Ninie Hammon’s Blog for Writers

Stephen King's Pet Sematary: A Textbook on Creating Suspense

Posted: February 14, 2014, 10:09AM



        Out on Route 15, a tanker truck droned by, one so big and long Louis couldn’t see his house across the road. Written on the side, just visible in the last light, was the word ORINCO.

       “One helluva big truck,” Louis commented.

        “ORINCO’s a chemical fertilizer fact’ry,” Crandall said. “Them trucks come and go all day and night. And the oil tankers and the dump trucks.” He shook his head. “That’s the one thing about Ludlow I don’t like anymore—that frigging road.”

        A semi roared by, its running lights twinkling like earthstars. “That’s one mean road, all right,” Crandall repeated softly.

Then Jud Crandall tells Louis Creed about the pet cemetery in the woods where children take their pets to bury them.

“It’s not as odd as it prob’ly sounds,” Crandall said. “It’s the road. It uses up a lot of animals, that road does. Dogs and cats. When a good animal dies, a child never forgets.”

Louis’s mind turned to Ellie, as he had last seen her tonight, fast asleep with Church purring rustily on the foot of the mattress.

Excerpted from Pet Sematary By Stephen King


*Spoiler alert: Don't read any further if you haven't read the book.*

I believe I have in my possession every word Stephen King ever set on paper. Not in invisible digital sorcery—in hardback books. Most of them I bought for myself, justifying the expense of hardbacks as celebrations of special occasions—birthdays, Christmas, that sort of thing. Of course, if he had a new book out, I’d celebrate National Eat a Pickle Day, too, or Save the Aardvarks.

Stephen King is the undisputed king of horror. But you can’t properly horrify people without first simmering their emotions in a stew of suspense , and we can go to school on how he creates tension in his stories. Pet Semetary is a textbook in the technique called “create in miniature,” one of the suspense-building methods we talked about in my last blog. Create in miniature uses a small event to foreshadow what’s to come—when a spelunking character bumps his head and causes a small landslide, the reader is put on notice that a cave-in might be just around the next bend.

In Pet Sematary, King drops a string of events, breadcrumbs on a path. Only his crumbs lead the reader inexorably into the forest not out of it, and Loyal Reader is digging his heels into the dirt the whole way, pleading with the pages … oh, no, that’s not REALLY where he’s going with this. But we’re talking Stephen King here--of course that’s where he’s going.

King hints at something terrible, then serves it up on a platter in ever-increasing portions—like little Russian dolls, each one swallowed by a bigger one.

When Louis and Rachel Creed and their children Ellie and Gage, move into a new house, elderly neighbor Jud Crandall warns Louis about the trucks from the nearby chemical plant. In the excerpt above, there is a clear sense of foreboding about how the trucks zoom down the road in front of the new house. The road is set up as an inexorable force of evil and Loyal Reader understands in the set-up that the evil force is inescapable.

1. The smallest Russian doll

The couple’s cat, Church, is run over by a truck. Jud takes Louis to the pet cemetery, supposedly to bury Church. Instead, Jud leads Louis beyond the deadfall to "the real cemetery" which is an ancient burial ground once used by a Native American tribe.

The next afternoon, the cat returns. But it’s different. No longer lively and playful, the cat relentlessly hunts mice and birds but merely rips them apart without eating them. And it gives off an unpleasant odor.

Loyal Reader senses that the cat’s burial and resurrection in miniature might just be a harbinger of worse things to come and a sense of dread lands plop in the pit of his stomach.

2. The second Russian doll

King spares Loyal Reader some of the horror of the second doll by telling it in retrospect, as Louis’s memory of Gage toddling toward the road with his father in frantic pursuit, the rumble of a truck growing louder and louder in his ears.

It is the “bigger terrible” set up in miniature by the death of Church. And Loyal Reader is immediately struck by King’s intended sense of foreboding that what lies in the pages ahead is a repeat of the other act that was played out in miniature with the cat.


3. The third Russian doll

The reader isn’t the only one who dreads what’s coming. Jud has figured out what Louis is planning, too, and tries to dissuade him by telling him the story of a soldier killed in World War II who was buried in the pet semetary and came back to life a monster. But Louis doesn’t listen, digs up his son’s body and buries it in the pet semetary.

Gage comes back in far worse condition than the cat. First he kills Jud, then he kills his own mother.

When Louis finds his wife dead and loses what little sanity he has left, Loyal Reader begins to feel that familiar tightening in the pit of his stomach. Will what happened to Church—in miniature—and to Gage—in miniature—be played out in full with Rachel?

The biggest Russian doll

This is the culmination of all the miniature acts. The earlier events have pointed bony fingers at it and we are prepared. When we see Louis pick up his wife’s lifeless body and start toward the woods, we know what’s coming. Though he says he “waited too long with Gage” and that his wife will return just as she was before, we know she won’t—because we have watched the inexorable march of foreshadowing in miniature. Oh, we’re horrified when we hear her speak Louis’s name in a gravelly voice, like there’s dirt in her mouth. But we are not surprised.

Have you picked up on "create in miniature" in other of King's work. Or in the work of any other author, for that matter. Do share it below so we can all learn from the masters.

Write on!



Judith Blevins February 14, 2014, 7:21PM | http://underconstructionatthistime

Hi Ninie, I am so happy to see you back. I am hoping all of your dealings with the buying back of the rights to your novels went as you wanted them to. Hope the chaos has simmered down to a tolerable level as well. I know what it is like to be under so many commitments you have to remind yourself to breathe. You have written another great post on suspense. Steven King always scared the b-jeepers out of me. When I was younger, He caused me to loose many hours of sleep. I am looking forward to the release of When Butterflies Cry. Do you have any news on a release date? Again, I am excited that you are back. Respectfully, Judy B. in Ohio   Reply

Replies (1)

Melinda March 19, 2014, 1:55AM

I really enjoyed how you broke down King's work. He's a favorite of mine so this explanation of "in miniature" really makes sense to me. Thanks for an enjoyable read.   Reply

Replies (1)

J.C. Wright October 4, 2014, 8:57PM

This post came at the perfect time for me! Now I have a better grasp of what I'm going to do with the little horror flash fiction story I'm working on. Thanks!   Reply

Replies (1)

Mark Tilbury February 3, 2015, 11:46AM

Hi Ninie,

A great post. Having read Sudan and having Home Grown on my 'to read' list I can see what you have picked up from, and what I hope to learn, from Stephen King. You built up the suspense really well in Sudan and gave the story a satisfactory ending, one the reader could be happy with.
Not only do I have all the books, but also all the films on DVD - even both versions of The Shining!   Reply

Replies (1)

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"Oh, and about the 9 and the e beside my name. Say it fast, emphasis on the 9. That’s how you pronounce my first name -9e. (Think “rhymes with tiny and shiny, NOT with skinny and penny.”)

Suspense Author

I have soooo many stories I want to tell you, so many worlds I want you to see, so many people I want you to meet. People in trouble, most of them. Big trouble they didn't ask for but there it is. Ordinary folks like you and me who are forced by circumstances to fight for their lives. And then, smack in the middle of their everyday worlds they encounter the unexplainable. It's always the game-changer.

Welcome to my world. If you'd like to know more about me, I'm easy. Click on Meet Ninie and you'll see. My life isn't really an open book; it's more of a pamphlet, and you are cordially invited to read it. I'd love to interact with you on Twitter, Facebook Fan page, and Goodreads. Or come visit with me at 9e's Kitchen Table, a Facebook group where readers and I hang out. I think you'd like it.