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Critical Essay by Gail E. Burns and Melinda Kanner
SOURCE: "Women, Danger, and Death: The Perversion of the Female Principle in Stephen King's Fiction," in Sexual Politics and Popular Culture, edited by Diane Raymond, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1990, pp. 158-72.
In the following essay, Burns and Kanner discuss the relationship between women and evil in King's work and assert, "On a complex and subtextual level, women are represented in ways that reveal male fear and envy of female sexuality and reproductive biology."
I hope that this study may lessen the male-centering propensity and shed new light on the psycho-sexual role of woman; that it may indicate how much more that is feminine exists in men than is generally believed, and how greatly woman's influence and strivings have affected social institutions which we still explain on a purely masculine basis.
With these words, the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim expresses the mission of his cross-cultural inquiry into rites de passage. With these words, one might well begin an inquiry into the construction and situation of women in the world of Stephen King's fiction.
In all societies, relations between men and women are expressed, in part, through the symbolic acquisition of the powers and capabilities not normally under the control of one sex or the other. Women seek to capture the social, economic, and political control typically enjoyed and exercised by men; men, on the other hand, symbolically mimic female biological capabilities, most notably menstruation and childbirth, revealing envy of that which they lack.
In a complex, large-scale society such as ours, we turn our attention to the artifacts of popular culture to gain insight into our myths, our irreconcilable conflicts, our symbolic envies. To this end, Stephen King's work provides fertile ground for the anthropologist.
Eric Norden's 1983 Playboy interview with Stephen King reveals something of King's attitudes about sex, sexual relations, and women. Asked if he has any "sexual hang-ups," King replies that his only sexual problem is that he is a sufferer of "periodic impotence." Asked why explicit sex is largely absent from his novels and stories, he replies that, first he is uncomfortable with sex, second, he has trouble creating believable romantic relationships which would be necessary to avoid arbitrary or perfunctory sex, and finally, that he has, in fact, included an S & M fantasy in one of his novellas. Norden continues in this line of questioning:
Norden: Along with your difficulty in describing sexual scenes you apparently also have a problem with women in your books …
King: Yes, unfortunately, I think it is probably the most justifiable of all those [criticisms] leveled at me … I recognize the problems but can't yet rectify them.
The women in King's fiction, then, are not carefully crafted, three-dimensional characters. The problem King has with women has nothing to do with writing women convincingly. Rather the deeply unconscious, culturally shared understandings of what constitutes Woman that emerge from the pages of these novels provide the basis for this analysis.
King himself and critics alike have commented that he cannot write convincing female characters. Our investigation reveals that the construction of female characters in Pet Sematary, as in his other fiction, draws upon and reinforces widely, if unconsciously, shared cultural myths about the female principle. This paper explores the construction of women in Stephen King and draws upon his controversial novel, Pet Sematary, as exemplary of the representation of women in King's fiction.
Precisely because of his immense popularity, Stephen King provides fertile ground for scholarly analysis. Although critical and academic audiences for the most part ignore, denigrate, or otherwise declare King's fiction as unworthy of serious consideration, the vast popularity of this body of popular culture suggests an area for investigation by the social scientists as well as the literary critic.
Since the 1974 publication of his best-selling novel, Carrie, Stephen King has received vast popular attention. His novels and collections of stories, in press continuously from their first publication and frequently converted into theatrical and made-for-television movies, have generated unprecedented levels of readership and media attention. Infrequently has this positive and sustained popular reception been matched with critical enthusiasm. The schism which traditionally has inhibited serious investigation of popular culture is dramatically reflected in the lack of academic reactions to Stephen King. Certain notable exceptions do exist. Two general categories of critical treatment address the various dimensions on which King exists as a phenomenon.
First, the predominant approach to King's fiction, written by fans-cum-critics, glorifies King's literary product as unrecognized genius. These authors have contributed significantly to deepening King's appeal through their attention to his biography and its connections to his writing, their plot expositions, and their detailed cataloguing of the corpus of King's work. However valuable their contributions, this treatment has done little to advance our understanding of the underlying culturally shared symbols which account in large measure for King's popularity.
A second treatment of King has begun to explore the possibilities of scholarly interpretations by locating King's fiction in the context of theme and genre, of metaphor and archetype.
