The Stephen King Project – Cujo (1981)
About the project
I will be reading all of Stephen King’s books in order of publication (with the exception of The Dark Tower series which I will read together, at the end of this adventure) and writing a review of each. I’ll be looking at the recurring themes, the tricks he likes to use, the way he develops character and the way that his craft has evolved in the 44 years since Carrie was first published.
Cujo. I find myself so full of things to say about this book that I don’t quite know where to start. So, I guess we’ll start with a little history. The story goes that King came up with the idea for this book when he took his motorcycle out to a garage in the middle of nowhere for some work that it desperately needed. In fact, the bike quit just as soon as he got there. The mechanic had a St Bernard, which growled at King and went for him. The mechanic gave it a whack and the dog backed off, but it got King to thinking what if – what if the mechanic hadn’t been there? What if his wife and kids had been out there in a car instead of him on his bike? And so, Cujo was born.
Now, I’ve read this book at least twice in the past and I can’t remember what age I was or the particular details of either read. I remember thinking how clever it was to take such a simple and concept and make it so scary. I remember hating the ending but knowing it was the right one nonetheless. I remember side-eying any St Bernard I happened to come across.
Reading Cujo now has been a whole new experience. King has said that he can’t remember a lot of the redrafting of this book due to his alcohol usage at the time and that he doesn’t feel much towards the book, but I’ve come to think it may be one of his best works.
This is the first of his books to take place in a recurring setting, the town of Castle Rock, which first appeared in The Dead Zone, when Sheriff George Bannerman called John Smith for help on the murder case of Mary Kate Hendrason. The stories of the two books are entirely separate, with only Sheriff Bannerman as a common character, but over the years, King revisited Castle Rock many times, and here, in the prologue to Cujo, we get the sense that something is rotten in Castle Rock, some greater current of malignancy than any of us would like to face.
For anyone who is somehow unfamiliar with the story, Cujo is a good dog who catches rabies. Donna Trenton finds herself and her young son, Tad, trapped in their car, miles outside of town, at the end of a dead-end road, menaced by Cujo. Sounds simple, right? Surely that’s short story material, rather than a book?
You’d be surprised, my friend.
Cujo is more than the story of a good dog gone bad. It’s about marriage and the difficult places within them, especially when we stop talking to our spouse. It’s about a good life, unappreciated and slipping away. It’s about the pressures of adulthood and the fears of aging. It’s about the monster in the closet – and the fact the monster is us.
From a technical point of view, it’s expertly crafted. King tells us right in the opening pages that Castle Rock is settling in for its hottest summer in years and he never lets us forget the heat – it lies over every scene with a weight that even the readers feel. There are no chapters in the book, adding to the pace that just won’t let up. The use of third person omniscient point of view (something that King excels at) gives the reader information that the characters do not have, adding to the dread that gets heavier as the book progresses, until you’re almost trying to read it without reading it, like watching a film through your fingers. The ending is awful and exactly as it should be.
Reading this book with the weight of adulthood on my shoulders gave me a new appreciation for everything the story is about. As a party to a marriage, the difficulties between the Trentons felt all too possible and I thought King handled their problems with dignity and care. As a parent, the fear of being helpless to take care of my children is right there in my guts, hard-wired to hurt whenever that button is pressed. Many of King’s early books feature children and I can’t help but think he was exploring his own fears as a parent, as a guardian of a young life, someone who looks to you to keep them safe.
This is a glorious novel and if you haven’t read it then I urge you to do so now. Drop everything else and pick this book up. And if, like me, you’re a writer, then study it for the sheer technical brilliance with which it’s handled.
Next up, we’ve got The Running Man, another of the Bachman Books. I know I’ve read this, probably more years ago than I care to admit, but I remember very little about it, so it’ll be almost like reading it for the first time. If you’ve never read it you’ve still got time to grab a copy and read along.