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British Association for American Studies


Issue 11, Autumn 2007: Article 2


Issue 11, Autumn 2007: Article 2

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 11, Autumn 2007

The Horrors of Maine: Space, Place and Regionalism in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary

Rebecca Janicker
© Rebecca Janicker. All Rights Reserved

‘Honey, it’s just a pet cemetery’, he said.

Stephen King, Pet Sematary (1988)[1]

Work on regionalist writers such as Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Wilkins Freeman has long emphasised the use of a specified geographical location and a deep authorial, emotional connection to its physical environment, customs and idiosyncrasies.[2] This article seeks to explore these ideas more fully by examining a rather different text, Stephen King’s modern horror tale Pet Sematary, within a regionalist framework, arguing that the intricate blending of real-life locations with a detailed fictional geography is important to the success of the work. It supplies a degree of authenticity conducive to sustaining a convincing supernatural narrative.

Regionalist writing

Regionalist writing has often been examined through the lens of gender: Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse have specifically identified it as a women-centred genre.[3] Other theorists have seen it rather as a style incorporating authentic geographic locations with a focus on ‘local-colour’ through the use of vernacular and other distinctive attributes. Indeed, Richard Brodhead has de-emphasised the tradition of regionalist literature being seen as a product of female writers and has instead described it more broadly as a literature that fashions ‘an alternative stable, if imaginary, geographic-cultural space’.[4] For example, Sarah Orne Jewett’s works feature characters from rural New England communities ensconced firmly in the countryside which surrounds them, drawing on their ‘idiosyncratic mannerisms, dialect, social customs and homespun moral dramas’.[5] This gives a voice to the local people, venerating their disappearing way of life and allowing American readers to indulge in a nostalgic longing for a simpler time.[6] Such writing, sometimes seen as a peculiarity set apart from the mainstream of American literature, has been used to understand changes in sociological circumstances in a post-Civil War United States, struggling to make the shift from rural, agrarian living to industrialisation and increased urbanisation.

These definitions share a concern for the ways in which regionalist fiction builds up the identity of a rural area such as New England by utilising local geography and landmarks, embracing local values and establishing local ideas about identity. In her work on New England post-bellum regionalist writers, such as Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Wilkins Freeman, Sandra Zagarell has highlighted a number of elements that make up this style. These include contrasting the rural regional community with the developing ‘modern’ world beyond it [7] – especially through the practice of juxtaposing urban-dwellers with locals in order to make more explicit the particular characteristics of the latter.[8]

Given these observations, it can readily be argued that Stephen King’s Pet Sematary is an example of regionalist literature. The novel includes a recognisable topography of King’s native Maine, incorporating authentic towns and a developed geography consistent with the known New England landscape. It provides specific details of climate and scenery, weaving them into the story in order to set the scene of a localised tale. Incorporating dialect and regional characteristics further helps to build up a cast of authentic characters. Yet the work ultimately draws on these features to transform the region into a site of supernatural horror:

King’s Maine is a place of terrifying loneliness where nature seems antagonistic to human habitation and where men and women often feel the same degree of estrangement from one another as they do toward the supernatural creatures who threaten their lives.[9]

These regional features are contrasted in the course of the narrative with those of the urban Mid-Western lifestyle that the novel’s protagonist, Dr Louis Creed, previously shared with his family in Chicago.

A sizeable portion of the novel is thus devoted to the development of a regionalised environment. The novel begins with an account of the Creeds’ relocation to rural Maine. Having designated the fictional town of Ludlow as their new home, King makes it seem more real by placing it amidst real Maine towns such as Orrington and Bangor and geographical features such as the Penobscot River (King, pp. 18, 31). The Creeds’ new Ludlow home is situated within a regionalised arena of on-going territorial conflict, described as

a big old New England colonial […] all of it surrounded by a luxuriant sprawl of lawn […] there would be no development in the foreseeable future. The remains of the Micmac Indian tribe had laid claim to nearly 8, 000 acres in Ludlow […] and the complicated litigation […] might stretch into the next century (King, p. 4).

This detailing thus places the idea of a specific regional space, complete with historical detailing and contemporary legal wrangling, in the mind of the reader.

