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  • Writer's pictureJ. M. Sawyer


Updated: Sep 23, 2022

Like many horror enthusiasts, I regard Stephen King as a true “Master of Horror.” That’s not to say that Mr. King can do no wrong in my eyes as a writer, or, more importantly, as a storyteller. On the contrary, I can voice my criticism of his work as loudly as I can sing his praises. Yet, I hold him in this high regard because he can depict genuine horror through his chosen medium. He knows what true horror is—what it means.

I thought I understood what horror was as a child, but now I realize my beliefs were misguided. And my path to that realization was not as direct as it should have been, in part because of the extraordinary circumstances of my very first encounter with Mr. King’s work.

It was 1989, and I walked alone through the lobby of the Linden Quad movie theater in Linden, NJ. I made my way through the crowd of enthusiastic movie-goers with ticket stubs in one hand and buckets of buttered popcorn in the other. I still hadn’t decided which movie I wanted to see. My father owned that movie theater, and I could often tag along with him to work (provided I didn’t have school the next morning). I walked through the lobby, looked at the different movie posters, and found one poster that caught my eye. With my reading ability and powers of deduction at the time, I could surmise that the movie was about animals. Well, it involved one animal, but it wasn’t what I had expected. I was nine years old, and the movie I chose was Pet Sematary. A thousand nightmares were spawned that night.

I remember the terror I felt seeing Victor Pascow’s broken skull following his run-in with an Orinco truck and Zelda’s deformed body as she writhed in her bed—images that caused me to shudder as a child; throwing my hands over my eyes in a crowded auditorium, unable to retreat because I’d sat in the center of the row with people blocking my escape on both sides. Strangely, as the years passed, I began developing a taste for horror—an appetite for it.

I went on to watch other films that were adapted from Mr. King’s work, and King did not disappoint. The Shining. It. Misery. All “classic King” fan favorites. But it wasn’t until early adulthood that I came to a ghastly realization. I’d never actually read any novel, novella, or short story that was written by Stephen King. My experience and my understanding of his abilities were limited to what I could gather from the films adapted from his many works. Well, that was a mistake that had to be corrected.

So, I set my mind to purpose and purchased my first Stephen King novel. Deciding which King title would be my first was easy. I went with the one that inspired the movie that haunted my dreams as a child: Pet Sematary. I sat down, prepared myself for the horrors to come, took a deep breath, and flipped to the first page. Then, about a third of the way into the book, a disturbing question crept into my mind. “When is this going to get scary?” I thought.

It wasn’t until the resurrected Gage Creed appeared to Judd Crandall and informed him that his dearly departed wife had screwed around behind his back and was presently sucking cocks in Hell that I got a brief chill. Somewhat perplexed, I finished the novel, set it down, and thought about the story. That’s when I realized I had been cheated—not by the book, but by the adaptation.

Something buried beneath the grotesque imagery and the jump scares in the movie had eluded me for years: the true horror of the story. It wasn’t Pascow, Zelda, or even the dark remnants of Gage after his resurrection from the sour, stinking earth of the Micmac burial grounds. The genuine horror, I would realize, was the pain and suffering of a man who had lost his child. That anguish was amplified by the knowledge that the cursed ground could return his son to him, even if what returned might just be a malevolent shadow of the beloved child he’d lost.

“Sometimes, dead is better,” according to King. But could a grieving father hear, let alone comprehend, that his son might be better off in the grave? Would I, now a father of two, be able to comprehend that if I were placed in Louis Creed’s position with the power of the Micmac burial grounds at my disposal? Would I make the same mistake and travel the same dark road if there was even the slightest chance my child could be returned to me? A chill runs down my spine. Thinking the unthinkable. Entertaining the absurd. Descending into madness. That is true horror. Bravo, Mr. King.

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