The Victorian Sage

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Men Lie to Women, Women Lie to Themselves: Deception and Gender in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (1983) and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899)

With the new film adaptation of Pet Sematary (1983) due out in April this year, I have revisited this novel that I haven’t read since my early teens, a time when I devoured all of King’s earlier output. Sematary was one I enjoyed at the time. Of all King’s novels, it is for me the one with the most memorable physical setting: the pet cemetery (it’s written “Pet Sematary” on the sign, hence the novel’s title) itself, and beyond it the deadfall and the twisting path through the woods, across a swamp and onto a rocky hilltop where the Micmac Indians once buried their dead. Years after reading it, I could still picture Louis’ nighttime journeys to the Micmac burial ground.


There’s a lot of other stuff going on in this novel. The basic plot is that the protagonist, university doctor Louis Creed, and his family move to a house in rural Maine. The setting is initially idyllic, but the house is set inconveniently close to a busy road, and – even more inconveniently, as it turns out – near the pet cemetery. Creed finds out from Jud Crandall, an elderly neighbour, about the Micmac burial ground, set miles deep in the forest, in a hidden path behind said pet cemetery. Jud leads Louis to the burial ground in order to bury Louis’s daughter’s beloved cat there, after the latter is killed outside the Creed house by a passing truck. They bury the cat quickly, before Ellie (Louis’ daughter) finds out about his death. The cat soon turns up outside the house again, albeit in an unsettling, zombified and quite smelly state. Ellie doesn’t take much notice though. That takes us to a third of the way through the novel.

So this is a novel about death. About the acceptance of death, and the refusal of such acceptance. By burying the cat at the Micmac burial ground, Louis appears to align himself with the notion of refusing to accept death. In fact, though, an earlier conversation between Louis and his wife Rachel has shown that while Louis accepts the idea of a pet cemetery as a healthy way for a child to learn about death, Rachel is horrified by the idea and doesn’t want Ellie to go there. This escalates into an argument about the propriety of speaking to children about death. Louis says:

There’s nothing wrong with a child finding out something about death, Rachel. In fact, I’d called it a necessary thing. (46)

Rachel disagrees, and her response to Louis’s calm, rationalistic approach to the debate is a host of emotional actions: she “cried”, “sobbed”, “hissed”, “screamed” (46). So Louis’s later attempts to avoid death are related to the need to keep Rachel on an even emotional keel.


The cat returns in a promotional shot from the new Pet Sematary film.

When Louis goes to the Micmac burial ground with Jud and his dead cat, he keeps it a secret not only from Ellie, but from Rachel as well. As he knows, she doesn’t want to hear anything about death. Jud, as a sort of father and mentor figure, offers some homespun philosophical reflections on themes of secrecy and gender:

“[A]ny woman who knows anything at all would tell you she’s never really seen into a man’s heart. The soil of a man’s heart is stonier, Louis – like the soil up there in the old Micmac burying ground. Bedrock’s close. A man grows what he can, and he tends it. (136)

Later, Jud writes to Louis: “I’d guess most men tell their wives a smart of lies” and Louis mentally adds “[w]ives and daughters as well” (145). Louis, after his difficult encounter with Rachel, has now embraced Jud’s philosophy of masculinity. It’s about silence, secrecy and a hidden darkness. Femininity, on the other hand, is characterized both by an upfront emotionalism and by an inability to face the darker elements of reality.

This sort of gendered characterization is not a new idea in canonical literature. Indeed, it is very reminiscent of the famous closing passage of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), wherein Marlow decides to lie to Kurtz’s fiance about the manner of his life and death, in line with a philosophy Marlow has earlier outlined:

It’s queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there has never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over.

In HoD, what Marlow decides to hide, even though he purportedly “hates a lie”, is the violent and exploitative nature of colonialism, which resides behind the “great and saving illusion”. The importance of women in the HoD universe is that they really do believe in the illusion of benign colonialism – what was sometimes called the “civilizing mission“. Believing is what women do, and pretty much all that they do. Men do the work; they do everything except the believing. Feminine faith and simplicity is beautiful to Marlow. To protect that faith, men like Marlow and Kurtz brave the horror of colonial reality, and live a lie.

So, in deciding that women can’t face the truth and must be lied to while the men go about doing the dirty work needed to keep society going, Creed is trying to be a latter-day Marlow. But Marlow ends his story with the beautiful lie still in place, and the truth remains “out there” (specifically, in Africa); for Creed, living in a different age, it doesn’t end so well, and the beautiful illusions just can’t hold up against the horrible truth, which comes right into the home with unpleasant consequences.

Maybe that’s the 19th-century outlook versus the 20th century. Maybe it’s mainstream literature against the horror genre. Maybe the women of the 1980s were that bit more woke, such that a Conradian-style deception was not really feasible. Maybe the upcoming adaptation will provide a further perspective on the Creeds’ dynamics and their relationship to death. That’s one of the values of adaptations: by comparison with their originals we are given tools to think about our society and how our attitudes contrast to those of other places and times.

