In many ways, Cujo is the animal equivalent of The Shining. In The Shining, it’s Jack Torrance going mad and inflicting reign of terror upon victims in an isolated location. In Cujo, it’s a 200 pound St. Bernard, bitten by a bat and gone slowly mad due to rabies infection who becomes a killing machine and inflicts a reign of terror upon victims in an isolated location.
And while most of Stephen King fans will agree that The Shining is the better novel, I think a lot of King fans are too quick to dismiss Cujo as one of the lesser novels from the master of horror. I think part of this comes from King’s confession in On Writing that Cujo was written at the height of his battle with alcohol and that he doesn’t remember writing large chunks of the novel. That may be a good thing because I know that large chunks of the novel have stayed with me since I first picked it up years ago.
Cujo was the first novel by King that I read all the way through. I’d started Firestarter but the long, slow burn of that novel (pun not intended) meant it took a bit longer for it to hook me as a teenager. And while Cujo does take a bit of time to get rolling, the hook of the 200 pound St. Bernard gone mad and becoming an epic killing machine is set early and the horror factor comes into play within the first hundred or so pages of the novel.
Simply put, this book scared the hell out of me when I first read it and it’s still pretty damn scary today. Glimpsing the audio version on the shelf at my local library, I decided it’s been a couple of decades since I’d first read the story, so why not take a chance and experience the story again and see if it held up well.
And while the novel doesn’t quite live up to the memories I have of it, I think it’s still one of King’s better mid-range stories.
Listening to Cujo this time around, I couldn’t help but feel that there was some influences of Alfred Hitchcock at work here. From the opening pages, we know that Cujo is a ticking time bomb, slowly waiting to explode. And yet, Cujo is such an innocent character who is the victim of bad circumstances. It’s not the dog’s fault that his owner hasn’t had him vaccinated for rabies. It’s also telling that King sets some of the novel from Cujo’s point of view as he tries to understand what’s happening to him as the rabies slowly takes over his mind and destroys his body.
And while the dog later does inflict some horrific damage upon humans, it’s hard not to see the story as a tragedy.
But it’s not just Cujo that is the tragic figure here. King sets up a parallel character arc for two families–the Trentons and the Cambers. Both families have marriages that have reached a cross-roads. In the case of the Trentons, it’s the fallout from wife Donna’s admitted infidelity and Vic’s fighting to save an advertising account in the wake of a national scandal. For the Cambers, it’s a tug of war between wife Charity and husband Joe about lottery winnings and raising their pre-teen son. Charity fears that her son will turn too much into her father, a domineering man who has to be bribed into letting the two make a bus trip to visit her sister in New Hampshire.
King wisely spends the first hundred or so pages of the story setting up the characters and building our investment in them. Once Cujo goes on his killing spree, it allows us to have a bit more investment in those dying or being threatened than you might in your standard horror/slasher film.
Things all reach a head when Vic heads out of town to save the account and Donna heads out to the Cambers’ place to get her Pinto fixed. I’ve read a lot of other critical looks at the novel that say the story loses much of its momentum here, but I strongly disagree. Yes, we spend a lot of time out in the car with Donna and Tad trapped in the heat and facing the wrath of Cujo. But as I listened to the novel again, I couldn’t help but feel that it wasn’t so much that King was stretching things out as I was invested in the characters that I wanted them to be saved and have some glimmer of hope sooner than it actually happened in the story.
OK, sure Cujo has some flaws, I’ll admit. The red herring of Donna’s jilted lover who returns to throw Vic and the sheriff’s office off the trail to where Donna really is seems a bit much. But other than that, the story remains just as compelling and scary as it did when I was a teenager. In fact, if you live in and around Music City, you may have noticed a driver in the morning commute looking a bit more stressed out than the actual traffic actually warranted. That’s because I was listening to Cujo and finding certain scenes just as horrifying as I did back in the day.
That sense of horror and the vivid impressions this book has left in my mind’s eye is probably the biggest reason I’ve never watched the movie version. I’ve seen other adaptation of King’s works on the screen, but for some reason I’ve left Cujo alone. Part of it is a belief that it would be next to impossible to condense down the character arcs in the story into a 90 minute film. That would reduce the story pretty much your standard slasher flick in my mind. Of course, the other part is that I was so unnerved by the book then and now that I can’t imagine the movie capturing that same sense on-screen. Or maybe it’s a fear that it would truly be the stuff of nightmares because they actually did realize it well on-screen.
One factor that makes me think I may watch the movie at some point is that King admitted that one of his regrets as a writer is the fate of one of the main characters in the novel. This is changed for the film and while I disagree with King, thinking that the original fate only lends to the tragic nature of the story, I’m still curious to see how a happier ending to the story works out. (And for those of you wondering, no Cujo doesn’t survive the movie version.)
As I’ve said before, Cujo isn’t necessarily one of the best works by Stephen King nor is it necessarily my favorite King work. But it’s still one of his novels that is most indelibly printed onto my imagination. It was scary when I was a teenage reader and it’s still scary now.