Having begun by establishing the physical surroundings, King then proceeds to build up a social milieu consistent with expectations about rustic New Englanders. A prominent feature of regional writing is the use of picturesque vernacular, which lends an identifiably-local flavour, effectively exoticising those who speak it.[10] Indeed, much is made of the way in which the Creeds respond to the dialect of their new neighbours, Jud and Norma Crandall, contrasting sharply as it does with the urban, Chicago accents to which they have previously been accustomed. Whole chunks of dialogue are written out in a New England vernacular, which is labelled by Louis Creed as a ‘Downeast accent’, and ‘as exotic to their Midwestern ears as a foreign language’ (King, pp. 9, 11). Later in the novel, particular words are observed to have been ‘pronounced in the best Yankee tradition’ whilst a telephone operator is observed to have ‘translated Yankee into American’ in order to understand Jud Crandall (King, pp. 156, 357).

This further helps to create a specifically local feel for the novel. Another feature of this focus on speech is how Crandall relates the history of the wilderness surrounding the Creed’s new home in the manner of a participant in oral history tradition (King, pp. 108, 125 and 180). He tells the curious Louis that the one-time Micmac burial ground beyond the local children’s ‘pet cemetery’ near their homes has the power to resurrect corpses. Shortly after this, unable to cope with the prospect of daughter Ellie’s grief when their cat, Church, is hit and killed by a truck on the busy road nearby, Louis buries the pet in the eponymous cemetery. It does indeed return to life, but in repellent form. Jud’s speeches about the burial ground, made at various points throughout the novel, thus also relate to the kind of writing featured in other regionalist literature.

Moving on from this, the portrayal of locals through language is bolstered by the inclusion of regional character traits. In building up a definitively ‘local’ cast of characters, King endows some of them with typically insular qualities such as resentment of outsiders – another hallmark of regionalist writing. Burton Hatlen has observed the influence of Maine on much of King’s early work, arguing that the ‘local-color […] quaint, downeast stereotype’ [11] is much in evidence; however, there are also many better-rounded, more believable characters who are ‘hard, self-destructive’ and possessive of the ‘stubborn independence’ considered typical of Maine people.[12] Hatlen notes the mass summer exodus of holiday-makers from suburban areas along the east coast seeking the rural tranquillity that the Pine Tree State has to offer.[13] In arguing that there are two sides to Maine – the pastoral ideal sought by tourists and the physical and spiritual darkness represented by the forests – Hatlen examines the impact of living close to such a nature and has further specified the potential for insularity and morbid introspectiveness within residents’ characters.[14] Such tendencies are evident in the novel. Having enlightened Creed about the revivification powers inherent within the ground beyond the pet cemetery, Crandall sends a note to warn him against speaking of it,

people round here don’t like to talk about it, and they don’t like people they consider to be ‘outsiders’ to know about it […] because they sort of believe in those superstitions and they think that any ‘outsider’ who knows that they do must be laughing at them (King, pp. 159-160).

An insular atmosphere of ‘local people’ guarding their community secrets to the exclusion of strangers is thus maintained. Hatlen goes so far as to argue that ‘the physical isolation of those backroads houses and the cultural isolation created by centuries-old taboos against any sort of opening up to strangers make the fate of the outsider in Maine especially bitter’.[15] Such insularity in rural enclaves has long been observed as an exemplar of regionalist writing.[16] With these notions firmly in place, the idea of rural New England communities closely guarding their secret knowledge about the ancient land surrounding them is an increasingly-plausible one.

As noted above, regionalist works have often highlighted the nature of rural characters by contrasting them with their urban counterparts. One way of doing this is portraying the tendency of the latter group to exploit nature for their own ends.[17] Insofar as Creed is quick to take advantage of the mysterious powers of the burial ground, it can be argued that this is a feature of this work, too. Representing, as Creed does, the scientifically-minded urbanite, his readiness to use ancient natural powers inherent in the land to ‘play God’ juxtaposes him with Ludlow-native Jud Crandall: despite being bereaved mid-way through the novel, Crandall resists the temptation to use the Micmac ground to have his beloved wife restored to him.

