Cujo (1981)

Wow, you've got to love that cover.

Cujo marks a welcome return to King's fictional town of Castle Rock. The novel opens with a brief recap of the murders featured in The Dead Zone, and King suggests ominously that although the perpetrator of those crimes is dead, "the monster never dies". And, in Cujo himself, the monster has assumed an equally terrifying form.

King swiftly introduces his main characters, the Trentons: Vic, an advertising man, is facing the potential ruin of his company after a disastrous new product causes a national panic. His wife, Donna, is trapped in the ennui and loneliness of being a housewife and mother. Their four-year-old son, Tad, is convinced that there is a monster in his closet, a shadowy beast with demonic eyes which snarls and growls in the dead of night. On top of this, King takes the reader on a tour of the surrounding area, contrasting the Trentons' suburban lifestyle with the rougher, more ramshackle inhabitants out on Town Road No. 3. These include the Camber family, and their gentle giant of a dog, Cujo. In a fairly early scene, Cujo chases a rabbit into a bolthole and is bitten by a rabid bat. This unfortunate occurrence will have serious - and, in some cases, fatal - consequences in due course.

Major spoilers ahead! Donna, it transpires, has been having an affair with local handyman and poet Steve Kemp. Realising that she has made a terrible mistake, she eventually rebuffs his advances - in retaliation, Kemp sends an anonymous note to Vic, hoping to destroy the Trentons' relationship completely. In this section of the novel, King gives us an insight into Donna's reasons for cuckolding her husband: her day-to-day loneliness, her fear of Tad growing up, the loss of her youth. However, although we may understand why she has had the affair, we feel less than sympathetic towards her. The Trentons initially seem like a model family unit, and it comes as something of a shock when its existence teeters on the brink of destruction. The breakdown of their relationship is effectively described: Vic descends into confusion and despair, while Donna struggles with her feelings of guilt and terror of losing Tad. In the midst of this, Vic is called away to attempt to rescue his business with his partner, Roger Breakstone.

King intersperses the Trentons' woes with developments at the Camber homestead. Joe, a mechanic with something of a mean streak, spends much of his spare time edging towards alcoholism with his misanthropic neighbour, Gary Pervier (who is well on his way to that unfortunate state). Charity Camber timidly works to show their son, Brett, that a better life is possible and that his father is not the ideal role model he believes him to be. She jumps at the chance to take him on a trip to visit her well-to-do sister's family, leaving Joe and Gary to drink themselves stupid. But Cujo is now very sick indeed, and it's not long before he makes his first kill.

I can't remember how old I was when I first read Cujo (anywhere from 13 to 16, at a guess), but I can remember very clearly how I felt while reading it. Cujo taps into that most primal of fears, being attacked by a predator. Having grown up with a number of dogs in the house, I am naturally comfortable with them, but those few that have ever really troubled me have all been big dogs.* And Cujo is an enormous dog, a 200-pound St Bernard. There is very little that anyone would be able to do against a dog of that size if it decided to attack them. Put simply, people should not own dogs which are physically bigger or stronger than them. If, for whatever reason, you can't control your dog, what exactly are you supposed to do if it turns on someone? Or on you? My views on dog-handling aside, I think it's fairly obvious that the bigger and stronger the dog, the greater the potential for trouble if the dog goes rogue.

King's descriptions of Cujo's attacks still provoke the same response in me that they originally did: shuddering horror. Gary Pervier has his throat ripped out in the first attack, and when Joe drops in to see him, Cujo goes to work on his groin. Yikes. These scenes are split between the victims' points of view and Cujo's own, in pain and infuriated. As one might expect, King handles the attacks with panache - both men realise the threat they are facing just in time to be brutally killed, short paragraphs heightening the tension as they meet their ends.

With Vic away on business, Donna and Tad are left together, each dealing with their own demons. In order to combat the monster in the closet, Vic has left Tad with the "monster words", a simple incantation to drive away the things that scare him. It is tempting to interpret the closet monster as a metaphor for the marital difficulties of the parents, a mental representation of Tad's understanding that something is wrong between them. But King also suggests at various points - as he did at the very beginning of the novel - that the spectre is somehow an extension of Frank Dodd's evil. In appearance, it instantly calls up Cujo, of course, but there's more to it than that. Is there a link between Tad's nightmares and reality?

