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Aging horror and Indigenous stories: a review of Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary”


Book cover of Pet Sematary by Stephen King

Stephen King published his novel Pet Sematary in 1983, which makes the novel almost 40 years old. The plot hinges on a universal human desire: to beat death and to keep hold of the ones we love. However, like many novels and legends before it, bringing things back from the dead doesn’t always go as planned. Some things, are just better left dead.

To be honest, I am not sure how to define this novel because I feel like it has traditional supernatural horror elements as well as thriller qualities. It could also arguably fall under the sub-genre of zombie novels. Since the novel was published it has been adapted for screen twice, first in 1989 and then again in 2019. For good or bad, it has captured the gaze of the Western world more than once.

Whilst reading the novel, I couldn’t help but feel like it wasn’t particularly scary, suspenseful, or horror inducing, which made me wonder if I was immune to such frights or if horror can age, badly? Another example of badly aged horror is the film, The Exorcist, which is a borderline comedy for me now. I also wondered if the undergird of the narrative—a Native American burial ground that brings back dead things—was something we have thankfully moved on from. The references to the Mi’kmaq burial ground and the legend of the wendigo felt extremely dated like your racist uncle at the Christmas dinner who insists he isn’t racist, but…

White people are featured heavily in the novel and there is only a brief mention of someone who once knew a Native American generations ago. The traditional peoples and their legends and stories are framed in a way that is only evil. The Native American land is only described as dark and controlling. No actual Native American that I could see in the novel was asked about the land, or even really properly referred to as a character. The land is used by white people to bring back their dead animals, which feels a bit like first world problems if you ask me. The fact that the indigenous land’s power uses white people, Louis, Jud, Gage, Ellie, and Rachel, to do its evil bidding further makes it look like white people are victims of Indigenous peoples rather than the actual reality of American history.

All the aforementioned racial issues just make the novel difficult and uncomfortable for me, and this is where I wonder if these horror novels age so badly because we are getting tired of seeing Indigenous stories being appropriated for the gorey entertainment of white people? I am not saying indigenous cultures don’t have scary stories or that we shouldn’t talk about them, but could you maybe have more than zero indigenous people in your novel, movie, T.V. series, and/or comic?

Have you read any other horror/thriller novels of late that have also made you wonder if the only thing scary about the novel is how racially clueless the author was? As always, share the reading love.

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