If you’re a horror author, you prefer to ignore the first rule they teach in MFA programs: namely,
write from your own experience. Far better to consult your overheated imagination or, in the worst
case, your feverish nightmares.  I assure you that
Edgar Allan Poe didn’t want to experience "The
Premature Burial" or "The Pit and the Pendulum." Robert Bloch, author of
Psycho, had no interest
in checking in at the seedy Bates Motel.
H.P. Lovecraft would have gladly skipped the opportunity
for a face-to-face (face-to-mandible?) interview with Cthulhu or Azathoth.

But Stephen King actually paid a visit to the
Pet Sematary.  The resulting novel—which
King later described as "the most frightening
book I’ve ever written"—drew extensively on
events and settings he encountered after
returning to his alma mater, the University of
Maine at Orono
, for a guest teaching stint in the
late 1970s.

King rented a house in Orrington, a rural
community twelve miles from the University
campus. The house bordered on a busy
country road, and a neighbor warned him
about the dangers it posed to children and
pets. "That road has used up a lot of animals,"
the local shopkeeper told King, and in ominous
confirmation of this remark, the author's
daughter soon lost her cat Smucky, killed by
a passing vehicle.

But the youngsters in the area had created their
own impromptu animal graveyard a short
distance away from the King residence, in a
secluded wooded area.  A sign on a tree declared
it was the "Pet Sematary"—a creepy misspelling
that the author later latched on to as the title for
his book.  Here Smucky was laid to rest, along
with a homemade tombstone, prepared by King's
daughter, which read: "SMUCKY: HE WAS OBEDIENT." (To which King adds: "Smucky wasn't in
the least obedient, of course; he was a cat, for heaven’s sake.")

King describes an unnerving coda to this incident: "Our youngest son, then less than two years old,
had only learned to walk, but already he was practicing his running skills. On a day not long after
Smucky’s demise, while we were out in the neighboring yard fooling around with a kite, our toddler
took it into his head to go running toward the road." King took off after his son but, at that same
moment, could hear the sound of a truck barreling down the street in the direction of their home.
The near disaster was averted—King either caught the boy, or the toddler stumbled. "When you're
really scared, your memory often blanks out,” he later noted. “All I know for sure is that he is still
fine and well and in his young manhood." [Ted's gloss: And is also a well-known horror writer in his
own right, working under the name Joe Hill.] "But a part of my mind has never escaped from that
gruesome what if: Suppose I hadn't caught him? Or suppose he had fallen in the middle of the road
instead of on the edge of it?"

Almost every detail here found its way into King’s novel—even
Smucky and the makeshift grave marker.  Yet the end result is
a book so phantasmagorical, that readers would hardly guess
that so many real-life settings and incidents went into its making.  
The 'Pet Sematary' itself, as depicted in the book, is one of the
eeriest settings in the history of horror fiction, on a par with
Richard Matheson’s ‘Hell House’ or Mr. Bloch’s infamous
roadside motel.  The small touches—the graves set in a spiral,
the chronological ordering of the dead pets, the broken-down
tombstones constructed from scrap materials, the peculiar or
misspelled tributes to "MARTA OUR PET RABIT" and "GEN.
PATTON (OUR! GOOD! DOG!)"—make this amateur necropolis
both palpably realistic and disturbingly unreal.

Of course, the Pet Sematary in the novel is much more than a
graveyard.  The nearby land previously served as a Micmac
burial ground, and a few local residents know about strange
events that have taken place there over the years. Our hero
Louis Creed, who has settled in the area to take a job as
physician at the University’s student health center, gets an
unexpected introduction to the dark powers attached to the Micmac land when his daughter Ellie's
cat is struck and killed by a truck on the adjacent road.  His neighbor Jud takes him to a hidden
place beyond the Pet Sematary, and provides instructions on how to dig a hole and set up a burial
mound for the animal.  The next day, the cat returns home, resurrected from the grave—but now
with more violent tendencies, jerky and unnatural movements, and a bad smell that won’t go away
no matter how many times the animal is bathed and scrubbed.

Gradually Creed learns about the history of this area—and the handful of local residents who have
used it to bring back a beloved animal from the Great Beyond.  But when Creed asks his neighbor
whether anyone has every tried to revive a dead human being in this manner, Jud grows secretive
and defensive. In a brilliant stroke, King has telegraphed the inevitable plot twist in his novel, but
in such a way as to add to the suspense and uncertainty. Usually readers lose interest when they
know what will happen in a novel, and this is especially true with horror books, which depend on
surprise for their greatest effects. Yet the opposite is the case with Pet Sematary. Readers soon
realize that a dead person will rise from this grave in this novel.  But who will it be? What will they
do? And, above all, what will they tell us about their experiences in the depths of the Underworld?

