Book review: Pet Sematary, by Stephen King

Pet Sematary

After a long dry spell in reading I decided to trust one of the greatest storytellers of our time to take me back to the routine of absorbing the pages. I wasn’t let down. Shakespeare he isn’t, but that’s not the point – King tells a story better than pretty much anyone, making you turn the pages hungrily to see what awaits on the other side of the paper.

The synopsis is familiar to most people who haven’t spent the past 30 years in a barrel. A young family exchange the urban buzz of Chicago to the serenity and privacy of a small town in Maine. Located just outside of the perimeter of their property is something unusual: a pet cemetery.

After the family cat dies, old-timer neighbor Jud introduces Louis to a part of the cemetery most people don’t know about – a secret, hidden portion of the graveyard with a creepy history of supposedly bringing animals buried there back from the dead…

I hate book reviews where the main portion of the text consists of a re-iteration of the plot of the book being reviewed; hence, I’m going to leave the description of the plot there. Read the book – King will tell you the story better than I possibly could.

King’s genius has always been in being able to turn the familiar into the unfamiliar, to make us notice the shadows in the familiar rooms of our homes. He has probably never done it better than he does it here. The Creed family’s domestic bliss quickly starts turning into a nightmare when father Louis realizes the price he has to pay for keeping his shaky world intact.

The atmosphere is tense throughout. The most memorable instance of King’s tension-building ability is, in my opinion, Louis’ and Jud’s first trip to the secret portion of the cemetery. The dreamlike logic of the trip, the surrounding trees, the incapability of either man to stop what’s taking place – the sequence is perfectly written, and makes the hair at the back of your neck stand up.

Obviously, the book is partly about death, its inevitability, how different people approach the concept, and how our personal experiences of loved ones passing on shape our attitudes towards death. However, deep in its buried, gravestone-covered heart Pet Sematary is about identity – specifically, how we conceive of each others’ identities, firm in our beliefs that our conception of another person is the definitive version, the Final Truth about who that person is. King uses the mysterious cemetery as a literary device to examine the human mind in a predicament where this comfortable (albeit delusional) sense of certainty about other people is erased, leaving the protagonist adrift in a setting once familiar, now a landscape of a waking nightmare.

The most interesting “clue” to this theme being explored and symbolized in the book is a scene where Louis approaches Jud while the sun is setting, and realizes how close he has to stand to Jud to truly be certain it’s him and not someone else. In the next scene, the two head to the hidden, creepier portion of the pet cemetery, and during the journey the same uncertainty hits Louis: Jud acts completely differently from how he usually does; the old man is suddenly fearful and uncertain of himself. Louis doesn’t really know Jud, doesn’t know his memories or his fears, no matter how many evenings the two have spent chugging down beers and exchanging anecdotes from their lives.

Pet Sematary is a delightful example of how a book can entertain and be profound at the same time. This is a Story, with a capital “S” – not a writer examining his own navel, expecting us to stay interested because, well, he’s just so profound, man! King laid out his work ethic in his fantastic memoir On Writing. A writer has to work hard to make a book interesting and entertaining, and not just expect people to read his works because he thinks he should be listened to.

Ultimately, the most beautiful gift the book leaves to the reader is the realization that, as the famous line from the book goes, “sometimes dead is better.” Being able to let things go is not a matter of just turning your back and walking on – it’s something to be worked on, pondered, an attitude to be cultivated. Hard though it might sometimes be, the alternative can be worse – a LOT worse…

Nightmares and sleep paralysis


(photo from the film The Nightmare, 2015)

I received my first indication that dreams are not always a respite from the stresses and fears of waking life when I was a small child. My childhood home was located right across from my school, the only thing separating the school and my house being a large, sandy playing field for football and baseball.

My nightmare began with me “waking up” in the dream to the sound of a distant knocking from outside of my bedroom window; I could also hear faint sounds of talking, and I had a distinct feeling that someone was about to kidnap me, and was going through the plan of action aloud, reciting it to himself so as to not forget any important detail.

Despite my fear, I went to check who (or what) was making the noise, disturbing my dreaming. I peeked slightly from the side of the curtain, making sure I would not be seen, and that’s when a flash of red light transported me to the next section of the dream.

Next thing I knew, I was being carried across the sandy playing field towards a nearby river located behind the school by somebody dressed as a janitor or a maintenance man. The figure was wearing red overalls and was carrying a shovel. From what I could see of his face, he had a strong stubble, and was constantly making a guttural sound resembling speech but not quite sounding off legible words. The color red was somehow distinct in this dream – it was even “in the air” somehow; it seemed as though everything outside was lit up with that type of red light you see in submarines.