Furthermore, Pet Sematary is littered with references to regional institutions. The B&M railroad mentioned is also included, as is the Boston and Albany (B&A) line which was created in 1870 from the mergers of four Massachusetts and eastern New York State based companies (King, pp. 316, 397). These railroads are long-standing local transport services that symbolise New England living and industry and have long been part of that landscape. Also mentioned is New England Major League baseball team the Boston Red Sox, and the local A&P grocery store, part of the Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, founded in 1859 and serving nine states along the United States eastern seaboard to the present day. In the same way that Magistrale argues that King uses ‘the well-known brand names of corporate America’ to subvert reality, I would argue that these references to companies help to destabilise the reader’s experience of a real New England which includes these features.[18] All these elements work together to shore up ideas about this novel having stemmed from the pen of an author with an authentic knowledge of the region.

Developing King’s theme of dislocation from the familiar, Pet Sematary makes much of the unknown, potentially malevolent, nature of the wilderness in which this young family suddenly finds itself: rural space is continually, and sharply, contrasted with urban and civilised space. Along with this comes notions of bad space; allusions both to ancient evil and the taint of human sin lingering in the landscape abound, suggesting that there exist fundamentally evil places in New England into which it would be better for people not to venture. In this novel, bad space is epitomised by the old burial ground, known to have been used by the Micmacs, which is separated from the pet cemetery by the deadfall. The vegetation near the Micmac ground is shown to be corrupt and unwholesome because there is something intrinsically evil about the wilderness surrounding it; with King specifically using luminescence to suggest putrefaction, further developing the idea that the very landscape is alive and somehow actively malicious towards those humans who inhabit it. In describing ‘the dense, dark, botanical aura’ Samuel Schuman notes that the vegetation surrounding the cemetery contributes heavily to the ominous atmosphere which so repels Rachel Creed. This suggests the presence of a bad place near their home from the start.[19] However, it is important to note that, although the tainted wilderness space beyond the pet cemetery is referred to as an Indian burial-ground, Crandall asserts that,

The Micmacs knew that place, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they made it what it was. The Micmacs weren’t always here […] And now they are gone again […] But the place will stay no matter who’s here, Louis. It isn’t as though someone owned it, and could take its secret when they moved on. It’s an evil, curdled place, and I had no business taking you up there to bury that cat(King, p.307).

The supernatural powers of the place, combined with Louis’s eventual sighting of the Wendigo (ancient spirit of the North Country in Native American mythology), serve to confirm Crandall’s assertions that the ground is (and always has been) bad, irrespective of who has used it over the centuries.

The pet cemetery itself quickly sparks a quarrel between Louis and Rachel about the nature of death. It is clear that she literally cannot tolerate the thought of losing her loved ones – a phobia attributed to the traumatic experience of her sister, Zelda, dying alone in Rachel’s presence from spinal meningitis when they were children. So, when Church dies, Creed uses the information Crandall gave him about the Micmac ground to resurrect the pet without telling the rest of the family. Taking the corpse for the burial proves an unwholesome, deplorable act and descriptions of the ‘crackling underbrush’ and ‘gloom cast by the trees’ evoke imagery suggestive of bad wilderness space (King, pp. 141, 144). Later reports, and Louis’s sighting, of a Wendigo in the region serve to heighten the sense of the land being irretrievably tainted.

The Maine of Pet Sematary initially appears to offer a rural idyll; the view from the hill behind the Creed’s new home provides a window into a regional past:

It was the river-valley they were looking into, of course; the Penobscot where loggers had once floated their timber from the north-east down to Bangor and Derry […] The river flowed wide and peacefully, as if in its own deep dream […] ‘Gorgeous is the right word’, Louis said finally (King, pp. 31-32).

This vision is in keeping with the image of the verdant, unspoiled national landscape, noted to be so influential in American literature by Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden. Regionalist works have long been linked to this pastoral literary tradition; creating oppositions between the realms of rural and urban, nature and civilisation.[20] The wilderness beyond the house can thus be contrasted with it in terms of bad space, and a suggestion is made early on of its unwholesome aspect. Cultural geographer Yi-fu Tuan, in Landscapes of Fear, argues that rural space has long been associated with violence and death.[21] This can directly be linked to American Gothic in terms of the harshness of the frontier experience, which will be explored in greater detail further on in this article. Life on the frontier meant that extremes of temperature, difficult terrain and wild animals all posed a serious threat to those who endured it. Leo Marx describes the duality of the American landscape thus,

In a sense, America was both Eden and a howling desert; the actual conditions of life in the New World did lend plausibility to both images […] The infinite resources of the virgin land really did make credible […] the ancient dream of an abundant and harmonious life for all. Yet, at the same time, the savages, the limitless space, and the violent climate of the country did threaten to engulf the new civilization.[22]

From the outset, America was a land which inspired ambivalent feelings in pioneers hopeful of attaining paradise, as ‘Anticipations of a second Eden quickly shattered against the reality of North America’.[23] The clash between the potential and the reality of the landscape thus allows for both the pastoral ideal and the old fear of the untamed land to plausibly co-exist in the same physical space in this tale.

