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.