Dramatic Irony: Pet Sematary’s Secret Ingredient

Here, kitty kitty. Picture by fcja99 via Pixabay.

*Spoilers below*

The first time I read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (now a major motion picture…again), I didn’t really get it. In King’s introduction, he describes it as “what I consider to be the most frightening book I’ve ever written” and “the one I put away in a drawer, thinking I had finally gone too far,” so I expected more than the good — not great — story about an Indian burial ground. Maybe it was because I was 16 and a family of my own was so far down the list it’s not worth mentioning, but no part of it shocked me, I didn’t lose any sleep over it, and I wasn’t looking over my shoulder for the uncanny valley of walking corpses. And, in fairness, King acknowledges that fans don’t see it through the same lens he does.

In anticipation of the new movie (which, unfortunately, is another in a long list of mediocre King adaptations), I went ahead and re-read it. Eleven years later, it hit a lot harder, even if the story is still just good, not great. The secret is in that foreword from King, which separates this story from others like it.

A quick refresher: Dramatic irony is defined as “a literary device by which the audience’s or reader’s understanding of events or individuals in a work surpasses that of its characters.” While this usually manifests itself as the reader knowing that one character’s best friend is actually going to betray them (before the character themself knows), or something along those lines, it takes an unconventional form here.

King uses the introduction of the novel to explain its real-life inspiration, which in turn lays out much of the plot. From the dead cat to his daughter’s reckoning with death to playing with a kite with his son to his son (nearly) running out into the street and being hit by an oncoming truck, King’s life informs the novel. Or, as he puts it, “I simply took existing elements and threw in that one terrible what if.” This inside knowledge essentially turns Pet Sematary into fan fiction in which King describes the events of his life leading up to his real son’s real death. That explains why he didn’t want it to see the light of day.

The non-spoiling spoiler

Now, unlike more conventional dramatic irony, this information doesn’t exist within the novel and has no direct bearing on the characters themselves. It’s not something they could ever know. In reality, King’s reveal probably has more in common with the dreaded “spoiler.” Rather than being privy to information that the characters themselves could discover, we’re instead let in on the backstory of the plot, which tells us much of what we need to know. From the moment King lays out the inspiration for the story, it should be pretty clear what’s going to happen: Gage is going to get hit by a truck. It’s rare that the author wants us to have this knowledge, and even rarer that we, as readers, should welcome it. Except that here, the spoiler doesn’t do much to spoil the book.

Picture by falco via Pixabay.

In fact, that knowledge colors everything that happens from page one. It’s a cloud that hangs over the novel, one that grows darker and heavier the longer Gage stays alive. It’s not until late in the book that the moment we all know is coming finally arrives, and it’s not before a touching, heartbreaking scene in which Louis and his son bond over a kite (just like King and his son did). King drags the inevitable out and injects as much of his real life into the book as he can so that when the moment comes, we feel the pain too, the pain he fortunately never had to feel himself.

From good to great

Of course, none of this would matter if Pet Sematary was a bad book. While the dramatic irony helps elevate it to something noteworthy, it does stand well enough on its own. Louis is an imperfect protagonist, whose personal shortcomings allow him to make the irrational, dumb decisions that drive the plot without feeling contrived. Jud Crandall is a great old-guy-with-mysterious-secrets type who complements Louis perfectly. Ellie, who’s just old enough to start asking questions about death, serves as an innocent bystander in all of it, reminding the adults reading it that we, too, were once frightened tremendously by the mere concept of death. The rest of the characters also help the plot move along, although they come across a bit flat. Pet Sematary’s world isn’t much larger than Louis Creed’s. It doesn’t need to be, but it does ultimately affect the quality of the story.

The unusual use of dramatic irony, provided by the author’s own life and inspiration, helps differentiate Pet Sematary in such a way that its obvious plot actually works in its favor. It’s rare that the author’s presence in a story is a good thing, but the book isn’t the same without it. Because of it, we know what’s going to happen, and that makes it so much worse.

I’m a freelance content writer who uses fiction writing to help improve my professional writing. Follow me on Instagram @anthonyjondreau for more on books and writing. For professional inquiries, you can reach me at www.anthonyjondreau.com or anthonyrjondreau@gmail.com.

I use the basics of fiction writing to tell help people and companies tell their stories. Find me at www.anthonyjondreau.com or anthonyrjondreau@gmail.com.