Pennywise should never lose, let alone die.
I know that’s not the essay you signed on to read, but it’s where we need to start.
And we need to start there because Stephen King is something of a coward. This isn’t an insult. Really, it’s nothing King hasn’t insinuated or explicitly stated in jest himself. If anything, it’s diagnostic toward his exceptionalism as a writer; it’s unlikely that his success could be matched by a writer with less fear. A less terrified author might not reach as far in test of his or her own vulnerability, nor would said writer mine with sharpened empathy as well as King does in his best literary moments.
But sometimes, structurally, the same fear constructs a self-defeating U-turn at the end of some of King’s most epic narrative journeys. That is to say that I think sometimes Stephen King imagines monsters and circumstances so horrific that he lacks the courage to let them win, even when they should.
In King’s largest-scale novel, The Stand, upwards of a thousand pages are spent outlining a disturbing apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenario that seems to metaphorically suggest good and evil, as we understand the concepts in a proverbial sense, are, at least in cultural practice, codependent in striking the balance necessary to harbor the moral bacteria of human civilization as it is defined by thousands of years of human history. But this reading is completely orphaned when King pens a conclusion that sees the literal hand of God coming out of the sky to detonate a bomb, reducing the entirety of the preceding text to a run-of-the-mill biblical showdown, one in which our clearly creator takes a moral side as a comfort to the reader (who is likely so comforted, in fact, he or she doesn’t consider the murky implications of free will posed by this deus ex machina).
In the more recent epic attempt Under the Dome, King builds most of his material as a Rockwellian Lord of the Flies, but explodes the whole thing with a climax that answers a question that none of the rest of the book is asking (“What if aliens could just empathize with us?”).
His novel It may not be the best example, but on the heels of a groundbreaking and successful new adaptation which adopts the book’s first resolution (minus the whacked out orgy sequence because what the fuck?), it is the most prescient example with which to get to the point.
I’m getting to the point.
The bulk of It, say 90%, reads like the single best American existential horror novel of the 20th Century. And Muchietti’s new film captures some of those strengths in its chronologically transplanted re-imagining, structuring the idyllic Maine town’s overlapping with a great inter-dimensional evil with remarkable understanding of and respect given to King’s arrangement. The deadlights, that emptiness older than the universe itself, at eternal war with its opposite, is something biblical, Kafkaesque, ever-present beneath every human action and larger than the species, let alone a singular individual or collective. And yet, in the end, he’s defeated with fist fights and imagined weapons.
That isn’t to say that there is zero value in King’s more character-adoring simple victories, which maybe sells better to his widespread fan base anyway. But King himself recognizes his inability to commit to the nihilism which he discovers and describes so successfully: his work under pseudonym Richard Bachman is advertised as his chance to stick to more cynical and violent and unsettling material, and at least one work authored under his given name represents his willful surrender to the darkness.
The story goes that Stephen King didn’t even want to publish his novel Pet Sematary, shoving it in a drawer somewhere having decided there was no value in its downward spiral into smothering darkness. The book was only submitted due to a looming deadline and a total absence of submittable work.
But it’s loyalty to that smothering darkness that makes Mary Lambert’s 1988 film adaptation one of the best and certainly one of the most dreadfully terrifying Stephen King adaptations.
After an opening scene that sees the Creed family arriving at a serene, paradise-like new home, there are almost no subsequent scenes that don’t talk about or allude to death. Yeah, Pet Sematary’s trademark antagonists are the returned and possessed corpses of Louis Creed’s pets and family members, a sort of modified zombie element that explains George Romero’s initial interest in the project (the legendary director held the rights to filming for a while but had to pull out of the project), but these are just manifestations of the real monster. The conflict in Pet Sematary is more coldly unsymbolic than that in any of King’ other work. The real monster in Pet Sematary is just plain ol’ death.
There’s an important distinction to make here. I don’t mean that the enemy in Pet Sematary is mourning or loss, though, sure, there’s an implied element of that. The enemy is death. The inevitability of all of our dying, that each individual is at its mercy. A few years ago, the film Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl caught a decent amount of criticism for a plot that saw a self-centered young man turn a teenage girl’s dying into his story. It’s generally considered uncouth to make another person’s suffering and mortality about yourself, but there is no more human reaction. Every death is a reminder of our own. In 2004’s remake of Dawn of the Dead, Kenneth (Ving Rhames) talks about other people dying: “Better them than me,” he asserts. At least subconsciously, every viewer has to feel the survivalist and existential rationality of that mindset.
And Jackson and King spin that reaction into a knot with familial affection, so that Louis Creed’s losses are presented with more psychological truth and complexity. Notice that every major onscreen death in Pet Sematary is later spoken of in first person terms or understood through subjective reasoning: When Pascow, a college student on the campus on which Louis serves as the doctor, is hit by a truck, he returns to inform Louis about the dangers of toying with death. Louis’ daughter Ellie (Blaze Berdahl) talks about the inevitable demise of her cat as something being taken from her by God. Rachel Creed (Denise Crosby) directly confesses her own selfish understanding of her sister’s dying in her childhood. And at the funeral of his son, Louis gets into a physical altercation with his father-in-law about his failure as a father, as if the death were something of his doing. There is an element of mourning in each of these characters; they are not presented as cold sociopaths, but they will the return of their dead loved ones just as much to eradicate the promise of their own death as for any more compassionate reason.
It gets so that all of the stiff, wooden acting and melodramatic music placed atop of the death obsessed text feels natural and editorial, especially the hyper-edited death of young Gage (Miko Hughes), a melodramatic unfolding of photos and flashback memories that nonetheless registers as stomach churning, as if Jackson is commenting on the way that everything about life is a distracted performance, devalued by the ever-present promise of death. Note how infrequently in this film about a family’s loss that two faces are framed together. Everyone in this movie (everyone in life, really) is alone in their hopeless fight with death and, perhaps, only together in their shared aloneness.
And Louis carries this pattern of denying that singular true fact until he meets that fact head on. His obsession with not dying undoes him into dying.
It’s a terrifying truth to face head on. King knows that, which is why, perhaps, he so frequently backs away from it in his work. With this one exception. What Pet Sematary does, form start-to-finish in a way that so few King novels, and even fewer horror tales of the 20th Century, is honestly offer the chilling comparison of the thin space between organic life and its biological end, which is often nothing more than a fraction of an inch of flesh torn in the wrong place within the body, signifying the space between human logic and an incomprehensible God whose omniscience and omnipotence allows for the temporality of our existence and wills the pain of losing everyone that we love to that same impermanency.
We will always be closer to death than understanding why we have to die.
Which is what Pascow has been saying all along, basically: The dead are dead and the living are dying. Them’s the breaks, as it were.
No fair, No fair, Gauge pouts as he falls backward through a wrecked hallway to a second early death.
No fair. No Fair.
Well, we all feel you on that one, demon child.
Featured Image: Paramount Pictures