Cujo has been around long enough for anyone who hasn’t read the book or seen the film (I haven’t seen the film) to know that it is a story about a rabid dog. ‘Cujo’ as a dog’s name has become a byword for a frightening, murderous dog, although Cujo begins by being a
bona fide good dog.
King has fostered a reputation over many books for being a master of horror, among other things. For my way of thinking, however, this book is not masterly. It’s a mess, fluctuating between being boring, and the horror of its violence. Along the way it tries to mean so many things, that I began to wonder if King was sure, himself, what he intended. A review by James Smythe in The Guardian reveals that King doesn’t remember writing the book, his memory obliterated due to an alcoholic torpor at the time of writing. Smythe interprets Cujo as a metaphor for King’s addiction, although this doesn’t explain Smythe’s own insight into the novel,
the sense that evil is innate.
Cujo is a large dog, a Saint Bernard, that belongs to Joe Camber, a mechanic living and working on a remote property out of Castle Rock. Donna Trenton, whose marriage to Vic is under threat after she has an affair with Steve Kemp, is faced with the prospect of a few weeks alone with her son Tad and their failing car, after Vic is forced to return to New York with his business partner, Roger, to try to save a critical advertising account. Meanwhile, Charity, Joe’s wife, has won enough money in a lottery to allow her try to appease her controlling husband with a new chainfall for his workshop, thereby hoping to persuade him to let her visit her sister for the first time in years with her son, Brett. Charity dreams of leaving Joe, but she has not committed, yet, to the idea.
This is, in essence, the backstory of Cujo, and frankly, I found it to be a part of the book’s problem. King wants us to care about his characters before he kills them or terrifies them, as any good author should. But his long digressions into the characters’ circumstances – particularly the story of Vic’s attempts to save the advertising account – are often marginal to the point of the story. That particular plot has nothing to do with the main story (except to get Vic out of the way) and its denouement is of no consequence. In fact, it takes up a substantial portion of the novel and is somewhat boring because it feels irrelevant. (The same can also be said of Charity and Brett’s story most of the time). I found that Vic’s agonised question at the end of the novel –
How could so many events have conspired together? - distracted me from the fiction by causing an insight as to the contrivance of the plot; that the long backstory was merely a long setup to explain how Cujo’s orgy of terror and violence could conceivably have happened. It’s the hallmark of very literal writing.
There is a degree of addictive drive in Cujo’s terrorising of Donna and her son, as Smythe suggests, trapped in their car for half the novel with the dog waiting malevolently outside to kill them. One might draw parallels between the rabies that is destroying the dog’s brain and alcohol, which has the same potential, which explains Smythe’s temptation to give the story an autobiographical reading. However, there is a sense when reading that King was also keen to capitalise on the reputation he had achieved in the marketplace when he came to write Cujo. In short, I find his claim that the novel was written in a stupor to be somewhat disingenuous. His first book, Carrie, details how a young girl’s mistreatment leads to a violent reaction when its titular character begins her periods, suggesting a link between her telekinesis and feminine autonomy. In Cujo King seems to attempt to repeat his metaphorical link. He explicitly links the dog to Steve Kemp, Donna’s ex-lover who threatens to rape her and later breaks into the Trenton home to destroy it. Kemp, like Joe Camber, represents repressive and violent male power, with which Cujo is associated. Later, for instance, when Cujo attacks Donna, the attack is like the threatened rape:
Little by little he was forcing his way in again: her strength was on the ebb now.
King also makes links between Cujo and a previous novel, The Dead Zone. In that novel, Frank Dodd, a psychopathic cop, becomes a mass murderer. Cujo, set in the same town, begins by recalling Dodd’s murderous spree. King had already made a reputation by the time he started to write Cujo as a writer of supernatural horror with books like ’Salem’s Lot and The Shining. My point, to reiterate, is that King may claim to not remember writing the novel, but it is up to us whether we take him at his word. Cujo seems like a calculated novel rather than a work shaped by the muse of alcohol, set to further King’s reputation while maintaining his appeal to the audience he had already built. After all, King has built a career around consciously creating overlaps between his books. A notable example is Father Donald Frank Callahan appears in King’s supernatural thriller, ’Salem’s Lot. Later in King’s career he was to write him into The Dark Tower fantasy series and then attempt to link the stories. Others more familiar with King could cite many examples of King’s attempts to create a metafiction.