Even in the hands of a lesser writer, these ingredients could
serve as fodder for a successful story, and probably a juicy
movie deal. But King is the master at extracting the maximum
impact from his plots, and works his own kind of magic in these
pages—perhaps not the same kind possessed by an ancient
Micmac burial ground, but powerful in its own way. He doesn't
just toss off cardboard characters, as do so many genre writers,
but brings them to life (okay, maybe he has some Micmac blood
in him) via incidents, details and revealing dialogue. King also
learned long ago something that many horror writers never grasp
—namely that laughter and screams can work in tandem. I could
imagine King, in an alternate universe, pursuing a career as a
humor writer, and although he only applies comedy in judicious doses here, he does so in effective
ways, sometimes to dissipate tension, at other junctures to leave the reader less prepared for the
frights ahead.  

King is also a master at pacing, backstory and subplots, and though he will never put
McCarthy or Marilynne Robinson out of business as a describer of landscapes, he knows when
to linger on the scenery or call the reader’s attention to some uncanny detail. Indeed, Stephen
King rarely rushes into the main conflict in his books, and often devotes a hundred pages or
more to establishing the readers’ emotional connection to his characters. This may be the most
underrated virtue of his craft—perhaps unmentioned because it is so unfashionable in the current
day. Critics will remark on his skill in conjuring up scary scenes, but these often wouldn’t have
half the impact on the audience without the fright-free narrative that precedes them. In some
ways, King is a throwback to an earlier generation of genre writers. Just compare his careful
build-up to key moments of crisis to the usual fare nowadays in horror tales and movies.  

Above all, King possesses that supreme talent for a horror writer: knowing what to leave unsaid.  
Sometimes he offers explanations for the incidents in this book, but just as often he lets them
events speak for themselves. Or even remain silent, as the situation warrants. And as anyone
who has lingered in cemeteries late at night can tell you, the silence is the scariest part. That’s
why folks whistle when they walk by.  

I won’t tell you how
Pet Sematary ends; but trust me—there isn’t much whistling involved. Our
protagonist has been granted the rarest of powers, the ability to raise the dead. But in this instance,
the worst horror is the one you bring upon yourself by Faustian overreaching. And if other scary
tales aim to summon up the fear of the grave, King manages to show that the story of what
happens after we bury our dead can be even more gruesome. The result is a horror classic,
and one of King’s finest efforts.

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is How to Listen to Jazz from Basic Books.

Publication Date: July 25, 2016
This is my year of horrible reading.
I am reading the classics of horror fiction
during the course of 2016, and each week will
write about a significant work in the genre.
You are invited to join me in my
. During the course of the year—if
we survive—we will have tackled zombies,
serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and
monsters of all denominations. Check back
each week for a new title...but remember to
bring along garlic, silver bullets and a
protective amulet.  
Ted Gioia
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill

Week 9:
By Jean-Paul Sartre

Week 10:
I Am Legend
By Richard Matheson

Week 11:
Ghost Stories of Henry James
By Henry James

Week 12:
Interview with the Vampire
By Anne Rice

Week 13:
American Psycho
By Bret Easton Ellis

Week 14:
Last Stories and Other Stories
By William T. Vollmann

Week 15:
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
By M.R. James

Week 16:
Rosemary's Baby
By Ira Levin

Week 17:
The King in Yellow
By Robert W. Chambers

Week 18:
By Daphne Du Maurier

Week 19
The Woman in the Dunes
by Kōbō Abe

Week 20
The Dark Eidolon
by Clark Ashton Smith

Week 21
Off Season
by Jack Ketchum

Week 22
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3
by Clive Barker

Week 23
The Silence of the Lambs
by Thomas Harris

Week 24
The Orange Eats Creeps
by Grace Krilanovich

Week 25
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde
by Robert Louis Stevenson

Week 26
by Robert Bloch

Week 27
by Octavia E. Butler

Week 28
Demons by Daylight
by Ramsey Campbell

Week 29
The Complete Short Stories
by Ambrose Bierce

Week 30
Pet Sematary
by Stephen King
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
A Visit to Stephen
King's Pet Sematary
To purchase, click on image
By Ted Gioia
The Pet Sematary (as envisioned by Hollywood)
I could imagine
Stephen King, in an
alternate universe,
pursuing a career
as a humor writer.
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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