Pet Sematary exhumed: Stephen King looks back at his most disturbing story
"I hear you want to talk about… 'I don't wanna be burrrried / in a PET Sem-a-taar-yyy!'" the best-selling author croons over long distance.
The Ramones based that pop-goth song on his 1983 novel, it was featured in the creeptastic cult-favorite 1989 movie, and now — as most things associated with this tale — it gets to live its life again as part of the haunting new version of Pet Sematary hitting theaters April 5.
It stars Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz as parents who move their family to the edge of the Maine woods, where there is a hidden place that resurrects the dead. John Lithgow costars as a kindly neighbor, who reveals secrets best left buried, and Jeté Laurence plays the couple's curious daughter, Ellie, who has too much curiosity for her own good.
King has a complex relationship with Pet Sematary. Over the decades, the 71-year-old storyteller has done a lot of monstrous things to a lot of people in his novels, but the rumor persists that he thinks Pet Sematary crossed a line, that it's too morbid and troubling, and he only published it to escape a book contract.
It turns out all that is real.
So is a lot of what happened in the book. That's why it bothers him.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: There's this mythology surrounding Pet Sematary, that it was too scary to publish — is that hype, or was there something to that?
STEPHEN KING: [Laughs] No, I mean it's true. I listened to it last year when I was down here in Florida walking on the beach with the dog. Michael C. Hall [of Dexter and Six Feet Under] did the audiobook. I was curious about it. You know, I hadn't been near it in 20, 25 years. So I listened to it, and thought, "My God, this is just awful. It's just as dark as can be."
Did you feel that way when you were writing it?
I just had the greatest time writing the book until I was done with it. And I read it over, and I said to myself, "This is awful. This is really f—ing terrible." Not that it was badly written, necessarily. But all that stuff about the death of kids. It was close to me, because my kids lived on that road.
What else in the book came from your own life? There was a real misspelled 'pet sematary' in the woods, right?
We moved to this little town called Orrington, because I got a job as writer in residence at the University of Maine. We rented this nice house on the river, and a pet cemetery was in back of it. There was a path that went up there that kids kept mowed. They didn't wear any of those funny masks — you know, with the hooked noses and stuff. [Laughs] But it was there, and it was really a nice place.
A little background — the story is your son Owen [now the author of Double Feature, Intro to Alien Invasion, and Sleeping Beauties, the latter co-written with his father] gave you a scare by wandering too close to the busy road. And your family actually lost one of your pets on that road, right?
My daughter's cat died. And we buried it in the pet cemetery. That was Smucky. She made a little cross that said "Smucky — he was obedient." And I mean, he was a cat. He wasn't f—ing obedient! [Laughter.] But she loved that cat.
Smucky made it into the book and both movies. That grave marker is in all of them. Your daughter would have been around 9 or 10 then. How did she take this loss?
That night, after we buried it, we heard her out in the garage. She was jumping up and down on those popper things that they wrap fragile stuff in. She was shouting, "God can't have my cat. That cat is my cat!… Let him have his own cat." And I put all that in the book, and yeah, we were in the field, and there really was a busy road there [when Owen wandered too close]. Everything in the book up to the point of the supernatural stuff is true.
When did the idea for that it was a book hit you?
When I heard Naomi doing that thing, I got this idea. And when you get the idea, you just think, "Oh it's the most wonderful thing, wouldn't this be cool?" That's what it comes down to. I thought to myself, "Well, what if you buried stuff in the pet cemetery, and it came back?"
But you imagined another more ancient burial ground further in the woods that brings things back to life. I always wondered why you separated them instead of simply having the pet cemetery resurrect them?
I thought, "Well, you can't do that or they would all come back. But what if there was another graveyard beyond it?" And I read some book about the Wendigo, [an evil Algonquian Indian spirit that possesses people and drives them to cannibalism], and I kind of folded that into it.
But the real parts are why you held off publishing, why it bothered you?