Revival, by Stephen King

As a teenager of the 90s, I grew up reading a lot of Stephen King. As far as my adolescent reading self went, he was the Man. My impressions of his writing are mixed up with memories of staying up into the small hours eagerly consuming  The Stand, It, et al. It seems that adolescence is the optimum time to read King. This might explain why so many critics have had pops at King (like Dwight Allen at Salon): they first encountered him as adults, and were not responsive to his merits. (It may explain also my response to stuff like J.K. Rowling: I don’t get the appeal. Maybe I was just a few years too old when I first came to it.) My really intensive reading of his books was in my early teen years in the mid-90s. Later, I cooled on him, partly because my tastes changed and partly because once I had worked through his back catalogue I found that what he was then producing was not as good as the early stuff. The mid-90s saw a few clunkers (Insomnia, Rose Madder) and while Bag of Bones and Hearts in Atlantis showed King developing in interesting ways, they were followed by an unparalleled outpouring of dross (Dreamcatcher, Black House, From a Buick 8, Cell, etc.) 2006’s Cell was where the very last vestiges of my King fixation died, and I stopped reading his new works.

Still now, as he approaches 70, King is putting out about 2 books a year. Novels mostly, of wildly varying lengths, punctuated with collections of short stories. Occasionally I check in, but with no great returns. Revival (2014) is my first King in quite a while. It’s a slim-ish volume, 372 pages of fairly large print. One thing that interested me was how allusive the book seemed. The dedication page lists 11 of “the people who built my house”; that is, the writers who have inspired him. It’s the usual suspects for King: Shelley, Stoker, Jackson, Lovecraft, Machen. The blurb from Sydney Morning Herald posits Frankenstein as the key influence on the novel; the Guardian review suggests Lovecraft. I would say it’s Machen. In King’s opening paragraphs, as the narrator introduces the key character, he writes:

I can’t bear to believe his presence in my life had anything to do with fate. It would mean that all these terrible things – these horrors – were meant to happen. If that is so, then there is no such thing as light, and our belief in it is a foolish illusion. If that is so, we live in darkness like animals in a burrow, or ants deep in their hill.

This recalls a passage from Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894), a story which King refers to specifically in the aforementioned dedication. In Pan, Machen’s protagonist exclaims:

It is too incredible, too monstrous; such things can never be in this quiet world, where men and women live and die, and struggle, and conquer, or maybe fail, and fall down under sorrow, and grieve and suffer strange fortunes for many a year; but not this, Phillips, not such things as this. There must be some explanation, some way out of the terror. Why, man, if such a case were possible, our earth would be a nightmare.

Both passages start with an expression of incredulity (“I can’t bear to believe”, “It is too incredible”), though Machen’s character is more unconditional, King’s more ambiguous. This incredulity is founded, not on rationality, but on what is bearable. Machen’s register is classically of the horror genre: “monstrous […] terror […] nightmare”. These are all the things that are at stake in accepting the evidence. King, too, lays on the big abstractions of the genre (“the horrors“).

Even King’s syntax and word choice changes in this passage. “If that is so” is archaic, and rather inconsistent with the tone of King’s aging rock musician narrator. “[W]e live in Darkness” evokes the biblical “we see through a glass, darkly” and, by extension, Sheridan LeFanu’s famous collection In a Glass Darkly. Machen, like most pre-20th c. Anglophone writers was steeped in biblical language (his father was a clergyman), and it gives his prose a resonance and stark power, at times. With King, though, it’s imported, and sits unassimilated in the middle of his much more homely and colloquial prose. Machen couldn’t have written like King, and King can’t write like Machen, not for more than a paragraph or so, anyway.

But those two paragraphs both set the works in the genre of cosmic horror. The genre is predominantly associated with Lovecraft, but the real establishing text is The Great God Pan, which Lovecraft, like King, made no secret of his admiration for. So similar are the philosophies underlying Machen and Lovecraft’s stories that influence by the former is sometimes imputed to the latter, simply because he’s more widely known and read. The essence of cosmic horror is not that there is a monster who must be faced and, perhaps, defeated; it is that life is monstrous, the universe is monstrous. And the universe cannot be defeated. The visible monsters are only representatives of a greater evil at the heart of life itself. That is why life is a “nightmare” and faith a “foolish illusion”.

King plays with these ideas in Revival, but for most of the novel they’re background. Like most of King’s work, there’s a great deal of focus on characterization, of community life, and so on. King is an incorrigibly humanist writer. Machen wasn’t really a humanist; Lovecraft even less so. Maybe that’s where the difficulty lies: King is too warm, too invested in his fellow humans to be really invested in cosmic horror. It’s when you don’t think much of humanity in general that horror can come to seem cosmic. For all King’s humanity, though, when it comes to the pay-off, the big finale, we know from the hints and the build-up that it’s all going to have to centre on the idea of the great horrors. The anti-climax in Revival is, sadly, risible. How can you really construct a finale that will provide pay off when dealing with ideas of such magnitude? Machen didn’t do great in bringing Pan to a climax, either. For Lovecraft, there tended to be an overreliance on “indescribable” and its synonyms when the monsters made their appearance. King barely tries, his ending is run-of-the mill, though I don’t want to get too spoilery about it.

In short King is King, and this is a superior read in the King vein. There’s some pretty atmospheric americana scene-setting, some of King’s typically laboured humour (this has always been his weak point, for me: the guy just is not funny, but he never stops trying), and a lot of nods towards the greats of cosmic horror. Cosmic horror is just the dressing, though, it’s not really what King is about. He’s got his own thing going. It’s a shame he couldn’t integrate this particular subgenre better into his own writing, but, on this front, Revival doesn’t quite come off, though it retains interest I think both as a good read all round and King’s most considered fictional statement on religion, rendering it a notably more thematic work than most of his others, while still retaining a good narrative thrust.


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