In 1983, Stephen King was already among the most successful horror novelists in the world, with a string of bestsellers and hit film adaptations to his name. While he was already becoming recognized as a master of the genre, there were ideas so horrific that even King didn’t want to venture too far into.
Thanks to a move to a new home, a perilous roadway, and a dead cat, King dreamed up a book that he once considered too frightening to even publish, and stuck it in a drawer. A publishing contract ultimately coaxed the book out of that drawer, and we got Pet Sematary—a novel so scary that King didn’t want to show it the world.
In the nearly 40 years since its publication, Pet Sematary has become one of King’s most beloved and most talked-about books, spawning a hit film adaptation in 1989 and a second version set to arrive in theaters on April 5, 2019.
Here, from its dark inspirations to its unlikely path to publication, are 10 facts about Pet Sematary.
1. The book was inspired by Stephen King’s own life.
Stephen King’s inspiration for Pet Sematary came quite clearly and directly from events in his own life. In the late 1970s, King was invited to be a writer in residence and professor at his alma mater, the University of Maine at Orono. To facilitate this, he moved his family into a home in Orrington, Maine. Everything about the arrangement was fine—except for the road that ran past the rural house. It was, like the road in Pet Sematary, full of fast, heavy trucks, and frequently claimed the lives of local pets. As a result, a pet cemetery had been established in the woods by local children. According to King, it really did bear a sign that read “Pet Sematary.”
Shortly after the King family moved into the house, King discovered his daughter’s cat dead by the side of the road, and they buried the pet in the cemetery. A little while later, while the family was outside flying a kite, his youngest son—who was not yet 2 years old—ran toward the road in a scene that clearly mirrors the events of the novel. King managed to stop his son in time, but the implications of the scenario quickly took hold of his imagination, as he explained in a later introduction to the novel:
“But a part of my mind has never escaped from that gruesome what if: Suppose I hadn’t caught him? Or suppose he had fallen in the middle of the road instead of on the edge of it?”
This vivid, horrifying thought—coupled with dreams later that night of a reanimated corpse outside the house—were the seed for Pet Sematary.
2. King didn’t want to publish the book.
For all of its fantastic elements, Pet Sematary is the story of a family who loses a child, and the madness and pain that grief puts them through as it ultimately drives Dr. Louis Creed to do the unthinkable. Because of that, King was reluctant to show the book to anyone upon finishing it.
“I’m proud of that because I followed it all the way through, but it was so gruesome by the end of it, and so awful. I mean, there’s no hope for anybody at the end of that book,” King told The Paris Review in 2006. “Usually I give my drafts to my wife Tabby to read, but I didn’t give it to her. When I finished I put it in the desk and just left it there. I worked on Christine, which I liked a lot better, and which was published before Pet Sematary.”
Even decades after its publication, King still considers Pet Sematary to be his most frightening book, and the one in which he felt he’d finally gone “too far.” Though the book was eventually published in 1983 and embraced by the public as one of his greatest commercial successes, King himself still finds the book extremely distressing.
“Put simply, I was horrified by what I had written, and the conclusions I’d drawn,” King later wrote.
3. It was published out of necessity.
After writing Pet Sematary, King simply filed it away in a drawer and went to work on his next book, later writing in an introduction to the novel that he didn’t expect it would ever be published “in my lifetime.” When the book finally did make it to stores in 1983, it was out of business necessity, and not creative motivation.
“I had ended my relationship with Doubleday, the publisher of my early books, but I owed them a final novel before accounts could be closed completely,” King recalled. “I only had one in hand that wasn’t spoken for, and that one was Pet Sematary. I talked it over with my wife, who is my best counselor when I’m not sure how to proceed, and she told me that I should go ahead and publish the book. She thought it was good. Awful, but too good not to be read.”
Because the book was published as King was parting ways with his previous publisher, Doubleday, he didn’t do any publicity to promote the book, even as Doubleday launched a massive ad campaign of its own along with a huge print run for the book. King’s lack of interviews in the lead-up to its publication only added to its mystique, and Pet Sematary became a huge success as the book even Stephen King thought was too scary. A year after its publication, King was still unsure of his final decision.
“If I had my way about it, I still would not have published Pet Sematary,” King said. “I don’t like it. It’s a terrible book—not in terms of the writing, but it just spirals down into darkness. It seems to be saying that nothing works and nothing is worth it, and I don’t really believe that.”
4. He wrote it at his neighbor’s house.
Another plot element from Pet Sematary that King borrowed from his real life is the presence of a kind neighbor, and the neighbor actually had a hand in helping King compose the book. In this case, according to King, the neighbor was a man named Julio DeSanctis, who owned a store across from the Kings’x Orrington home.
It was DeSanctis who gave King the line, “That road has used up a lot of animals.” While he might never have said “dead is better,” DeSanctis did provide King with a comfortable space in which to write his new scary story.
