Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Stephen King - Cujo

She […] understood how afraid a person could be, how fear was a monster with yellow teeth, set afoot by an angry God to eat the unwary and the unfit. (p. 45)

Cujo is a novel from Stephen King's relatively early days, written in a period of such heavy drinking that, according to his On Writing (and Wikipedia), he doesn't remember much of writing it. Moving beyond its pedigree, equal parts promising (early King!) and dubious (so forgettable the man himself can't recall it!), Cujo, the slim physical book, bears little resemblance to its gigantic, two hundred pound titular canine. Nonetheless, this one packs in quite a bit of hefty ideas and tension.

Though occasional vignettes illuminate many of Castle Rock's other inhabitants, we focus primarily on two families, the Trentons and the Cambers. Donna Trenton's having an affair. Her husband Vic's just learned that devastating truth when he and his partner are called away to New York in a last attempt to save their struggling advertising business. Joe Camber, meanwhile, is a backwoods mechanic, and his son, Brett, needless to say, looks up to his dad quite a bit. But that worries Charity Cambers. She's worried that her bright son is going to throw away his future for this poor and rural life. Before Brett makes his decision, Charity wants him to see a different kind of life, and she manages to convince Joe to let her and the boy take a trip to see Charity's sister and her sister's husband, a rich lawyer.

As might be expected of him, King does an excellent job building up the characters and dynamics of each family. Much of the tension in these homes comes from the mothers, both of which are housewives, trying to fit into the world in a way that doesn't just leave them as, as Charity puts it, little more than a kitchen drudge that kept the clubhouse neat. (p. 47) We get scenes from each of the players, and so we develop a broad understanding of each home, even if the reader is still likely to, especially when it comes to the Cambers, take sides. Vic's advertising company, too, is illuminated, complete with the humorous rundown of their recent advertising campaign and the catastrophe that follows.

But I haven't said a word about Cujo yet, have I? The first thing to know about Cujo is that he's a good dog. Big, yeah, but friendly as can be. He played with Brett and was beloved by all. But, when chasing a rabbit, Cujo has the misfortune of finding a cave filled with bats. When one scratches him, the awful virus that they carried enters his blood. As Brett and Charity leave for their visit, Cujo goes rabid. He kills Joe's best and only friend down the road. And then he kills Joe Camber.

While Vic's gone, Donna's car starts to break down. She and her young son Tad nurse the Pinto over to the Cambers' place well past the edge of town. It breaks down in the driveway. That's when they notice Cujo, who throws himself repeatedly at the car, growling and straining to savage them. The doors and windows hold him back for now, but they can't get out. Before long, they realize that they are under siege by dog (p. 218).

This confrontation, the mad beast against a mother and her son, is the heart of Cujo. The greenhouse effect soon makes the temperature in the car unbearable. Far from the nearest house, they realize that no one is coming. Every one of their needs become a matter of incredible danger. As Donna realizes: In this curiously scaled-down situation – this life or death situation – even having to go to the bathroom became a skirmish. (pp. 208-9)

In comparison to the horrible danger that she is in now, the rest of Donna's life begins to seem irrelevant. Every other perspective that we have undergoes the same shift; Vic's commercial struggles and even Charity's cultural ones seem laughable in comparison to the simple life or death truths that underlie them. As soon as Vic learns of his wife and son's mortal peril, he gets a good look behind his life and then realizes it is all stage scenery and false fronts. (p. 248) Cujo is a novel about the brutality under civilization. King's usual habits of branding underscores this. It is not just a pane of glass between them and death, but rather a pain of Saf-T Glass, and, in the context, the brand name becomes to seem a hideous joke.

Cujo is about a life and death struggle, but it is not an uplifting tale of good and evil. It is, of course, tempting to slot the dog into the part of the script marked Villain, but that misses the point. As King takes care to remind us at the end, [Cujo] had always been a good dog. […] He had been struck by something, possibly destiny, or fate, or only a degenerative nerve disease called rabies. Free will was not a factor. (p. 309)

In the absence of malice, King leaves us with a brutality that is harder to come to terms with. It might simply be chance, the cruel and indifferent way of the world, a playing out of undetermined events that makes a mockery of Donna's naïve belief at the start of the novel that there were some things that God never allowed. (p. 169) Or, maybe worse, it all might be fate after all, might be, as Donna begins to believe in the heart of her hell, a punishment meted out by a wrathful God for her sins. If that is the truth, King is careful to make the misery, the pain, and the regret far too visceral to ever be called reasonable. If this is a punishment, it is one that far exceeds any crime, and yet it is the world that Cujo shows.

Despite its brutally successful main plot and thematic thrust, Cujo is not without its flaws, the main one of which stems directly from its success. Cujo is not, obviously, a supernatural and supernaturally deadly menace like the ones King employs so often. He is something far more ordinary than that, despite a few nonstarter hints that he might be something more. As a result, in order to position Cujo as a deadly threat, King has to manipulate a whole truckload of pieces. It's this series of coincidences that allows Donna to read it as fate, and it does work in that regard. But when yet another avenue of escape is closed off, and we are told that Donna Trenton might have called it another stroke of that same Fate she saw reflected in Cujo's muddy, homicidal eyes (p. 269), the reader can't help but recall that it's not fate at work but rather King's pen, and that all of the coincidences were planned out in advance to twist all the pieces into the one configuration into which they could be properly dangerous.

That's a small enough complaint, though, and a rather inevitable one in a work like this besides. I don't think Cujo is a masterpiece like The Shining or even 'Salem's Lot, but it is still a lean, mean and horrific beast of a novel.


  1. I loved it. Like most King novels, the characterization is great, and I particularly loved how the poisoned feelings between Vic and Donna keeps him from trying to contact her, with an eventual steep personal cost.

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  3. "Do *you* have any questions?"

    Probably my favorite part.