Magistrale cites this as one of King’s major focuses; he builds up such an extensive history of evil in one location that all the events accrue to form ‘a living organism sustaining itself on historical and renewable incidents of human cruelty and violent behaviour’.[24] He links this idea to the works of Hawthorne, and the Puritanical notion of omni-present evil, suffusing inexorably through communities as a result of their intrinsically evil human constituents. Specifically, he sees Pet Sematary as displaying ‘a Puritan conception of the American frontier and forest’.[25] It can certainly be seen that King endeavours to evoke an atmosphere of life in a hostile, rural atmosphere. Magistrale notes that Pet Sematary neatly encapsulates such factors as the cold climate, long winters and relative isolation that must be faced in this part of the world, particularly those ‘elements of life in a cold climate, and the specificity of place that set his readers firmly in a rural Maine world’.[26] He describes ‘the cruel and callous elements King affiliates with Maine’s unsympathetic natural geography and climate.[27] The novel’s topography draws on local vegetation and scenery, e.g. hills, wild woodland, hard and stony soil, to illustrate the contrast between civilised life in Chicago, represented by the fact that this city remains the home of the remainder of their family, and life in the countryside. There are many references to wilderness, including much detailing of the indigenous flora and fauna. Magistrale argues that the Maine wilderness in this novel can be contrasted with Thoreau’s view of the New England woods as a reflection of the purity of the soul, and instead likened to Hawthorne’s rather darker Puritanical vision of the wilderness symbolising the spiritual darkness of humanity in its propensity to sin.[28] In this novel, the wilderness essentially mirrors the human potential for falling into moral darkness; the Creed family’s move from civilisation to a precarious existence on the edge of a wilderness mirrors their fall from security to a horrific void. This shows how a ‘bad space’ can be used to symbolise the fragility of human existence in such an environment. With regard to the cold local climate, Louis Creed is shown to be continually preoccupied with heating their new home, stoking up the fire, the cost of fuel-consumption and ensuring that the house is well-insulated (King, pp. 4, 125, 129, 204). Interestingly, it is a wintry local blizzard that prevents Rachel Creed from uniting with her husband, thus precipitating the ultimate tragedy of the novel: Louis’s decision to re-inter their dead son Gage in the burial ground after he meets the same fate as Church.

Once again, a regionalist framework can be applied to the work of King. This article argues that it could even be said to parody more conventional regionalist writing: Far from being a nostalgic ‘pocket of the past’, like the communities celebrated in works by writers like Jewett, the rural communities of Pet Sematary work to subvert the pastoral ideal so prevalent in the genre. Having delineated the multitude of ways in which King denotes authentic regional space in their texts, it can be seen that his portrayal of regionalist space is used to inform wider concepts of bad space. Because this novel belongs to the fantastic horror genre, this allows it also to explore unrealistic space. The ways in which this fiction moves from the credible to the incredible, with real space giving way to unreal, is the focus of the next section.

American Gothic

Allan Lloyd-Smith describes American Gothic as a literary style with deep roots, capable of expressing the unique American condition in terms of the wilderness and the city rather than the decaying monasteries that typify European Gothic.[29] He has identified a range of themes in classic American Gothic texts, including the shadow of the Puritan inheritance and a lingering dread of the land itself, embodied by the frontier experience and conflicts with Native Americans. The Gothic inevitably stems from these haunting American themes. This can clearly be linked back to Freud’s ‘The ‘Uncanny” (1919), which defines the eponymous concept as being comprised of repressed past events.[30] With this mind, many of the horrors portrayed within tales of American Gothic can clearly be seen to have a firm grounding in a history including slavery, the wilderness, genocide and violence, all potentially constituting the kind of repressed past events that Freud suggested might become an uncanny source of horror.