The recent publication of Hoppenstand and Browne's The Gothic World of Stephen King provides a collection of essays which understands King's fiction and films in the light of the contemporary re-telling of traditional horror myths, the struggle of adolescents in an adult world, the adult reliving of childhood horrors and interpretations of morality.
The high-culture low-culture dichotomy which has all but precluded serious literary analysis of King's fiction places the burden of untangling King's signification system on the shoulders of popular culture studies. The literary quality of King's work is not at issue, nor are the myriad explanations for his popular success. The aim here is to understand the women in King's fiction in the larger cultural context, to come to terms with those unconsciously shared and understood ideals, values, and understandings which give his plots and characters meaning, which give his images sustained potency.
In a recent made-for-cable-TV program, Stephen King's Women of Horror, horror writers and filmmakers, including Clive Barker, John Carpenter, and Anthony Hickox, comment on the role of women in horror fiction. John Carpenter, a director of horror films, observes:
In society we have a lot of mixed feelings about women, what they should do and what they shouldn't do, and I think you see it reflected in horror movies all the time. It's a kind of anxiety level on the bottom. Women's traditional roles … there's a lot of confusion. The confusion comes from men a lot of the time.
Female reproductive potential, sexuality, and death are forged by King in a manner that invariably locks his female characters into particular, sexually defined roles. Although this analysis focuses on Pet Sematary, a cursory examination of the larger context of Stephen King's work reveals that the powerful reproduction/sexuality/death dialectic is present in all his work and provides the symbolic matrix in which all girls and women are embedded. Menstruation, mothering, and female sexual desire function as bad omens, prescient clues that something will soon be badly awry.
Women as mothers are incapable of caring for or protecting their children. In King's world, mothers are pathetically unable to save their offspring: witness Donna and Tad Trenton (Cujo), Wendy and Danny Torrance (The Shining), Vicky and Charlie McGee (Firestarter). Indeed, mothers and maternal figures alike are very often the agents of destruction, as in the cases of Margaret White (Carrie), Heidi Halleck (Thinner), and Annie Wilkes (Misery). King consistently portrays women at the mercy of their hormones, a force of nature that he links with the supernatural and which results in death rather than life.
Women in traditional horror fiction are portrayed as victims, targets of evil, easily terrorized, susceptible to the seductive forces of vampires and murderers. Where women are represented as the agents of horror themselves, they traditionally have appeared as "devourers, vampires, seductresses who can make you crash because you're listening to their song." Women in King's fiction are neither vacant, screaming victims nor are they evil incarnate. The ways in which women embody evil and act as conduits for the supernatural are ambiguous and drawn from culturally and socially shared understandings. The evil that women are and the evil women do in King is ambiguous, derived from precisely the forces of life and attraction.
Carrie White (Carrie) and Roberta Anderson (Tommy-knockers) experience some sort of dysmenorrhea which functions as a portent of their personal destruction and, through them, the destruction of their communities. In each case King defines menstruation as the trigger for the paranormal/supernatural events of these novels. Carrie's and Bobbie's reproductive potential cannot result in life; instead it is perverted and becomes the transmitter of mutation and death. This biological conundrum is a hallmark of King's fictional females.
Bobbie Anderson, as she discovers and progressively uncovers the mysterious evil buried beneath the earth, lays open a trench.
She began to unbutton her jeans so she could tuck in her blouse, then paused. The crotch of the faded Levi's was soaked with blood. Jesus. Jesus Christ. This isn't a period. This is Niagara Falls.
Days later, as she resumes her exploratory digging:
Her period had started again, but that was all right; she had put a pad in the crotch of her panties even before she went out to weed the garden. A Maxi.
Women who do manage to give birth generally fail their children in the most fundamental ways. This failure is linked consistently in King's novels to their sexuality, manifest as excessive or inadequate. Donna Trenton, for example, watches her son die of dehydration and is helpless to act until it is too late. Cujo, the rabid St. Bernard, keeps the mother-child dyad trapped in a disabled Pinto for three days, but it is the mother, Donna, not Cujo, who sets the tragic circumstances in motion and is therefore ultimately responsible for her son's death. The car has not been repaired because her sexual relationship with the local tennis pro, Steve Kemp, estranges her from Vic, her husband, creates havoc in the household, and results in the fatal car break-down.