“There was no writing space in the Orrington house, but there was an empty room in Julio’s store, and it was there that I wrote Pet Sematary,” King wrote in his introduction to the book.
5. It takes place in a fictional Maine town with a real-life counterpart.
While King lived in Orrington during his residency at the University of Maine, and Louis Creed moves to his house to take a job at the same university, King chose to set Pet Sematary in a fictional town located in the same area of the state. King chose the name Ludlow for his town, and situated it both near Orono and near his own other fictional towns, Castle Rock (the setting of Cujo and Needful Things, among other stories) and Derry (the setting of IT).
What makes this notable is the fact that there’s already a town named Ludlow in Maine. It’s in the northeastern part of the state, near the Canadian border.
6. It features connections to other King works.
Like most of King’s novels, Pet Sematary exists in a universe populated by other King stories, characters, and locales, and the novel makes brief reference to these at various points. Early in the novel, while talking about the dangers of the road and the animal it’s killed, Jud Crandall refers to a St. Bernard who “went rabid downstate a couple of years ago and killed four people,” a reference to King’s novel Cujo.
Later in the book, Rachel Creed is urgently driving home when she passes an exit sign that lists Jerusalem’s Lot among its destinations. Jerusalem’s Lot is the setting for King’s vampire novel ‘Salem’s Lot, as well as his short story “Jerusalem’s Lot.” At one point, the family also looks down into the Penobscot River valley, and Louis Creed thinks of Derry, the setting of King’s novel IT. The references are small and don’t affect the plot much, but they’re enough to remind readers that King has built worlds upon worlds over the course of his career.
7. The house that inspired Pet Sematary was recently up for sale.
King fans have made a habit of journeying around the author's home state of Maine in search of various landmarks that have either inspired locations or been directly portrayed in his novels and films, but recently everyone had a chance to actually own one. In 2017, the Orrington home King and his family lived in while he was writing Pet Sematary—the one by the road that used up so many animals, including the King family cat—hit the market at a listing price of $255,000. The listing has since been removed, which means the home was either sold … or that road and the nearby pet cemetery proved just too frightening for buyers.
8. King insisted that the first film adaptation be made in Maine.
In 1989, six years after the book was released, Pet Sematary was adapted into a film, directed by Mary Lambert from a script by King himself. The film is one of the most well-received King adaptations, and spawned one sequel (also directed by Lambert, but not written by King) in 1992, with a second film adaptation on the way this spring. Because of King’s direct involvement with the original production, he was able to make one clear request in his contract: That the film’s production not be shipped out to a backlot pretending to be Maine, but that it would actually be shot in Maine. Lambert and company complied, and the director later credited the decision to lending the film an “iconographic quality and archetypal resonance."
9. King was OK with the second film adaptation’s biggest story change.
We’ll see a new version of Pet Sematary play out on the big screen this April, with a film adaptation directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer from a script by Jeff Buhler. The adaptation is part of a wave of renewed interest in King properties in recent years (like the recent remake of IT, which will get its own sequel this fall), and has built up plenty of anticipation from fans thanks to its genuinely creepy trailers.
Things got a little controversial, though, when the second full trailer for the film revealed a major plot change from King’s novel. Spoiler alert: The child who is killed and later resurrected by the pet "sematary" in the novel will no longer be the youngest Creed child, Gage, but the older child, Ellie, who actually escaped the carnage in King’s novel. In an interview with Flickering Myth, star Jason Clarke—who plays Louis Creed—defended the decision:
“It’s pretty easy to justify [the change]. You can’t play that movie with a three-year-old boy. You end up with a doll or some animated thing. So you’re going to get a much deeper, richer story by swapping for a seven-year-old or nine-year-old girl.”
Clarke added that “Stephen King didn't have an issue with it,” so if you’re concerned about the change, apparently the author himself is not.
10. King still thinks about its most famous line.
Pet Sematary will no doubt be remembered as one of King’s most memorable and most horrifying novels, something the author himself seems to have made peace with. But King can’t seem to shake the themes he was working with in that book, and the sway they hold over both his own mind and his audience. In his introduction to the 2000 version of the book, King admitted that he too is still often haunted by the novel’s most memorable line: “Sometimes, Louis, dead is better.”
“Perhaps ‘sometimes dead is better’ is grief’s last lesson, the one we get to when we finally tire of jumping up and down on the plastic blisters and crying out for God to get his own cat (or his own child) and leave ours alone,” King wrote. “That lesson suggests that in the end, we can only find peace in our human lives by accepting the will of the universe. That may sound like corny, new-age crap, but the alternative looks to me like a darkness too awful for such mortal creatures as us to bear.”
Introduction to Pet Sematary, by Stephen King (2000)