Of particular relevance here are the themes of the frontier and the Puritan legacy in the American experience. As discussed earlier, Pet Sematary shows how fears of the wilderness continue to the present day. The regionalised nature of this novel is compounded by reference to Puritan attitudes towards the landscape of New England itself. The lingering heritage of a society obsessed with the fundamental depravity of the human will and introspection on the nature of sin led to themes of psychological distortion in the works of early Gothic authors, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne.[31] The American frontier experience made its impact on the Gothic genre through the use of the wilderness as labyrinth; replacing the castles of European Gothic with an alternative ‘maze’ more relevant to American history and culture. Thus, American Gothic came to focus on the perceived malevolence inherent within the very landscape: ‘its emptiness, its implacability […] its vast, lonely and possibly hostile space that […] resists any rational explanation’.[32] A Freudian interpretation might suggest that the land is uncanny because its extensive virgin territory provides a blank canvas which essentially acts as ‘a discursive field of return and reiteration’.[33]

Eric Savoy has argued that uncanny fiction is fundamentally concerned with ‘The failure of repression and forgetting – a failure upon which the entire tradition of the gothic in America is predicated’.[34] In this framework of horror fiction, the actual horror stems from feelings of familiarity with phenomena so awful that attempts have been made to quash them – attempts that eventually fail and result in the later re-enactment of those horrors, whether they are within the life of an individual, a family, a community or an entire nation. Lloyd-Smith argues that ‘If the uncanny and terror, then, are produced by the intimation of the Real […] horror comparably […] is occasioned by the incursion of the Real’.[35] In the Freudian account, merely being reminded of distasteful events is a source of the uncanny; for Lloyd-Smith, then, experiencing (or rather re-experiencing) these events is the point at which horror truly comes into play. This is the area of interest for this work: it is precisely when those regional pressure-points are stimulated, when ancient fears re-assert themselves in some tangible form, that the truly horrific is encountered.

Of particular interest in Pet Sematary is the way in which King takes the reader from this manifestly real location, fashioned as a result of his regionalist detailing, to the incredible realm symbolised by the resurrection-powers of the burial ground. For it is when Church the cat comes from the grave to the house that the novel first crosses the border into incredible horror – his uncanny reappearance is a literal return of that which Creed believed (in his heart of hearts) to be buried. This is precisely how such works of fantasy function. By using a plausible setting to get the reader fully engrossed in the narrative and interested in the fate of the characters, they will be more willing to accept the supernatural realm the writer is so keen to establish. Further to this, Ben Indick has noted that King uses a firm scientific base to establish credibility for his horror fiction – the exact opposite of fantasy works like The Turn of the Screw, which rely on ambiguity for suspense.[36]

In Pet Sematary, King introduces a world exactly like the known contemporary America, ensconcing the reader in that familiar setting before developing the supernatural theme. By creating a regionalised story, King makes his novel’s shift into supernatural fantasy much more potent. Having been drawn into such a realistic environment, the reader inevitably finds the horrific events that follow much more plausible. In setting up Louis Creed as a ‘regular Joe’ with whom the average reader can readily identify, King exploits his reaction to the untimely death of the family pet to create uncertainty in his audience. We follow the aftermath of Church’s death through Louis’s eyes; in a dream-like state he follows Jud Crandall over the deadfall separating the pet cemetery from the wilderness beyond (King, pp. 136-137). The process of taking the cat to the burial ground and interring it there is hazy and surreal – the boundary between real and unreal is distorted in the same way that it is later, when the reader is obliged to finally accept that corpses buried in the Micmac ground can somehow be restored to life. Jesse W. Nash has made the case for Pet Sematary as a ‘postmodern gothic’ work on the basis that it is clearly linked to the Gothic tradition, yet significantly influenced by late twentieth-century popular culture.[37] He argues that King’s readiness to make serious use of the supernatural stems from a popular distrust of science, and that this reliance on paranormal phenomena finally renders the novel irrelevant as a tool for addressing real problems in a real America.[38]

However, as has been argued in this work, the Gothic mode has always served to reveal genuine fears – why should postmodern gothic differ? Nash concludes that the novel is concerned with fear of the return of the dead, which here acts as a substitute for our archaic fear of death in the form of a defence mechanism. This is because the modern reader feels unable to cope with the primitive fear of death more directly.[39] Yet in Pet Sematary fears relating to death are a strong theme running throughout the narrative, and this observation is difficult to reconcile with Nash’s argument. King may well have taken these fears to the next level, but this work argues that the basic fear is still clearly addressed.