He [Steve Kemp] had known Donna was cooling it, but she had struck him as a woman who could be manipulated with no great difficulty, at least for a while, by a combination of psychological and sexual factors. By fear, if you wanted to be crude.
Wendy Torrance's lack of decision nearly results is her son Danny's death. She knows of her husband's recurrent violence; his past alcoholic rages have resulted in child abuse including the broken arm of the infant Danny. Wendy, however, ignores Jack's erratic behavior, his inability to write, and even her growing suspicions that he is drinking again. She takes no measure to end the abuse, to save herself or her son. It is, in fact, Danny's telepathic distress signal to Halloran that results in their rescue from the Overlook.
Why is Billy Halleck (Thinner) afflicted with a gypsy curse? Because he killed the old man's daughter. But what caused the fatal automobile accident? Heidi Halleck, who is masturbating her husband Billy as they cruise along a busy city street. The facts that it is female desire, female sexual initiation, and, most importantly perhaps, sexual expression which cannot result in conception all function significantly in the sex/death dialectic.
As Heidi Halleck's desire realizes its expression, this temptation-turned-tragedy results in the death of seven people, including the entire Halleck family.
But he couldn't speak. The pleasure woke again at the touch of her fingers, playful at first then more serious … The pleasure mixed uneasily with a feeling of terrible inevitability … Then: Thud/thud.
And, when blame is clearly assigned to the granddaughter of the deceased, the underlying cause of the tragedy is made public.
He was getting a jerk-off job from his woman and he ran her down in the street.
Heidi unwittingly passes on the gypsy curse to their daughter, through her roles as biological creator and maternal nurturer. They share a strawberry pie, laden with placental, vaginal, and menstrual imagery. The pie, presented to Billy by the old gypsy man, will undo the curse when Billy feeds it to another woman. The imagery of the pie is explicit.
This thing—purpurfargade ansiket—you bring into the world like a baby. Only it grows faster than a baby, and you can't kill it because you can't see it—only you can see what it does.
The pie, with a "darkish slit" under which a blood-like ooze pulsed, would extract the curse from Billy, contain it, and, finally implant it in the eater. As Billy followed the old man's instructions, allowing the blood from his knife wound to spill into the pie, his wound healed, the pie sealed itself, and
He collapsed back against the park bench, feeling wretchedly nauseated, wretchedly empty—the way a woman who has just given birth must feel, he imagined.
The conjunction of the expression "the curse" with the bloody mass seeping from a dark slit, the perverse restorative, life-giving powers of the pie, the urgency of oral incorporation of the pie by another, and the ultimate responsibility for the series of devastations aimed at Heidi present an ambiguous exposition of the female to the reader.
In Firestarter, another case of an inadequate mother precipitates tragic events. The Shop, a nefarious secret agency, comes after Charlie because of her telepyrotechnic powers. That ability is the result of some genetic mutation caused by drugs used in an experiment for which her parents volunteered. Yet the most rudimentary knowledge of biology assigns the blame to Vicky for that mutant gamete. The evil which pursues them can only be construed as punishment for her flagrant disregard of her future reproductive role.
"I'm Vicky Tomlinson. And a little nervous about this, Andy McGee. What if I go on a bad trip or something?"
He ended up buying her two Cokes, and they spend the afternoon together. That evening they had a few beers at the local hangout. It turned out that she and the boyfriend had come to a parting of ways, and she wasn't sure exactly how to handle it. He was beginning to think they were married, she told Andy; had absolutely forbidden her to take part in the Wanless experiment. For that precise reason she had gone ahead and signed the release form and was now determined to go through with it even though she was a little scared….
How do you explain to a seven-year-old girl that Daddy and Mommy had once needed two hundred dollars and the people they had talked to said it was all right, but they had lied?
Her subsequent inability to defend herself and Charlie results in her own grisly death and Charlie's abduction by the evil secret agents.
Carrie's mother, Margaret White, is not, in any conventional sense maternal, but rather a hyperbole of perverted female sexuality and maternity. Her extreme puritanical view of sex—in the best Freudian tradition—produced a very strange girl.
After Carrie's humiliating public first menstruation, she returns home, hoping to find explanation from her mother.
"Why didn't you tell me?… Oh, Momma, I was so scared!"
