Sometimes, Dead is Better

When the Enlightenment gained ground in the western world as a revolutionary philosophical movement, science dominated academic thought. Researchers looked for ways to manipulate nature so as to cure people of their ailments. Death was the chief burden in this respect; if scientists could find  ways to reanimate objects, they may be able to tap into a God-like force able to resurrect the dead. Yet the notion that humans could stop death through science was heavily criticized by the Romantics, a group of writers who appeared after the first scientific revolution. Romantics believed that whatever ailments Nature dictated should be left alone, not interfered by humanity’s feeble attempts to subdue it. Both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries contain novels that show why it is better to accept death and not try to overcome it: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stephen King’s Pet Sematary.

Shelley’s 1818 novel was written due to a challenge from Lord Byron to create a chilling horror story. Shelley accepted the challenge and wrote one of the century’s most enduring satires against the unrealistic scientific idealism of the age. Dr. Frankenstein, a young man pursuing his arts, desires to tap into the secrets of Nature. Not only does he want to understand more of what thousands have already studied in the past, but by reanimating dead tissue, he desires to discover a way to conquer death. The doctor steals a dead body from a grave and sends it to his laboratory. There, he manages to use electricity to bring the body to life once again. As soon as the doctor sees the creature standing before him, its yellow skin glowing eerily in the night, he realizes that he has done something more horrible than he could possibly have imagined; he has created something both horrific and unnatural, something that was not meant to be. A monster, and not a human, stands before him.

The doctor runs away in terror, leaving the monster to himself. The creature tries to relate to others, even learning the speech that does not come natural to him. But because of his hideous form, he shuns away all who would want to be with him. In rage, the monster goes on a violent spree, killing a few people. The doctor, on hearing this, realizes that the monster is not nearly to blame as he is; he is the one who set the horrible chain of events in motion in the first place. Now he must do what he can to set things right.

When Frankenstein refuses to create another being for the lonely creature, the monster goes on another rampage, murdering Frankenstein’s wife. Frankenstein vows to destroy the monster by chasing him to the Arctic. But on the way, he grows tired and sick. As he is dying, he is giving his story to the narrator of the novel, warning him never to do what he did. Science can only go so far before it becomes inhumane and destructive. The monster finds his master, yet the grief he holds overruns his sorrow. He sets himself on fire, lamenting his miserable existence. It would be better to die than to live.

Stephen King’s novel is quite similar to Shelley’s. Louis Creed moves his family to a new home, meeting an old man named Jud Crandall. Jud shows the newcomers a special burying ground for pets called Pet Sematary. This event disturbs Louis’s wife, Rachael, for she does not want her daughter hearing about death at such an early age. Yet Louis’ daughter is interested, hearing from Louis a somewhat hesitant explanation about why death happens and where do people go when they die. Louis, deep down, is not sure what to think.

His thoughts become much darker as he has a nightmare about a dead patient. On top of that, his cat, Church, is run over and killed. Jud takes Louis to a secret burying ground behind the Pet Sematary to bury Church: the Mic Mac Burying Ground, an ancient site for Native American rituals. Jud never really explains why they went to the ground in the first place. But on the next day, Louis finds Church alive and well, hissing at him. What the cat’s life implies is impossible for Louis to believe. The ground has the power to bring dead beings back to life.

Then things become much more tragic for Louis: his son, Gage, is run over by one of the same transfer trucks that killed Church. Stricken with grief, Louis sends his family to another state while he remains behind. Jud warns Louis not to do what he is thinking about. But it is too late: Louis has lost his sense of reason; he unearths Gage from his graveyard and brings him to the Mic Mac Burying Ground. Jud awakes from a midnight slumber to discover a hideous child-like zombie walking the Earth. The creature is violent, killing both Jud and Rachael, who returned to check on Louis. Louis wakes up the next morning to realize how terrible the consequences of his actions are. Though he puts both Church and Gage to sleep, he still cannot keep himself from bringing Rachael back from the dead. He is doomed to always find an excuse to question the reality of death.

Both novels share themes. It isn’t a mistake to think about King’s love for Shelley’s novel,  for it definitely inspired his work. In both books, the writers explore how humans can become so grief stricken about death that they refuse to accept it as a fact. Such a refusal can do more harm than damage, for it creates a perpetual grief that rules one’s life. Both Louis and Frankenstein have good intentions with their actions, but both realize that those intentions are not enough to warp what Nature has decreed is an irreversable law. For Shelley, science cannot fully explain the secrets of life, so trying to put your own input into the matter only causes damage. King, not as philisophically driven as Shelley, simply wants to entertain his readers with the thrill of suspense and horror as well as showing the reader everyday, realistic tragedies. The key difference between Shelley’s monster and King’s is that Shelley’s desires intimacy and union with a society that refuses to accept him, while King’s zombies only speak terrible truths with a malignant intent. Yet the message both novels have to offer is the same: it is better to accept death and move on. Otherwise, the results may destroy you.