The kids were home a lot.… All you had to do is just go to the pet cemetery and see what the road did. You know, it wasn't much of a leap.
Was there a real Jud Crandall, an old-timer you were close to?
There was a guy right across the road, and he was the one. The kids were away somewhere, and he was the one who came over, and said, "You got a problem here with your daughter's cat." And we went over, and we looked at Smucky, who was on the side of the road. And he hadn't been splattered or anything, he looked okay. He just was… dead.
Then what did you do?
I remember having a discussion with my wife [novelist Tabitha King] about what we were going to tell Naomi. I mean, the discussion is in the book. Do you say the cat has just gone away, he's wandering…? Or do you actually make that the kid's first lesson in death? We chose to tell her the truth, which I still think was probably the right thing to do. I hate movies and TV shows where the little kid says to the grown-up, "Is everything gonna be all right?" And the grown-up says, "Sure. Everything's gonna be fine!" I don't like that. It's not the truth. You shouldn't lie to kids.
Sometimes you've got to face the worst things. I think that's what horror does. It makes you go down to the basement, and say, 'What's in the dark? What's down here? Let's confront what we're afraid of.'
It does. But, in the end, remember Louis can't face the worst. He has this option, and he chooses the wrong thing. Anybody would know that you can't bury a kid and expect to get the kid back good as new.
I feel like Pet Sematary has meaning. Beyond just being scary, it explores what it's like to lose somebody, especially someone so young, when you're a parent. It felt like it had heart.
It does have a meaning. I mean, that line "Sometimes dead is better," that's not about suicide or anything like that.
It's about anybody who's ever had to deal with a lingering illness or a relative that won't let go. Sometimes the desire to live is just a biological thing, and it's better when it's over. Everybody — everybody's dealt with that, you know? You deal with your parents, your grandparents, and at some point, you just have to let go, that's all.
And there's that desire to go back, too. When you lose somebody, you go through that feeling of, 'They were just here. They were here yesterday. They were here last week.' You feel that yearning: Couldn't they just come back?
That's the other thing about Pet Sematary. When I read it over, I thought, "There's such grief in this book." Just awful.
Publishing the 1983 novel
Is it also true the only reason you finally published Pet Sematary was to settle a book contract?
That's what happened! That's the reason I published the book. Otherwise, it would still be in a drawer somewhere.
How did all that go down?
We had signed this bullsh— thing with Doubleday. The old Doubleday in those days. It was called the Author Investment Plan, and the idea was, "We'll pay you out $50,000 a year, and you won't have to pay taxes on anything but that." And to a couple of kids who never had money, $50,000 is like the world. A lot of money.
That would've been late '70s, right?
Yeah, it was actually the mid-'70s, because it was after Carrie and 'Salem's Lot. And basically, Doubleday just wanted to hold on to that money. I even asked the question at one point, "Well, who gets the interest on this money?" There's a long, long pause, and then [my editor] Bill Thompson said, "Well, Doubleday does, because they do all the accounting." But the money piled up.
This was not just the royalty money from Carrie and 'Salem's Lot, but also The Shining, Night Shift, and The Stand. That's a lot of best-sellers.
Long story short, I had gone over to Viking, and I'd done The Dead Zone and Cujo there, and Firestarter and Different Seasons, too. And [lawyer and agent] Arthur [B. Green] came to me, and he said, "You know, you have [this Doubleday agreement]." And by then I was making a lot of money! I was thinking, "Well, Doubleday can go f—' themselves," you know? I don't even want to go there. They used me very badly.
It was strip-mining. But anyway, Arthur said to me, "If you die, the IRS will beggar your family, because they'll claim all that money in the Doubleday investment fund is your money. And they'll have to pay taxes on money that you haven't gotten." The money had piled up enough, so I said, "Well, what do I do about this?" And he said, "You'll have to give them another book, and make it part of the agreement that they can publish the book under their bullsh— terms. But they have to break the investment fund."
And that's what unleashed Pet Sematary on the world. Does it seem strange to you that it's such a favorite among your readers when you find it so abhorrent yourself?