Her mother articulates the connection of female sexuality, menstruation, motherhood, and evil:
And Eve was weak and loosed the raven on the world … and the raven was called Sin, and the first Sin was Intercourse. And the Lord visited Eve with a Curse, and the Curse was the Curse of blood. And Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden and into the World and Eve found that her belly had grown big with child.
Carrie's menarche somehow endows her with incredible tele-kinetic powers through which she punishes her classmates, her mother, and the entire town. Specifically, it is her rage at the ignominious outcome of her first date that prompts her to unleash her talents. This date with Tommy, particularly when they are chosen King and Queen of the Prom, is heavy with sexual implication and death imagery. In the recollection of a classmate, Norma Watson, the moment is described.
All at once there was a huge red splash in the air. Some of it hit the mural and ran in long drips. I knew right away, even before it hit them, that it was blood. Stella Horan thought it was paint, but I had a premonition just like the time my brother got hit by a hay truck. Carrie got it the worst.
Annie Wilkes (Misery), although not biologically a mother, assumes a demented maternal role in Paul Sheldon's life. The fact that she is a killer nurse—notably in a hospital nursery—again punctuates King's death/reproduction theme. She disables and infantalizes Paul with drugs, rendering him dependent on her for all his needs.
Castration imagery figures prominently in Annie's terrorist maternity. First, a hobbling episode, representing both dependence and castration:
Just a little pain. Then this nasty business will be behind us for good, Paul … She gripped the handle farther up in her left hand and spread her legs like a logger … The axe came whistling down and buried itself in Paul Sheldon's left leg just above the ankle.
Then later, the surgical removal of another of Paul's appendages in the thumbectomy.
Then he had been still and let her give him the injection and this time the Betadine had gone over his left thumb as well as the blade of the knife … As the humming, vibrating blade sank into the soft web of flesh between the soon-to-be-defunct thumb and his first finger, she assured him again in her this-hurts-Mother-more-than-it-hurts-Paulie voice that she loved him.
The contrast between Annie and Misery Chastain, the voluptuous heroine of Paul's best-selling books, might be amusing were it not for Annie's crazed torture of the bedridden novelist. It is Misery's death in childbirth which catalyzes Annie's perverted mothering and underscores both the dangers of women who fail to fulfill their proper roles and the power of the male author over the death and resurrection of his female characters.
Women occupy particularly horrible roles in King's fiction. They are not, typically, wide-eyed, screaming, terror-stricken virgins, nor are they recognizable villains who suck the blood of those who would fall prey to their seductive powers. Rather they are the evil which results from the perversion of convention, the misuse of female sexual desire, the dangers of the empty, or emptying womb, the destruction which is unleashed by a failed mother.
In Stephen King's Women of Horror, narrator Strozier notes
It is precisely their essence of femininity, the seductiveness in women that provides a perfect launching point for exploring the taboos of our society, the physical attractions, the compulsions, and attractions … The corruption of one's nature is a prime target for horror writers.
The emotions which surround sex and motherhood are compelling. The manipulation of these feelings serves to disorient, confuse, upset, and attract the reader. King has particular interest in "scaring women to death."
It would be sexist to say that only ladies care about their children—in fact, it would be a downright lie—but there does seem to be such a thing as a "maternal instinct," and I go for it instinctively.
Indeed. Quite apart from King's ability to scare women, or men for that matter, his effectiveness depends upon hitting responsive chords, seeking out and bruising cultural sore spots, reflecting and creating images at reflexive and unconscious levels.
The soil of a man's heart is stonier, Louis—like the soil up there in the old Micmac burying ground. Bedrock's close. A man grows what he can … and he tends it.
Pet Sematary elaborates the dysfunctionally dangerous, and destructive female principle in the world of Stephen King. The reproductive power of women, distorted in King's novels, becomes the object of envy and perversion. Sex expressed outside the context of procreative intercourse, sex initiated by a female, becomes linked with death rather than life. In this perversion, the power of procreation—of resurrection—becomes the property of men rather than women.
Rachel Creed, the mother in Pet Sematary, is a good, if ineffective mother who provides the link between the dangers of life and mysteries of death. Failed by her own possessive, fearful parents and witness to her sister Zelda's agonizing, slow death, Rachel produces Ellen and Gage—children who themselves are doomed. Deserted by his father and protected by his mother, Louis Creed fathers Ellen and Gage in the only distorted ways he can piece together from his skill as a physician and his role as a watchful and complaint "son" to the older neighbor Jud Crandall.