I was totally petrified, unable to use my hands or my feet. Then it hit me – I was about to be buried somewhere near the river. I started fighting with all my might, trying desperately to move my hands and my feet. Suddenly, I could feel my feet moving, and I started waving them like crazy, trying to kick the figure, to make him drop me from his grip.

I finally woke up for real, absolutely covered in sweat and terrified. No shame in admitting that I went to sleep next to my parents for the rest of the night.

Nightmares come and go, but for some reason, this one has stuck with me throughout the decades. It was the first time I had felt (or at least remember feeling) absolute, mortal fear. My life up until that point had been summers with my friends, Ninja Turtles, and Ghostbusters. Sure, I had seen the occasional scary movie or TV show, but as a small town kid I had been effectively sheltered from true evil and the horrors of the world by two loving parents who devoted their entire lives to their children.

The second most vivid of nightmare of my life I had when I was in the Finnish Army, around the age of 19. I was on leave for a weekend, and I suppose the stresses and hardships of serving as a soldier finally led to something of a climax one night when I experienced the terrifying phenomenon known as “sleep paralysis.”

I woke up from a perfectly pleasant dream to the feeling that someone was in the room. I had my face towards the wall, which meant that the “presence” was behind me, right behind my back.

I tried to roll over to face the presence, to see what it was and what it wanted, when I realized I couldn’t move. I was locked in that position. That’s when a feeling began to rise up in me that what was in my room was somehow pure, categorical evil. I don’t mean a “mean person”, or someone simply wanting to do me harm. What I mean is that I felt like I was in the presence of some ancient, eternal source of all things evil under the Sun.

I started shaking in panic, and that’s when I could feel my left hand slightly moving somehow in rhythm to my shaking. I realized I had gained control of it, and the control slowly, terrifyingly slowly, spread to all my joints, and after a moment I was totally free.

I rolled over to see what was behind me. Nothing. I was fully awake, no longer stuck in limbo between the two worlds of “awake” and “sleeping”.

For a while, I thought this was something only I had ever experienced, which made it all the more terrifying. This is common among us people, this thought that we’re alone with our scary, depressing experiences. Later, to my HUGE relief, I read about sleep paralysis and connected the dots. There was even an excellent documentary made about the phenomenon, entitled The Nightmare (2015).

What’s the scariest nightmare you have ever had? Have you ever experienced sleep paralysis?

Obscure Films You Need to See #1: Sauna (2008)

Sauna poster

(2008 Bronson Club Productions. Director Antti-Jussi Annila. Screenplay by Iiro Küttner)

The unfortunate fact is that Finland produces very few genuinely interesting films. Most Finnish films are formulaic, and deal with mundane, uninteresting matters: relationship problems among young urban professionals in Helsinki, biographical films about ultimately uninteresting people, et cetera.

Once in a whole, though, you find yourself surprised when you buy a ticket to a domestic film. This nearly paranormal experience happened to me in 2008, when I went to see Sauna.

The setting alone is interesting and totally different from anything I’ve seen before. After a long, bloody war between Sweden and Russia comes to an end in the late 1500s, two brothers and their convoy are sent to draw a map of the new borders between the huge nations. One brother is a battle-hardened soldier, still re-living the nightmares of the kill-or-be-killed world of the battlefield. The other is an educated academic, on board to carry out the scientific part of the mapping.

On their journey the posse come across a bizarre village that, for some reason, has not been marked in any previous maps. Why? And why is the population of the village the exact same number as… actually, let’s not say anything more – that would be spoiling the plot.

The film is directed with expertise you wouldn’t normally expect from a guy who has only made a few films before this one. However, Annila hits all the right marks both in terms of horror and drama. The film has a tense, spooky atmosphere that lingers in the air like an ominous premonition, and at the start of the film we only get a few glimpses of what might be behind the curtain (such as a scene where the mapping group come across an animal that has seemingly gouged its own eyes out for some reason).

I’m not entirely certain if the film will completely “open up” to people who don’t speak Finnish, or who have never lived in Finland. To us Finns, however (at least those of us with the capacity to contextualize art in philosophical and historical terms) Sauna is a beautiful, haunting musing on guilt, war, mythology, and our forever-strained relationship with our neighbor to the East, Russia.