So, why use fantastic horror? Bernard J. Gallagher suggests that these apparently-irrelevant events actually mask a deeper meaning, insofar as they ‘protect the individual from the internal conflicts which he finds disruptive’.[40] In this way, people are able to confront their worst fears whilst simultaneously keeping them at a safe distance. Supernatural fiction thus works by permitting the reader to go from ‘credible’ to ‘incredible’ in order to confront fundamental fears. Whilst they may not be entirely believable, this article has argued that the use of detailed regionalist writing helps to place the reader firmly within the narrative. The move from realistic to unrealistic space, characteristic of works of the fantastic, helps to explore fundamental fears. In the next section, attention will thus be turned to how the genre lays bare the author’s disquiet about regional territory.

Regionalist horror

In Pet Sematary, King employs a union of regionalist and fantastic horror writing to communicate or act out fears about what has already happened, and what may yet happen, within familiar terrain. This regionalist horror fiction then allows him to address anxieties about an emotionally-powerful subject: the condition of his native space. Many of the fears explored in the novel are universal, insofar as they deal with themes of the consequences of ‘playing God’, explored by Mary Ferguson Pharr’s ‘A Dream of a New Life: Stephen King’s Pet Sematary as a Variant of Frankenstein‘, [41] and fear of death, as in Natalie Schroeder’s ”Oz the Gweat and Tewwible’ and ‘The Other Side’: The Theme of Death in Pet Sematary and Jitterbug Perfume‘.[42] For Magistrale, integral to King’s fiction is the way in which it ‘can be traced directly to King’s sociopolitical perspective on contemporary America’.[43] He maintains that King uses his fiction to express his concerns over the state of modern American life, for example, the continuing need for humans to treat one another with dignity and respect and to be vigilant in defending their society against the chaos that could ensue from escalating social fragmentation.[44] In Stephen King: The Art of Darkness, Douglas E. Winter draws on a 1984 interview with King himself, who stated that Pet Sematary ‘is a book about what happens when you attempt miracles without informing them with any real sense of soul […] you destroy everything’.[45] This novel is then a manifestation of the author’s fear of the damage people do to their own lives when they are ill-prepared to take responsibility for their actions, as well as attendant fears about the danger of self-deception. Creed is convinced that he can circumvent the ultimate horror: Death. The family unit’s inability to deal with the possibility of death, made clear from an early stage in the novel, makes this tale truly a Gothic one. For Rachel Creed, the hideous, veiled manner in which her sister lived and died ‘in the back bedroom like a dirty secret’ is a repressed truth – one which she has long denied and allowed to eat away at her entire family’s ability to cope with such fundamental realities (King, p. 223). When first Church, then Gage, are re-animated and brought back to terrorise those they loved in life, the detestable nature of their new existence is representative of the return of that repressed horror which was Zelda’s unspeakable demise. This destructive secret is revisited upon the fragile family, destroying their sanity and taking their healthy, human lives. 

For King, a fear about the disintegration of the human condition itself takes the foreground. He takes a broadly humanitarian view, struggling to express his fear for all people in an ever-changing society. Pet Sematary embodies his fear that the family itself is a fragile entity – it is fundamentally ill-equipped to confront the defining truths of its own existence, namely the mortality of its members. This is a truly Gothic theme, as it is bound up with notions of an inability to face up to unpleasant realities which cannot forever be denied. As the Creed family crumbles under its lack of insight, so too will the nation perish if it fails to deal with the skeletons in its closet.