Prompted by Rachel's pathological inability and unwillingness to educate their daughter, Ellie, in matters of death, Louis Creed submits to the tutelage of Jud Crandall, his surrogate father, to learn the secrets of resurrection buried in the man's arcane knowledge.
Rachel's abdication of responsibility is revealed after a visit to the local pet cemetery, a burial ground established by children to honor their dead pets. Ellie's matter-of-fact approach to death is matched by her father's pragmatic, honest responses and contrasted with her mother's paranoid and terrified refusal to expose the child to death in any manifestation. Ellie's next exposure to the possibilities of death held by life comes with the neutering of her male cat, Church. Finally, the accidental death of Church while Rachel, Ellie, and Gage are visiting Rachel's parents set in motion the text of life restored and subtext of sex and death.
This perversion of reproduction is played out in several dimensions. Through two themes King juxtaposes the central elements and resolves the conflicts which inhere: Opposing forces are inverted, transformed and reversed.
At the center of the mother/father opposition are the dismal, dysfunctional childhoods of Rachel and Louis. Rachel, the daughter of upper middle class, urban parents, is dominated and controlled by her father, Irwin Goldman. Disapproving of Rachel's relationship with Louis from the start, Goldman offers Louis a "scholarship" for his medical school education in exchange for Louis' termination of his relationship with Rachel. The offer rejected, Louis severs himself from the Goldmans in every way possible. Rachel remains, at least partly, under the domination of her parents, succumbing to their pressure and accepting their gifts.
The parent/child mania in this relationship comes from Rachel's childhood. Her older sister, Zelda, had died of spinal meningitis when Rachel had been left by her parents, alone, at age eight, to watch her disabled and dying sister. Rachel was never told about death, but rather initiated into its mysteries. Rachel, the product of a politely dysfunctional home, transmits the destruction of ignorance to her own daughter, Ellie. By failing to tell Ellie about death, she leaves her maternal responsibility to Louis.
Louis, a child raised by his mother alone, suffers a different dysfunction. His mother, too, protected him. Where Rachel, as her mother before her, failed to instruct the daughter in the mysteries of death, Louis' mother misled him in matters of birth, about women finding babies in dewy grass when they really wanted one. "Louis had never forgiven his mother for telling it—or himself for believing it." Early in his life, Louis is educated about the natural place of death from his undertaker uncle, and by the same mother who had lied to him about sex. In his mind, Jud Crandall's voice and his mother are merged for him as he recalls the death of his first love at age twelve. The mysteries of death, unknown to Rachel, remain mysterious. The secrets of burial are as much a part of Louis' knowledge as his skill as a physician.
Rachel Creed, like the Biblical Rachel, will weep for her children and not be comforted, because they are not.
The pet cemetery is the site of death and burial and it is the perversely fertile soil, the soil of a man, for rebirth. This is signalled early by Rachel in an argument with Louis about confronting Ellie with the facts of death. Louis argues that Ellie knows the "facts of life," or the mechanics of human reproduction. "Where babies come from has nothing to do with a goddam pet cemetery," Rachel screams at Louis. Indeed, for the men in Pet Sematary, the pet cemetery has everything to do with where "babies" come from. The conversion of death into life, the reversal of natural processes, depends upon a complexly woven code of sex and death, in which all ordering, all processes, all functions become perverted.
Four major manifestations of the conjunction of sex and death form the center of the text: First, the juxtaposition of sexual encounters between Louis and Rachel with a death related episode; second, the metaphorical description of the pet cemetery's attraction and the pull of death is like the power and irresistibility of sexual attraction; third, the coincidence of castration actuality, anxiety, and threats with death imagery and death episodes; finally, the specifically sexual nature of the "knowledge" that those who return from the Micmac burial ground articulate in their resurrected state.