Well, I laugh about that. P.T. Barnum said something like, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people." I think that death really is a mystery, and people get kind of a kick out of seeing the veil lifted.… The funeral, and the expenses, and paying with MasterCard, and all the rest of it.
It always appealed to me. Ruins in the woods, old and dilapidated graves, like finding a history that has been there for a long time that you may never know. All of that charged by the idea of losing a pet, then losing a child. I don't think you have to be a parent to even feel that. I don't know, I think it's a really wonderful book, Steve. I hate to disagree with you.
No, no, I accept that. You know, the worst person in the world to criticize a book is the writer, because we're too close to it. But I do think too that people come because there's the allure of the forbidden. There's the idea that this thing is really, really scary. You want to see if you can stand up to it, you know, by going on the biggest roller coaster in the amusement park.
It also depends on what you're taught. There's a lot in the book about Louis and Jud, and how he never knew his father, and found his father in this old man across the road. I'm not sure Jud is such a great stand-in dad. His guidance causes the horror to unfold…
Jud and Louis bond. Whether or not it's really a father-son thing or whether it's just friends, but they definitely bond. They drink together, they sit on the porch, they talk about stuff. Men need men. That's all. And women need women. You find somebody, you like 'em, and Jud kind of falls in love with the family. And of course, that's the way that the evil part of the pet cemetery works on you. As John Coffey in The Green Mile says, "He killed them with their love." And what Jud does, he does out of love.
Is there also a malevolent side to what he does?
He also knows better. I had to get that in the book where he says something like, "You do things, and you think they're good things, but something gets a hold of you." You know?
The 1989 film
Given your feelings about this book, why did you write the screenplay for the 1989 movie? It feels like you kind of want to put this book at arm's distance.
Sometimes you say to yourself, "Maybe I can take this and make it a little bit better, or maybe I just wanna face the thing that scares me the most." So I went in and I wrote it. The more you work on a thing, the more numb you get to it. You get to the effect that it has on other people.
It started out as a follow-up to Creepshow with George Romero, who from Night of the Living Dead on was the master of things rising from the grave.
It was George first. I wrote a script, and then George couldn't [direct]. And Mary Lambert came on board. I really liked her. I thought that she was cool and had good ideas about it. Also, I wanted to be Mary's advocate on it, because I knew [producer] Richard [P. Rubinstein, who worked with King on the Creepshow movies and later the TV miniseries for The Stand and The Langoliers.] I loved Richard then, and I love him now. He's a great guy, but he's tight with the purse strings. He has to be. So, I just wanted to do the best job. He's the world's worst driver, too.
He used to hit mailboxes and things, because he was one of those people who, when he was driving, he had to maintain eye contact. It drives me crazy in movies where the guy driving wants a f—ing close up, so he turns toward the camera, and I'm like, "Watch where you're driving, man!"
What memory sticks out at you from the set, apart from your cameo as the preacher?
I still remember Mary out there — she's a little thing — I remember out there in the rain in her yellow slicker and her red boots, and she looked like a kid ready to go off to first grade. I liked the people that I was working with, and yeah, man, I wanted the screen credit, too. I did. I figured if somebody's gonna f— this up, it's gonna be me!
One of the stand-outs of that film, I think, is Fred Gwynne. That's a great performance as Jud. Were you pleased with how he played that? I kind of think he stole the movie in a lot of ways. He and Miko Hughes, as the little boy Gage. Did you have much interaction with him?
We hung out a little bit. I thought he did as good of a Maine accent as you could possibly do. He had the right look. He had a New England look to him, and I just thought, "He's pretty good. He has the gravitas." He's the old guy who knows stuff. So yeah, I liked him a lot in that part. And I liked the movie. I thought they did a good job. I love Dale [Midkiff], and I love Denise [Crosby, as the parents, Louis and Rachel Creed.] And they worked their asses off on that movie.
