Dealing With Death

By Mark Alpert

Earlier this week I finished reading Pet Sematary, one of Stephen King’s spookiest novels. Spoiler alert (in case you’ve never read the 1983 book or seen the 1989 movie): It’s about dead things that come back to life, but not completely. The resurrected animals (and people) are irreversibly damaged by their contact with death. When they rise from the grave, they’re hideously transformed.

It’s a great idea for a novel. And it’s more chilling than many of King’s other books, which sometimes fly too far into the realms of the fantastic. (The novel It, for example, loses some of its power after the homicidal clown transforms into a spider-like monster.) In contrast, the monsters in Pet Sematary are the characters’ departed loved ones. Creepy, right?

Some of the best ideas for novels tap into our primal fears, the ones that have tormented us since childhood. I learned about death for the first time — its suddenness, its finality — at the age of twelve, when my grandfather died. My parents told me it was a heart attack, but that wasn’t exactly the truth. Decades later, I found out that when my grandfather started having chest pains, he got into his car and tried to drive home. He was very dependent on my grandmother, and in his moment of crisis he desperately wanted to get back to her. The chest pains got worse, the car crashed, he died. It was a bad decision, but very human, very understandable.

And in a way, my grandfather was resurrected. Several weeks or months after he died, I saw him in a dream, standing in the kitchen of my grandparents’ apartment in Yonkers. He opened the refrigerator and peered inside, looking for the orange juice. I asked him, “Aren’t you dead?” and he nodded. “Yeah, I died of a hog coronary.” Then he found the carton of orange juice and poured himself a glass.

Hog coronary? What the hell does that mean? I still don’t know. Maybe I was under the impression that pork was bad for you, that it led to heart attacks.

Anyway, reading Pet Sematary brought those memories back. Although I enjoyed the book, I think I’ll steer clear of horror novels for a while.

If you’ve been reading the newspapers lately, you might’ve noticed a few articles about climate change, genetic engineering, and the 25th Amendment. Oddly enough, all those topical topics are featured in my new novel, THE COMING STORM, which got a few more nice reviews this month. For an in-depth look at this thriller, check out my essay on the Criminal Element website.

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website:

5 thoughts on “Dealing With Death

  1. I agree. The closer the ‘monster’ is to something that’s familiar to us, the better (more horrifying) it is. Maybe because the familiar evokes a certain trust accompanied by expectations. (In Pet Semetary, the characters remember how the loved ones SHOULD look.) Then those expectations are turned on their ear.

    There’s one magnificent line in that novel, something about “…but the soil of a man’s heart is stonier. He grows what he can and tends it.” Something like that. Wish I could remember the whole quote.


    • You got the line almost exactly right!

      “The soil of a man’s heart is stonier, Louis,” the dying man whispered. “A man grows what he can…and tends it.”

      The line is very cryptic when Louis first hears it from the man who dies in the college infirmary, but later (when he and Jud bury Winston Churchill the cat) Jud repeats the line, referring to the stony soil in the Micmac burying ground.

      Good memory!

  2. In Doctor Who, some of the very scariest monsters are the ones that play on childhood fears. Don’t blink, because they move when you’re not looking at them. There’s a door at the end of the hall that you only see out of the corner of your eye. There’s monsters that you forget as soon as you look away from them, even if they’re coming to kill you.

    Man, those creeped me out. And their premise is so simple in each case. But what a heck of a story you can tell with each scenario.

  3. You should have asked your grandmother what a “hog coronary” was without mentioning the source of the information. You may have gotten a confirmation that you had a true visitation.

    Hog heart pieces as repair replacements for human heart valves and veins as well as the whole heart used in human heart transplants has been a topic for many years so that may be your grandfather’s reference meaning of a hog coronary.

    Or, the evil-to-the-heart goodness that is bacon.

    I agree that the more relatable real world elements of horror are the most effective, but good horror isn’t totally tied to the real world. Those of us who are in to the weird sh*t and don’t need a close connection to the real world for our horror are totally fine with clowns turning into demonic spiders.

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