The problem in Cujo is that King’s attempts to introduce various elements of his other fictions sometimes makes a nonsense of what should be a better book. There is Frank Dodd, who is a kind of bogey man in this novel. There is Tad’s mysterious closet which opens wilfully while he tries to sleep, suggesting an atavistic childhood horror made real, more in keeping with King’s supernatural thrillers. There is the cave in which rabid bats live, a kind of image of horror in themselves that are reminiscent of the bat-like vampires of ’Salem’s Lot. Then there is the suggestion of fate or destiny controlling Cujo, which might be Smythe’s innate evil, or it might be bad luck, depending on how you understand the links King continuously tries to make between his different images and metaphors. For instance, here’s a taste of the various associations King makes in the novel. Joe is
a beast in many ways, because, like Kemp, he represents the potential for male violence which materialises in Cujo. But Cujo himself is also linked to the frightening monster in Tad’s closet, not just by Tad, but by Vic and Donna at various points in the story. The cupboard even opens for them, suggesting an evil separate to their son’s imagination. But wait! The evil in the closet is also linked to Frank Dodd, and sometimes Frank Dodd is embodied in Cujo when the dog appears to smile at Donna malevolently, or through its cunning. Donna knows
that the dog was something more than just a dog. King just can’t seem to settle on what each of his various elements mean or how they relate.
Cujo is sometimes praised for its realism, but the fact is, in addition to its confused metaphorical menagerie, King has not been able to move beyond the supernatural themes and childhood fears that characterise some his other works. At times I was waiting for Pennywise to emerge from the closet. Surely, the adults in the novel didn’t need to experience four-year-old Tad’s understandable fears as realistic insights, to make a killer dog more terrifying. King is never sure whether he wants to tell a gritty realistic story of a rabid dog that could competently represent the toxic masculinity of some of his male characters, or a supernatural thriller that struggles to make sense. Even the opening of the novel –
Once upon a time - signals a story of fantasy. Sometimes, King makes it work. When Tad first sees the rabid Cujo,
His first panicky thought, like a child who has suddenly tumbled into a fairy tale, was wolf… We understand that instinctive fear that Tad experiences. But King is inconsistent in his metaphors and the kind of novel he wants Cujo to be: a fairy tale; a supernatural thriller; a domestic drama; a social thriller.
It’s easy enough to gloss over these problems, since King is a conversational writer. He’s easy to read. His narrative voice tends to assume the character who has focus, and we’re encouraged to see the world through the eyes of his characters. This accounts for the subjective focus of this book, which contributes to the sense that it is untethered from a guiding principle. There are moments in the novel that are truly engaging. The book becomes most compelling during the struggle between Donna and Cujo, with time ticking down in either the favour of the dog or Donna. This is where the novel is most successful. It could have been a better novel had King had the confidence to trust his audience to accept this realistic terror, rather than trying to tether the story to perceived notions of audience expectation. Other than that, we might feel as Christopher Lehmann-Haupt felt when the book was first released:
I don't really know what Mr. King is trying to say. The problem is, if the book’s ideas are muddled with confused, even conflicting associations and ideas – and if we refuse to allow King to attribute one simple thought to its meaning, that it is about addiction, after the fact – we are left with a fairly gratuitous piece of violence that has very little hope with which to leaven the shock.
Trailer for the 1983 version of the film, Cujo
Stephen King during the period he wrote Cujo
There was something in his closet, he said; sometimes at night his closet door would swing open and he would see it in there, something with yellow eyes that wanted to eat him up. Donna had thought it might have been some fallout with Maurice Sendak’s book Where the Wild Things Are. Vic had wondered aloud to Roger (but not to Donna) if maybe Tad had picked up a garbled account of the mass murders that had taken place in Castle Rock and had decided that the murderer – who had become a kind of town bogeyman – was alive and well in his closet.
Tad's fear of his closet
‘I got scared of the way the house sounded when Tad was gone, Once, do you know – this is crazy – I was in his room, changing the sheets, and I got thinking about these girlfriends I had in high school. Wondering what happened to them, where they went. I was almost in a daze. And Tad’s closet door swung open and … I screamed and ran out the room. I don’t know why … except I guess I do. I thought for just one second there that Joan Brady would come out of Tad’s closet, and her head would be gone and there would be blood all over her clothes and she would say, “I died in a car crash when I was nineteen coming back from Sammy’s Pizza and I don’t give a damn.”’
Donna on the way Tad's closet made her feel
You’ve seen him before, haven’t you? The morning after Tad had the first of his bad dreams, the morning that the blankets and sheets were back on the chair, his Teddy on top of them, and for a moment when you opened the closet door you only saw a slumped shape with red eyes, something in Tad’s closet ready to spring, it was him, it was Cujo, Tad was right all along …
Donna sense of Cujo as the evil emanating from Tad's closet
And again he heard Tad’s phantom, ghostly voice, so hopeless and lost in this too-empty, suddenly creepy room: Cujo … here, Cujo … Coooojo …
And then something happened which Vic never spoke of to anyone in the rest of his life. Instead of hearing Tad’s voice in his mind he was actually hearing it, high and lonely and terrified, a going-away voice that was coming from inside the closet.
A cry escaped Vic’s throat and he pushed himself up on Tad’s bed, his eyes widening. The closet door was swinging open, pushing the chair in front of it, and his son was crying ‘Coooooooooo – ’
Vic's uneasy feeling alone with Tad's closet