Sexual encounters between Louis and Rachel becomes linked with death when they are non-procreative—oral sex, masturbation—or when they occur at Rachel's instigation. On his first day as head of University Medical Services, the same day that Rachel was to schedule the castration of Ellie's cat, Louis Creed presides over the death of a young man fatally injured by an automobile. This man, Victor Pascow, in his dying words, warns Louis about the pet cemetery, speaks the words that Jud would speak ("a man's heart is stonier"). When Louis returns home that evening, Rachel greets him with seduction: a hot bath and a masturbatory sexual encounter. The occurrence of death followed by sex is repeated when Church, the now un-dead cat, brings home a Christmas Eve present of a dead crow, which he deposits at the Creed doorstep. Again, as Louis disposes of the crow, Pascow, Jud, Church, and Louis are conjoined in a prelude to sex. When Louis joins Rachel in bed, she greets him again with female-initiated sex, this time fellatio. Sex, when expressed in any way other than one which will result in conception, becomes the link with death. Initiated by Rachel, following Louis' encounters with death, these sexual liaisons confer upon Louis not the powers of female reproductive capabilities, but an inversion of these powers: their accumulation endows him with power of resurrection. The reversal of the sex-conception sequence into the death-sex sequence provides the transforming joint.
A second death/sex conjunction appears in the frequent comparisons between the pull of death and the attraction of the pet cemetery with sex. The necessity of man submitting to the demands of the burial ground is described as something
you do because it gets hold of you. You do it because that burial place is a secret place, and you want to share the secret … you make up reasons … they seem like good reasons … but mostly you do it because you want to. Or because you have to.
After Jud calls Louis to deliver the sad news that Church's dead body lies on the road, another victim of the truck route, Louis contemplates how wrong this all seems, how he believed his family would be exempt from such tragedy in another death/sex connection.
He remembered one of the guys he played poker with, Wikes Sullivan, asking him once how he could get horny for his wife and not get horny for the naked women he saw day in and day out. Louis tried to explain to him that it wasn't the way people imagined in their fantasies—a woman coming in to get a Pap smear or to learn how to give herself a breast self-examination didn't suddenly drop a sheet and stand there like Venus on the half-shell. You saw a breast, a vulva, a thigh. The rest was draped in sheet, and there was a nurse in attendance, more to protect the doctor's reputation than anything else. Wicky wasn't buying it. A tit is a tit, was Wicky's thesis, and a twat is a twat. You should either be horny all the time or none of it. All Louis could respond was that your wife's tit was different. Just like your family's supposed to be different, he thought now. Church wasn't supposed to get killed …
Other imagery links male sexuality and the male power of resurrection through the burial ground. Jud describes to Louis some of the secrets he has kept from his wife, Norma.
I used to go up to the whorehouse in Bangor betimes. Nothing many a man hasn't done, although I s'pose there are plenty that walk the straight and narrow. I just would get the urge—the compulsion, maybe—to sink it into strange flesh now and then … Men keep their gardens too, Louis.
Castration, first of Church the cat, then Louis's own castration fears are tied to death and the recreation of life. Before their moving to Maine, Louis intervened on behalf of Church and obstructed a scheduled neutering by canceling the vet appointment. There is the strong suggestion that the cat's virility and Louis' own masculinity are somehow pieces of one puzzle.
In fact there had been some trouble over that back in Chicago. Rachel had wanted to get Church spayed, had even made the appointment with the vet. Louis canceled it. Even now he wasn't really sure why. It wasn't anything simple or as stupid as equating his masculinity with that of his daughter's tom … but most of it had been a vague but strong feeling that it would destroy something in Church that he himself valued …
The anticipation of Church's neutering precipitates Ellie's questions about death. The second and successful scheduling of the vet appointment comes immediately before Louis's encounter with the dying Pascow. In a dream, as Louis imagines life had Gage lived, had he not been killed in the same road where Church died, he re-writes the scenario by saving Gage from certain death. In his scenario, his closest contact with himself is genital, as though saving Gage was somehow an act of procreation.
He yanked Gage backward and landed on the ground at the same instant, crashing his face into the rough gravel of the shoulder, giving himself a bloody nose. His balls signaled a much more serious flash of pain—Ohh, if I'd'a known I was gonna be playing football, I woulda worn my jock—but both the pain in his nose and the driving agony in his testes were lost in the swelling relief of hearing Gage's wail of pain and outrage …
As Louis embarks on his grave-robbing to recover the body of his son, he encounters the physical obstacles that might block his entrance into the cemetery. As he begins his ascent of the cemetery wall, he comes upon decorative arrow tips at the top of the fence. He realizes that his testicles, not to mention his internal organs, are in peril. As if by protecting his testicles, becoming aware of them, saving Church's sexual potency, unconsciously hurting himself in his fantasy rescue of Gage, Louis invests his testes with the power of resurrection.