However, the novel also deals more specifically with regional fears, for instance those concerning the condition termed ‘cabin fever’. This is comprised of age-old neuroses about what living in isolation, far from the humanising effects of civilisation, might do to those who constantly endure it. Moreover, ancient fears about the hostility of the land, going back in time beyond the inhabitation by the Indian tribes indigenous to Maine, are resurfacing. Here, the old American fear of the land itself coalesces with fears about death in the form of the Wendigo. These fears go back to an early preoccupation of American Gothic fiction, the legacy of those precarious colonies of pioneers, tentatively eking out an existence in fundamentally hostile environment. All those fears about what might be lurking out in the untamed, and perhaps unknowable, wilderness are embodied by the Wendigo, which represents Nature at its most insidious – destructive and malevolent. Earlier in this work it was seen that the insularity of rural communities was shown to be a feature of regionalist fiction – here, one of the major themes of King’s novel is the close guarding of secrets. From the secrets that Louis keeps from Rachel to the secrets concealed within the wilderness beyond their house, notions of the ‘hidden’ and what might ensue when whatever is hidden is finally revealed run throughout the tale. It is a clear suggestion in both this novel that the surfacing of knowledge may be dangerous, a key Gothic concept. All of this is combined in Pet Sematary with a modern-day version of the Frankenstein story – often explored by critics of this novel – insofar as this young doctor has the chance to cheat death and thus achieve what others of his profession can only dream of doing. Only for him this dream quickly becomes a nightmare. In this way, King’s fears about the fragility of the American family combine with fears about what may be lurking in wild regional space – a horrifying, slumbering entity, manifested by the Wendigo, unwittingly empowered by foolish humans who prove to be their own undoing.

Writing on the Puritan dichotomy of good versus evil/dark versus light which appears time and again in American literature, Philip A. Shreffler notes that Nathaniel Hawthorne ’employed this Puritan notion to deepen our understanding of the principles of dark and light that exist in every human heart quite independent of any external God or devil’ and that he ‘did not believe in these Puritan interpretations of nature, but he did use them symbolically in his investigation of man’s moral constitution’.[46] In other words, Hawthorne’s fiction drew on the Puritanical New England mindset to create a New England of dark woods and haunted spaces. Harking back to Hawthorne’s focus on using the New England forests as a mirror to the darkness inherent within man’s soul – as a metaphor for original sin – Magistrale’s essay, ‘Stephen King’s Pet Sematary: Hawthorne’s Woods Revisited’ argues that King’s work represents a modern appropriation of this practice.[47] A leap can readily be made from the preoccupation with humanity’s proximity to spiritual darkness in King’s works to the broader American Gothic fascination with horrors buried in an untamed landscape. Pet Sematary, then, shows how fears of the wilderness, grounded historically in the New England topography, still have resonance in contemporary American society. The Gothic nature of the horror employed in the novel allows these regional fears to be communicated.


For Stephen King, fantastic horror writing is a means of imparting feelings of foreboding about what is going on beneath the surface of his homeland. His work echoes wider cultural concerns about changes in American society such as urbanisation and social fragmentation, as well as lingering fears about humanity’s relationship to the wilderness harking back to the very birth of the nation. However, these fears can also be narrowed down to reflect his own personal concerns about decay and corruption inherent within his native New England. This article holds that Pet Sematary, as an exampleof regionalist horror writing, is able to unite two disparate literary styles to form a new kind of narrative. Fantastic horror fiction works by exploring what might have been; like an urban legend, this tale is compellingly close to, yet clearly removed from, everyday life in New England. Hauntingly familiar, at the same time utterly unknown, Pet Sematary constitutes a strikingly-credible regionalist horror tale.

University of Nottingham


[1] Stephen King, Pet Sematary (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1988), p. 49. All further references are included within the body of the text.

[2] Sherrie A. Inness and Diana Royer, ‘Introduction’, in Breaking Boundaries: New Perspectives on Women’s Regional Writing, ed. By Sherrie A. Inness and Diana Royer (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 1997), pp. 1-16 (p. 4).

[3] Sandra A. Zagarell, ‘Troubling Regionalism: Rural Life and the Cosmopolitan Eye in Jewett’s Deephaven‘, American Literary History, 10.4 (1998), 639-663 (p. 640).

[4] Ibid., p. 641.

[5] Louis A. Renza, ‘A White Heron’ and the Question of Minor Literature (London and Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1984),p. 44.

[6] Ibid., p.55.

[7] Zagarell, p. 643.

[8] Renza, p. 47.

[9] Tony Magistrale, Landscape of Fear: Stephen King’s American Gothic (Madison, WI: The Popular Press, 1988),p. 18.

[10] Zagarell, p. 650.

[11] Burton Hatlen, ‘Beyond the Kittery Bridge: Stephen King’s Maine’, in Fear Itself: The Horror Fiction of Stephen King, ed. By Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller (New York, NY: New American Library, 1984), pp. 45-60(p. 56).

[12] Ibid., p. 57.

