Stephen King: Pet Sematary; Doubleday; New York.
If it is true that popular literature, in however unexamined a fashion, embodies many of the presuppositions of an age, then the last decade and a half’s spate of supernatural shockers raises some intriguing questions. According to the higher wisdom of the academy, for instance, the creature known as Modern Man has outgrown the supernatural. (Hence, in the 60’s some prominent theologians proclaimed the logical conclusion of a century of rationalizing theology: God is dead and the Secular City of liberal good deeds isat hand.) Yet nobody who has spent 10 minutes during the last 10 years looking at a rack of popular paperbacks in this country would reach the same conclusion. In mass fiction and movies, unearthly horrors abound, suggesting at the least that the Age of Secular Man is on hold.
How are we to account for the popularity of works which, according to most of the official definitions of modernity, should scarcely be finding readers at all? Literary critics are not of much help here. Most treat the Gothic novel and its successor, the ghost or horror story, as a covert exploration of the darker, usually sexual, aspects of the psyche, culminating in James’s The Turn of the Screw, wherein the supernatural reveals itself as the psychological. Since ours is an age obviously awash in psychoanalytical “awareness” and sexual liberation, there would seem to exist no further need for symbolic spooks to treat sexual themes. Thus the tale of supernatural terror, according to Tzvetan Todorov and others, has become obsolete. Such theorizing, however, says more about the power of rationalist paradigms to block out reality than it does about the lure of the enormously popular supernatural chillers.
The seeming anomaly of the persistent, ever-growing appeal of supernatural terror tales in a secular age rests on the assumption that psychological secularization is a phenomenon that is uniform and unidirectional, leading inexorably into an era of profane consciousness, a totally “disenchanted” world. The reality, however, is more complex. ln the modern world, no single system of meaning has replaced the weakened sacred cosmos of the past. Nor does any seem likely to, given the jolts encountered by the dogmas of rationalism, scientism, and Marxism. The modern condition is one of partial or “arrested” secularization in which, as Thomas Luckmann argues in The Invisible Religion, public norms of functional rationality fail to satisfy the desires of many people who, in turn, construct their own eclectic, provisional systems of “ultimate” meaning. Hence the bewildering variety of parareligious fads competing in the culrural marketplace. Self-help manuals promising personality transformations, tracts on the marvels of holistic health, books on astrology these and more testify to the need of secular multitudes to gain some sense of control over their destiny or to link their lives with something more awesome than the mundane flux of events. ln this climate the stories of supernatural terror thrive. As the quest for the sacred takes ever more diverse forms, these stories give many readers the vicarious thrill of the darkly numinous without binding them to institutional religion or to any moral or theological framework In an age of do-it-yourself systems of meaning, the neo-Gothic has no difficulty finding an avid audience.
Indeed, cultural secularization initially helped generate the tale of supernatural fear. By weakening the context of reasoned religious beliefs surrounding the supernatural, 18th-century skepticism made it possible for the supernatural to be used in literature for its own sake as the free-floating numinous terror essential to the horror story. In the early Gothic novels, the supernatural was something of an embarrassment, half in and half out of a providential context, therefore needing to be distanced or simply, as in Mrs. Radcliffe, explained away altogether. However, by the middle of the 19th century, the supernarural had become attractive to writers who, oppressed by the culture’s rationalism and materialism, could use ghostly terrors to take a curious revenge on the disbelief which had first helped to release the supernatural from the matrix of developed religious faith. Thus, many of the classic horror tales enact conflicts in which a smugly dominant rationalism is undermined, shocked, and sometimes destroyed by the very forces it has chosen to deny. The typical pattern of such stories involves the intrusion into the ordinary, skeptical world of older, dark forces whose greatest power derives from the self-induced blindness of the modern, “enlightened” victims. Consequently, there is the nearly archetypal situation where the peasants know truths which their sophisticated superiors deny (to their peril).
Pet Sematary, Stephen King’s 10th horror novel in as many years, fits the formula neatly. As Louis Creed settles his family into a large old house and prepares for his new position as head physician at the University of Maine’s student infirmary, he begins to make unsettling discoveries. His newly purchased home, like so much real estate in neo-Gothic horror fiction, has some drawbacks hitherto unknown to the new buyer. Location is the essence of the trouble: in the woods to the rear of the house lies a peculiar cemetery. In it the children of the area bury their pets and tend the graves with unusual care. (“Sematary” in the title is a child’s spelling of “cemetary” on the hand-lettered sign marking the place.) Worse soon develops. In the vast wilderness area behind the cemetary is another burial ground—one that does the reverse of the usual job of providing for rest in peace forever for its inhabitants.
The disquieting events begin to overturn Creed’s tidy, rationalistic atheism. At first he simply dismisses the preternatural occurrences as psychological quirks, insisting that “there were no ghosts, at least not in his experience. He had pronounced two dozen people dead in his career and had never once felt the passage of a soul.” But with every intrusion of the terrifyingly unnarural, more desperate and unconvincing (even to himself) become Creed’s efforts to provide rational, normal explanations such as that he had been dreaming or sleepwalking or made a misdiagnosis of an apparent death. Eventually Creed cannot convince himself of his former certainties—not in theface of daily contact with something whose loath some unnaturalness compels him to admit that there are flaws in his inherited, profane view of the world. The essence of this view, enforced by a disbelieving college chum and a Psychology I professor, is that “death was just blotto. The end.” At the novel’s close, watching Louis Creed return one final time to the sinister ground beyond the pet cemetery, a friend intuits what the doctor has learned in horror: there exist realities “they never told you about in the Atheists Society back in Lake Forest.”
