Stephen King’s books scared me as a child. The covers were frightening and the books themselves were massive monstrosities that caused me wonder how anyone could ever read that much book at once. And I was never someone who enjoyed being scared, so I stayed away from his novels until I was about fifteen or so. By that point, I was so far behind in reading all his works that I’d mostly given up on reading his earlier work. I’m glad to have changed my mind in recent years, since it led me to read Cujo.
The book opens with the incredibly trite “Once upon a time,” that thankfully King subverts with the delivery of the scariest bedtime story imaginable about a serial killer and his evil ectoplasmic remnants that just won’t go away. The serial killer, Frank Dodd, is one antagonist from King’s book, The Dead Zone, and the evil he leaves behind manifests as a monster inside the closet of one of Cujo’s protagonists, Tad Trenton. But beyond this literal boogeyman, King sets up this lingering spirit as his commentary that evil transcends the acts of a single person. It’s in the air around us, in the ground beneath our feet, and it doesn’t die with those who commit evil.
From there out, Cujo is a slow burn. It’s just as much of a novel about a marriage and a business in peril as it is about a woman and her son perilously trapped by a rabid Saint Bernard in a broken-down Ford Pinto. Take out Cujo’s scenes of a rabid dog ripping out people’s throats, and the book is essentially an examination of small-town New England lives and class differences, but that’s not a bad thing. King’s focus beyond the immediate scares of the canine beast that stalks Castle Rock allows his characters to be more fully fleshed out.
Throughout the first third of Cujo, King parades a litany fears in front of the reader. On almost every page, each person is characterized by what frightens him or her. Donna Trenton fears her affair will be discovered. Her husband, Vic, fears losing his biggest client at work. Charity Camber fears her abusive and controlling husband. Vic discovers the affair and fears the dissolution of his marriage. Donna explains the affair as coming from her fear of the boredom that being just a housewife and mother causes her. Charity fears her son is going to grow up to be just like his father, an underachieving drunken lout. The fear piles up, even though nothing particularly scary happens.
After bombarding the reader with all of these fears, King reveals a passage where Cujo, suffering from the effects of rabies, thirsts so deeply but cannot stand to be near the water he so desperately wants, that the word hydrophobia – the old term for rabies – causes a very satisfying lightbulb moment. This book is such a thorough investigation of the causes and effects of fear, that even the main antagonist, rabies, is a form of fear itself.
The best part of the narrative of the book is the window into Cujo’s mind as he succumbs to rabies. The portrait of the dog’s confusion, remorse and anger is one of my favorite portrayals of a character’s descent into madness. King tells it in a straightforward manner that only makes it more heartbreaking to read the disease take over the dog and bend his will against the people around him.
It’s widely reported that King was so drunk during the creation of this novel that he doesn’t remember writing it. Moments like the “lightbulb moment” about fear make King seem, even when blasted out of his mind on booze, like a master of the craft of writing. However, there are moments when the book veers off on strange tangents that don’t make much sense to the plot or character development. The fact that Donna and Tad get trapped out at the Camber’s house to be menaced by the dog is built upon a very thin string of coincidences points to a bit of sloppiness in the plotting. However, there is one powerful consequence of King’s alcoholic haze in the book: the ending. Without spoiling the details, the ending knocks the wind out of the reader and leads me to believe that had King been sober when writing Cujo, the book would end differently.
Queer Factor: Cujo gets 1 out of 5 Yorkshire Terriers for its level of queerness. There are no gay characters in this book, and the gayest relationship is that between the alcoholic drinking buddies Joe Camber and Gary Pervier, who at one point plan a trip together to Boston when Joe’s wife, Charity, leaves town. Just when it seems like they might be turning into Brokeback Mountain on us, Joe lets it slip that he intends to sleep with a hooker while in Boston. A female hooker.
Geek Factor: Cujo gets 2 out of 5 Batcaves for its geekiness. It’s not a very scary book, so I fear that the horror geeks among us will be disappointed by the fact that it’s more psychodrama than Psycho. Most scary books or movies give me nightmares, and the worst one I had while reading Cujo was that my parents’ 80-pound yellow lab was cuddling with me and hogging the bed. One batcave is awarded because it’s a Stephen King book, and that’s reason enough to geek out about, and the other batcave is awarded because the book has a literal batcave in it.