[13] Ibid., p. 47.

[14] Ibid., p. 49.

[15] Ibid., p. 51.

[16] Cynthia J. Davis, ‘Making the Strange(r) Familiar: Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘The Foreigner” in Breaking Boundaries: New Perspectives on Women’s Regional Writing, ed. By Sherrie A. Inness and Diana Royer (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 1997), pp. 88-108 (pp. 88-89).

[17] Renza, p. 51.

[18] Magistrale, 1988, p. 54.

[19] Samuel Schuman, ‘Taking Stephen King Seriously: Reflections on a Decade of Best-Sellers’, in The Gothic World of Stephen King: Landscape of Nightmares, ed. By Gary Hoppenstand and Ray B. Browne (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987), pp. 107-114 (p. 111).

[20] Renza, pp. 117-118.

[21] Tuan, Yi-fu, Landscapes of Fear (Oxford: Blackwell, 1979), p. 139.

[22] Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964), pp. 43-44.

[23] Roderick Frazier Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven, CT and London: Yale Nota Bene, 2001, 1967), p. 25.

[24] Magistrale, 1988, p. 109.

[25] Tony Magistrale, The Moral Voyages of Stephen King (Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, 1989), p. iii.

[26] Tony Magistrale, ‘Stephen King’s Pet Sematary: Hawthorne’s Woods Revisited’, in The Gothic World of Stephen King: Landscape of Nightmares, ed. By Gary Hoppenstand and Ray B. Browne (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987), pp. 126-134 (p. 133).

[27] Magistrale, 1989, p. 13.

[28] Magistrale, 1987, pp. 127-128.

[29] Allan Lloyd-Smith, American Gothic Fiction: An Introduction (New York, NY and London: Continuum, 2004), p. 4.

[30] Sigmund Freud, ‘The ‘Uncanny” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 17 (1917-1919), trans. By James Strachey (London: Vintage, 2001), pp. 217-256 (p. 241).

[31] Lloyd-Smith, p. 71.

[32] Ibid., p. 93.

[33] Eric Savoy, ‘The Face of the Tenant: A Theory of American Gothic’, in American Gothic: New Interventions in a National Narrative, ed. By Robert K. Martin and Eric Savoy (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 1998), pp. 3-19 (p. 6).

[34] Ibid., p. 4.

[35] Lloyd-Smith, p. 144.

[36] Ben P. Indick, ‘King and the Literary Tradition of Horror and the Supernatural’, in Fear Itself: The Horror Fiction of Stephen King, ed. byTim Underwood and Chuck Miller (San Francisco, CA and Columbia, PA: Underwood-Miller, 1982), pp. 153-167 (pp. 163-164).

[37] Jesse W. Nash, ‘Postmodern Gothic: Stephen King’s Pet Sematary‘, The Journal of Popular Culture, 30.4 (1997), 151-160 (p. 152).

[38] Ibid., pp. 153-154.

[39] Ibid., p. 159.

[40] Bernard J. Gallagher, ‘Reading Between the Lines: Stephen King and Allegory’, in The Gothic World of Stephen King: Landscape of Nightmares, ed. By Gary Hoppenstand and Ray B. Browne (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987), pp. 37-48 (p. 39).

[41] Mary Ferguson Pharr, ‘A Dream of a New Life: Stephen King’s Pet Sematary as a Variant of Frankenstein‘, in The Gothic World of Stephen King: Landscape of Nightmares, ed. By Gary Hoppenstand and Ray B. Browne (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987), pp. 115-125.

[42] Natalie Schroeder, ”Oz the Gweat and Tewwible’ and ‘The Other Side’: The Theme of Death in Pet Sematary and Jitterbug Perfume”, in The Gothic World of Stephen King: Landscape of Nightmares, ed. By Gary Hoppenstand and Ray B. Browne (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987), pp. 135-141.

[43] Magistrale, 1988, p. 14.

[44] Ibid., p. 28.

[45] Douglas E. Winter, Stephen King: The Art of Darkness (New York, NY: New American Library, 1984), p. 151.

[46] Philip A. Shreffler, ‘H. P. Lovecraft and an American Literary Tradition’, in Literature of the Occult: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. By Peter B. Messent (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1981), pp. 156-170 (pp. 157, 164).

[47] Magistrale, 1987, pp. 127-128.