Louis Creed takes his place in a succession of believers in enlightened reason who find out that the old powers dismissed as “superstitious rot” by modern science, psychology, even theology—do indeed exist and can return to terrorize a world whose credulous rationalism leaves it at their mercy. In this there is little difference berween him and the general in Sheridan LeFanu’s vampire classic “Carmilla,” the cleric in R. L. Stevenson’s “Thrawn Janet,” or the young Fr. Karras in The Exorcist. Creed has thrown off the old taboos and fears of religion, the only vestige of which in his house is the smart-mouthed little daughter’s habit of dressing up on Sundays. Accordingly, he possesses few powers against the malevolently supernarural, the only “Church” in the story being a zombie-like cat with that name. In a sense, then, these formulaic tales recapitulate their origins wherein the acids of secular rationalism eroded the inherited religious context, releasing the supernatural as pure numinous dread, the very antithesis of the Enlightenment’s promise of a universal reign of reason.
King’s handling of the received formula offers clues alike to his popularity and limitations. At about 400 pages, Pet Sematary is a longish book, though rather few major eventsoccur.Its length comes from King’s hiding the formulaic structure amid passages that recreate the ordinary talk and activities of family life. This rendering of the dramatic, in turn, gives a sense of verisimilitude which makes the irruption of the demonic more fearsome by its contrast with the reassuring familiarity of the life of the Creeds. King’s characters do not really transcend the stereotypical, but they have enough depth not to seem obviously two-dimensional and uninteresting as the figures in the novels of so many writers currently working the horror vein do.
However, one difficulty in creating characters of even limited depth is that they invite us to pay attention to their motives. In Pet Sematary doing so disappoints, for Louis Creed becomes a sacrifice to the formula, acting ashe does finally because the horrorgenre requires a terrifying climax which King provides even though it means having the main characters behave in a way that makes little sense in terms either of Creed’s rationalistic past or his newly discovered experience of the dark supernarural. The author tries to bluff out the contradictions: in one of the novel’s frequent passages of literary self-consciousness, Creed is made to think to himself that in horror movies “the audience knows the hero or heroine is stupid to go up those stairs, but in real life they always do they smoke, they don’t wear seatbelts….” This will not do, for habit, thoughtlessness, and the like cannot account for Creed’s attraction to what he has every reason—natural and otherwise—to avoid.
Part of the problem here goes beyond the author’s catering to public expectations. King does not believe in the formula he uses with such considerable skill: his imagination seems not genuinely haunted by any sense of forces darker than those in the pages of the Psychology I text the novel mocks or those in the pages of the prestige news papers which, one senses, he would never mock. His own explanations of the rage for horror fiction and movies bespeak a mind thoroughly comfortable with journalistic and academic banalities. In Danse Macabre, his theoretical opus on horror, King maintains that the upheav als of our times generate the taste for fictional terrors of every sort. Thus the “subtext” (one notes the latest in academic jargon) of the movie The Amityville Horror is “economic unease” over such matters as inflated real estate prices, while the true appeal of The Exorcist is supposed to be the parents’ fear of the radical youth of the late 60’s and early 70’s. The pop sociology here is on a level with the historical shallowness which fails to grasp that Americans endured shocks and threats aplenty before Sputnik distressed the 10-year old Stephen King in 1957; there were, after all, two world wars, and the Great Depression among the events likely to foster uncertainty and fear. Indeed, King’s view of the world, at least on a surface level, seems close to that of the rationalistic victims of supernatural terrors in the fictional pattern he has so lucratively followed. In a recent inter view, for example, he asserts that “people want horrors they know couldn’t really happen” so they can “forget their troubles.” Thus King follows the tested recipe, but winks at us over his shoulder to show us that he for one is not taking it all seriously. Hence the allusions to a gamut of scary works from The Wizard of Oz to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead—by which the author demonstrates that he knows it’s only a story. (Hence, too, King’s harsh words for Blatty, who appears to have been serious about the subject matter of The Exorcist) To lend an additional air of respectability to the work, King inserts what are to pass for serious reflections on the death-is-a natural-part-of-life dogma (though the story implicitly makes hash of this glib contemporary insight).
It is, then, no great surprise that the actions of the main character do not make sense; that the evil supernatural force lacks any resonance (most people not knowing a Wendigo from a make of camper); and that Pet Sematary does not linger fearfully in the reader’s imagination. A facile writer, able to embody in easy narrative the surfaces and cliches of contemporary life, King refuses to give himself to the core of the subgenre in which he works. He can be prolific but is unlikely to attain the intensity of myth reached by popular classics such as Frankenstein and Dracula. Paradoxically, he may be the master of contemporary horror because his works do not demand serious engagement, even on a popular level. In a secularized cultural market retaining, even fostering, an appetite for the vaguely numinous, King serves up a counterpart of high-grade fast food—neither offensive nor memorable. A horror story should haunt us; Pet Sematary‘s real failing is that it does not.