The new Pet Sematary
The directors of the new film, Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, changed some big things in your story, but they also kept a lot faithful. How do you feel about the new Pet Sematary?
It's f—ing great! It's a really good movie. It's a grown-up, adult kind of movie. It's not like 12 semi-clad teens get killed in a summer camp. In this particular time frame, you know, there've been several movies that have been successful. Horror movies like Jordan Peele's Get Out last year. And then I think when Us opens, I think it's gonna be big. I think it's gonna be huge. [Note: He was right. Us had the biggest opening weekend in history for an original horror film.] Those are like adult-type fantasies.
Does it bother you that, as they showed in the trailer, a different child is killed and resurrected this time — the older girl instead of the little boy?
It's something different. They did a good job. Boy, I saw all the stuff that came online when people realized that it was Ellie rather than Gage that got run over in the road, and I'm thinking like, "Man, these people…" It's so nuts. You can take Route 301 and go to Tampa, or you could take Route 17 and go to Tampa. But both times, you're gonna come out at Tampa! [Laughs] You know what I'm saying? It didn't change anything for me. I thought, "Okay, I understand why they did it, because it's maybe easier to work with a zombie when she's a little girl, [rather] than a toddler."
Some filmmakers can go too far with changes, though.
I'm really kind of mercenary about all this. My idea is, "If it works, it's golden. If it doesn't work, you know, Jesus Christ, why did you change it?" I mean, I've seen changes in stuff that's been done to my work where I just throw up my hands and I say, "Why? Why did you do that? You had a book. You had a blueprint you could've gone by."
Do they ever run the changes by you if you're not already involved in the film?
I remember being at the Plaza Hotel in New York, and these people from Sun International wanted to make Cujo [released in 1983]. I never thought they would make it to begin with, but they made a good picture out of it. We sat around, and they looked at each other like, "Oh, Jesus Christ, we're gonna blow this guy's mind. He's probably gonna kick us out."
[Note: The next paragraph has a spoiler for both the Cujo book and movie.]
They said, "What would you think if the little boy lived?" And I just laughed and I said, "If you kill that kid after people sit and go through this experience in the movies for an hour and a half, I think they'd lynch you. So go ahead, see how it works out."
We'll hold off revealing specifics now, but the new Pet Sematary isn't afraid to go bleak.
I gotta tell you, the guy who was the most committed to the bleak, dark ending was the producer, Lorenzo di Bonaventura. And more power to him, man! More power to him. How'd you like the movie?
I really liked it. I thought the same as you, with the idea of, you know, going the different routes but ending the same way. I was cool with Ellie being the resurrected child. I think if you're gonna do a new version, you may as well do something different with it. Kind of like Joe Cocker singing "A Little Help From My Friends." Why do it the same way if you already have the Beatles version? Let's hear a different flavor to the cover, you know?
Yeah. But only if it's a good cover.
The success of 2017's It has galvanized a new wave of adaptations. Now we're seeing second screen versions of some of your work. Why do you think that's happening?
I don't know what to make of it, really. Every day I get another contract, another option, word that somebody is making this or that. I see scripts. Let's put it this way, I'm in a seller's market right now. There's a huge hunger for story, because there's so many different platforms now. It isn't just the movies.
But what happened to me, I guess, was that It was such a big success that people decided well, there must be gold in some of that old sh—.
Come on. [Laughs]
So, a lot of the old stuff, maybe, is gonna get remade. And there's also an issue with some of the old option deals expiring, and the studios either make them or don't make them, and they have to hurry up. I think that was a factor in The Stand, with CBS All Access. If Warner Bros. wanted to be involved, they had to do it quick, or [the rights] were gonna be all mine again.
How does that feel, seeing all these new adaptations?
It's a little bit like being tied to the hood of a car that's going really fast. [Laughs] Most of the time I don't even think about it, because I've got other things to do. I've got books to write, and that's the important thing to me. There's so much appetite now for stories, and I do have stories to tell.
This Q&A has been edited and some questions added or expanded to provide context.
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