King finally ups the ante when Donna's car starts to give up the ghost. She takes it out to Camber's workshop, where it finally breaks down completely. The Cambers aren't there. But Cujo is. What follows is a gruelling three-day standoff during the hottest summer on record. Donna and Tad are trapped in the car, while Cujo makes regular assaults on the windows. These attacks are more psychologically affecting than the more gory ones which came earlier, playing on fears of starvation and dehydration as much as the idea of being savaged to death by a demented beast. Tad's monster words will have little effect here.

However, King infuriatingly (but skilfully) keeps various other plotlines bubbling away, leaving Donna and Tad trapped in the car. Vic, worried that he is unable to reach Donna by phone, contacts the police. Kemp returns to the Trenton house and systematically destroys room after room of possessions, becoming a perfect red herring for the police to waste time on and something of a mirror for Cujo himself.** These delays keep the reader in a state of ever-increasing tension until the climax.

Final, crucial spoiler: the ending. Sheriff Bannerman, also featured in The Dead Zone, finds Donna and her son - mostly by luck - but is killed before he can report their whereabouts. Donna finally beats Cujo to death with a baseball bat in a chilling scene of primal, instinctive violence, but not before she has been savaged herself. And, in the end, her efforts are in vain. Tad dies of dehydration. I have generally tried not to explicitly give away the endings to any of King's books in these reviews, but this one is so incredibly bleak and cruel that I feel it deserves some discussion. Tad is an innocent, instantly the most sympathetic character in the novel - he is a well-drawn and loveable little boy. King's decision to kill him off makes the denouement of the book that much more horrific. As such, Cujo is notable as the most realistic of King's novels so far. Apart from the hints of a connection between perpetrators of violence already mentioned, there is nothing supernatural about the plot. These events could actually happen. Through Tad's death, Vic and Donna's marital problems are put into perspective: King shows that there are far worse things to have to cope with. The death of a child is commonly regarded as one of the worst events imaginable in our society, and in Cujo this is made explicitly clear. It makes for a harrowing end to a gripping piece of work.

* For example, a huge and generally very friendly Great Dane once pulled me from a swing as a child by simply holding my foot in its mouth, flipping me onto my face. While I was shaken by this, there was no intent to harm; it wasn't a bite - the dog just wanted to play. However, the same dog came to a sad end some months later, when it savagely ripped the heads off an entire flock of geese and had to be put down. The point being that you can never really predict how an animal is going to behave at any given time.

** King has stated that he wrote Cujo while in the grip of an intense period of drink and drug abuse; he has very little memory of actually writing the book. In this light, I find it interesting that he chose to use his own Christian name (for the first time in his work, as far as I remember) for one of the most dislikable characters in the novel. I think this also helps to explain why it contains (a) a couple of alcoholics, who are horribly dispatched, and (b) a much bleaker view of humanity in general than is found elsewhere in his canon.

Next: The Running Man.


Anonymous said...

this is one of those plots that could never happen now that everyone has mobile phones. "Hi, yeah I'm in a car and there's a dog trying to kill me can you send someone round with a tranquilser gun?... cool see you in a bit." see also, most Hitchcock films and plenty else besides.

Dan said...

Agreed. Now you'd have to add a bit where their battery ran out. Or set the whole thing in an area of poor reception. Either way, it's going to seem pretty contrived...

Sasha said...

But the mobile phone thing means that to get to any kind of menacing situation in films it all has to be even more contrived - stuck in a pit for a random experiment, a victim of hyper-surveillance, a sudden-onset ice-age. No more innocent fun. You'd never get the rural idyll bit of 'Withnail and I' now either.

This one does sound very bleak - a ravening 200lb dog has to be the product of some pretty bad hallucinations. If you hadn't been very used to dogs when you read this, would it have put you off them? Or perhaps did the very familiarity with generally nice dogs make the turning of Cujo even worse?

Jammyemma (anything but) said...

Another great review Dan!
I put off reading Cujo for years precisely because there was no supernatural element—something which I thought didn't really fit with all the other King novels I'd read. Once I realised that it was one of the only ones I hadn't read I picked up a second-hand copy and was completely blown away by it. Tad's death particularly shocked me as he was such a well observed little boy and my heart went out to him and his mother (not to mention to poor Cujo!). I can't say I'll be re-reading this any time soon, but it has definitely stuck with me.

Dan said...

The mobile phone issue is something that King visits in Cell, with (as I remember) slightly mixed results. But maybe I'll be more taken with it the second time round...

And, in answer to Sasha's questions, I think yes and yes.