandage on his head?? Oh, for Christ’s sake, he was hit by a goddamn semi!! This is all wrong . . . this isn’t scary at all, this isn’t even mildly disturbing . . .
I was twenty years old. Therefore, I’d made it through at least ten years of being bullied in school. I had figured out that my parents were just people and had no more answers to anything than I did. I’d waited to lose my virginity in a moment when I was sure the angels would sing, only to end up on an oil-slicked garage floor in the middle of the night. I had loved and lost, then lost again. I’d had at least three different jobs by then and already knew that working for a living was total bullshit.
But this . . . this was the most disappointing moment ever.
Dave and I shook our heads, and we’ve been shaking them ever since. Even when we met Denise Crosby (who played the wife, Rachel) at a horror convention a few weeks ago, we were shaking our heads. Nice enough lady, she made us laugh, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her . . . lady, your movie taught me more about disappointment than even marriage did. Years later and I couldn’t think about Pet Sematary (1989) and not get pissed off, or at least a little sad.
Apparently, that wasn’t the end of it.
When I started hearing several years ago that there might be a remake, there were mixed feelings. We’re dead in the middle of the age of remakes. There’s still some originality out there, but the bulk of the past ten years has been comprised of redo’s, reimaginings, and replays. Still, this was the one that thrilled my dark soul, the possibility that they might actually get it right. I kept up on the news from the set, the way that the screenwriters were talking about character and subtlety, the way they described it as more of a tragedy than even a horror movie.
Things seem to be going in the right direction . . .
Dave and I agreed that we’d go see this one together. It was like, after all the disappointments of our lives, with the lines growing around our eyes and the grey sneaking into our hair, there might be this moment of cinematic redemption, something finally done right that had once been so bad. It was a strange feeling to be getting from a horror movie about a dead kid, because it was something like hope, but there it was.
Then I heard the first rumor . . . that it wasn’t Gage who was going to die in this version, it was his older sister. Wait, hold on. The filmmakers said it was something about the girl being a better actor. Well, dammit, then you find an older kid who can pass for a toddler. Seriously, did you people miss the point of the book?? That it was so horrific because it was such a little kid??? That all of these words, these terrible words from a terrible place, should not be coming out of the mouth of a three-year old child???
It was like all the disappointments of my entire life had been renewed. You know, revisited, reimagined . . . remade, goddammit. But I took a deep breath . . . it’s just a movie, after all . . . and then I eventually saw a statement from Stephen King himself. He’d seen the movie . . . and proclaimed that it’s fucking great. Okay, okay . . . this was from the guy who wrote the original story, the guy who once said that it scared him more than anything else he’d ever written.
So the opening credits roll. Dave and I are there, popcorn and hope in hand. An impressive point-of-view shot above the trees, like the spirit of the Micmac Indians watching over the horrors that are about to unfold . . .
The cinematography is solid, and the acting is already better than the original version.
After the first few scenes, I realize that I’ve made my peace with the sibling switcheroo. They’ve built up the little girl’s character a little more, and she’s pretty convincing. John Lithgow is fine, though I’m still missing Fred Gwynne . . . and this Pascow isn’t quite as memorable as the other . . . but Louis and Rachel are selling it really well. The first time one of those semi-trucks roars past on the road by their new house, I get chills. Yeah, I’m thinking, this is an improvement . . .
Then comes the scene where the child ends up in the road . . .
Ooooh, that’s brutal. Still not as brutal as it could have been, but they played me really good. The way it worked out was even more cruel to the movie parents than it was in the book. That, and the almost-unremarked smear of blood on the semi-trailer was a nice touch . . .
Yeah, maybe we’re going to be okay.
So here goes Louis, climbing the fence into the graveyard . . . retrieving his daughter . . . and here he is, carrying this tiny body through the foggy woods . . . to the burial site, with the stony ground . . . a man’s heart is stonier . . . pushing the dirt over her face, with the tiny, nearly inaudible I’m sorry . . . as a parent myself, my heart aches . . . and then he goes back to his lonely house, to pass out in grief and wait for her to return . . .
The squeaking of hinges, the creaking of floorboards . . . Louis wakes up . . . and we follow him, slowly . . . building tension . . . as he walks outside . . . sees footsteps . . . creeps down the creaky basement stairs . . .
And the voice, Daddy . . .
Okay . . . she’s not been decimated by the semi-truck, but . . . it’s better than the first movie, and the one eye that stares off into space is kinda creepy . . . the way she cuddles up against him, and the tears in his eyes . . . because he knows that none of this is right . . .
Like the movie itself is still not right.
It’s close . . . and, at least up to this scene, it would have worked. Even with the changes. Had she shown a little more unearthly knowledge . . . had Louis taken a syringe, or maybe his own hands . . . and tried to take her out right then, in a horrific but somehow tender scene . . . despite all the things that had been lost from the book, this would have worked . . .
But that’s not where they ended it.
Not at all.
I won’t even get into it, not here. Anyone who’s read the book or seen the original movie will obviously not be surprised by anything I’ve just said. But the rest of the movie veers pretty far from the book. Far enough, in fact, that I think the filmmakers might have missed the whole point . . . or maybe they succumbed to studio pressures for the final ten minutes of the film. Because that’s where it all goes wrong for me.
Soon, it was all over.
Sometimes less is more, I said to Dave as the credits rolled. We were shaking our heads, again. We sat there in the aftermath, watching our childhoods burn. Again. They had come so close this time, but they were still miles away. Yeah, I might be taking it personally, but this was my book, dammit. This was the moment when I truly figured out what I wanted to do with my life. It’s like the only lesson they had for me, thirty years later, was . . . don’t ever get your hopes up, for you will only be disappointed. The scariest part of everything is that we could all have gotten it right.