The cinematography is gorgeous, almost enough of a reason in itself to watch the film. I’ve never seen the endless Northern European forests filmed this way. Having grown up in the countryside, I immediately connected with Annila’s and cinematographer Henri Blomberg’s vision of Finland’s nature: beautiful, vast, but also somehow ominous in the all-encompassing might its trees cast over life in this Northern periphery.

The film should be fairly easy to find at this point; there are DVDs available with English subtitles.

Let me know in the comments what you thought if you decide to watch the movie!

Sources for dark discoveries

A question I am frequently asked, especially if I do an Instagram post on a particularly obscure case or topic, is “Where do you find this stuff?” The question implies that there is a “Somewhere” where morbid, bizarre or otherwise fascinating topics can be discovered, and to an extent that is true – there are websites, Youtube channels, etc.

Mostly, however, you have to create your own “field”, the way a researcher writing a paper on, say, teenage culture creates his or her own landscape to study; there is no “teenage culture” to be discovered in a monolithic, forever-stagnant form Somewhere; the researcher herself has to decide what constitutes an aspect of teenage culture and what doesn’t. The same logic is at work in my Instagram posts and in my research for my book: there is a kind of dark allure to certain kinds of topics, and in chasing after them, you create the landscape in your own mind. An article here, a mention of a bizarre event during a casual conversation there, and so on it goes.

While there is no concise road map, there are signs along the way. Here are some I have found particularly helpful in seeking new topics to write about and in digging deeper to topics I am doing a book on:

Other people

Quite simply. Us Finns are a notoriously quiet bunch – that silence in a bus, for example, is akin to the silence of a church or a monastery. I have found, however, that people are often incredible flattered if you just flat out ask them about something you feel they might know more than you about.

Here’s an example. My wife’s brother is a stereotypical Finnish country boy, a great guy but not the kind of person you’d expect to discuss local creepy folklore with. A few summers back, my wife and I were visiting him, and the topic of my Instagram account came up. I flat out asked him if there are any local legends he might be interested in sharing. Thirty minutes later I was on a personal tour of some of the most pants-sh*ttingly horrifying abandoned houses you could think of. One had a hook in the ceiling, and my wife’s brother explained that the guy who lived there had hanged himself from up there years ago (true story, verified by other sources).

Old newspapers

You can usually find them on microfilms preserved at libraries (you will usually have to take a short course on using the reading machines, but these courses last about an hour and are entirely free). Of course, you have to know what you’re looking for, otherwise you’re going to be stuck going through newspaper after newspaper in search of something interesting. No worries, though – luckily, we have…

The Internet

Discussion boards, websites dedicated to bizarre topics and other such cyber spaces will often provide you with at least clues to start chasing. Be careful, though – a person writing on a discussion board, for example, doesn’t necessarily know what he or she is talking about; be sure to fact-check if at all possible.

You should also be cautious in reading articles or watching videos with titles like “10 Strangest Disappearances”, or something to that effect. The people who run these sites often make money from them, which means they sometimes have to produce several articles per day. It can also mean they have to produce articles on topics they don’t necessarily care or know much about. This can lead to some pretty sloppy, hastily done research.


The good old book will never fail you. Jacques Vallee, Colin Wilson, Brad Steiger – dig in, and you’ll find an endless selection of clues to research further. I am on my personal journey because I read Jacques Vallee’s seminal trilogy Dimensions, Confrontations, and Revelations.

Why am I so passionate about dark topics?

Quite simply, because I feel that in order to understand something, you have to know both sides of the issue. If you build your world view into a purely materialistic, atheist one without reading religious scripture, you will only understand half what’s out there. If you only read the story of a victim, you will not understand the mind of a killer, and so on.

To understand the dynamic of human life, it isn’t enough to be awake during the day – you also have to stay up a few nights to get an idea of what’s truly going on.


My mind is going…

Wanna come along?

I have a popular instagram account at I feel like, though it’s fun to maintain, it doesn’t offer enough space to truly lay out an idea or concept, or an historical/other event in broad enough terms to truly satisfy a reader with an interest in a topic. Hence, this blog.

I’m also writing a book, entitled “Northern Lights Sonata”, about northern European little known mysteries, unsolved crimes and other tales from the darker side of the Northern Star.

I will be reviewing books here, sharing my thoughts on various topics and, hopefully, entertaining readers with a taste for macabre – my kind of folks, in other words.

Come along. Bring a friend.