Equally important is the nature of the knowledge of sexual intimacies announced by those who return from the dead. Timmy Baterman, a figure from Jud's past, was the only other human re-buried and, importantly, resurrected by his father in the Micmac cemetery. When Timmy returned from the dead, he reveals his secret knowledge.
'Your wife is fucking that man she works with down at the drugstore, Purinton. What do you think of that? She screams when she comes. What do you think of that?'
When Gage returns and confronts Jud in prelude to his death at the hands of the un-dead toddler, he reveals the secrets of Norma's sex life, again underscoring the connection of non-procreative sex and the world of death.
Norma's dead and there'll never be no one to mourn you … What a cheap slut she was. She fucked every one of your friends, Jud. She let them put it up her ass …
Then, just before the fatal blow is delivered, Gage speaks to Jud in Norma's voice, telling him how she and her lovers laughed at him, how they made love in their bed, how she knew of his whorehouse visits. As Jud lunges to silence Gage, Gage strikes him with a scalpel from his father's medical bag. The father's instrument of life becomes the son's instrument of death.
Sex provides several vital connections through which Louis acquires the powers to produce a version of life. First as the aftermath of Louis's encounters with death, sex with Rachel allows Louis to gain access to female reproductive powers through this post-mortem contact. Next, the desire to visit the Micmac burial ground to bury first Church then Gage, is presented as like sexual desire. Third, the power to resurrect life is initiated through and invested in male sex organs and male sexuality. Finally, sex becomes the secrets held by the dead who return and share them with the living.
Pet Sematary reveals a slight departure from King's typical treatment of women. Rather than the direct conduit of danger, destruction, and evil, Rachel Creed provides two rather more insidious and vital connections for the horrors of rebirth.
The inadequacies of her own childhood disable her as a mother. Her fatal failure lies in her inability to teach her daughter that which a mother must teach: the mysteries of death. Her pathological inability to deal with death, and thereby save her family, results from the failures of her own parents.
Through her sexual behavior—desire, initiation, preferred forms of expression—she enables Louis to capture that which he lacks as a man, as a father, and as a physician: the ability to give, not simply save, life. Louis's role as a physician-turned-father-grave-robber-turned-life-giver is central to the conversion. Louis, who has presided over dozens of deaths, whose life was built upon saving life and relieving suffering, sought not the ultimate goal of his profession but the ultimate, collective male fantasy. A man's heart is stonier, Louis is told by Jud Crandall, and man tends his garden, grows what he can. What is grown in this stonier ground is a rockier life, born of the captured and distorted power of female reproduction.
Rather than victims or diabolical villains, women in Stephen King's fiction are the triggers of evil, the literal embodiment of danger. On a complex and subtextual level, women are represented in ways that reveal male fear and envy of female sexuality and reproductive biology. Not unlike the myth and ritual that symbolically play out and, to an extent, resolve male ambivalence toward women, King's women are dangerous figures indeed, to be feared as lovers, wives, and mothers.
Scores of societies known to anthropology play out similar dramas in symbolic and expressive forms. The couvade, for example, is a conspicuously ceremonial event in which men symbolically mimic post-partum recovery after their wives give birth. Institutionalized transvestism and clothing exchange, dramatic male rites of passage which entail genital blood-letting, and masquerade cults in which males exaggerate female fertility are, like the underlying drama in Pet Sematary, the symbolic working out of male envy and ambivalence. This resolution is derived from and responsible for shaping essential and unconsciously shared images.
Those women who are neither sexually linked to men nor maternally linked to children are not immune from male antagonism. Their failure to fulfill their expected, validated sociobiological functions renders them no less dangerous to their communities. Their sexuality is their vulnerability; the realization of their sexual desire results in destruction and death. Mothers fail their children, witness their abuse, and stand helpless to prevent their deaths. Finally, and most vividly illustrated in Pet Sematary, the ultimate perversion of the female principle is illustrated in the male appropriation of the powers of reproduction.
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