The Books of Stephen King: Cujo, or, “I would say this is why I’m more of a cat person but he has to go make them scary in a later book as well so we’re doomed”

Right, back to the good old bibliography of Stephen King. I have now read everything up to the late 80’s, so the next few books should be quick to get through. Let’s take a look at the book he can’t even remember writing, Cujo.

If you’ve heard of this book before, it’s probably as “the one with the rabid dog”. That is a pretty good description of the book’s main conflict, but it’s not all that happens. We’re back in Castle Rock and focus on two very different families – the Trentons, an upper middle class family from New York who have recently moved into town, and the Cambers, lifelong residents of the rural community who are more working class. The titular St Bernard dog belongs to the latter family and for all intensive purposes he’s a loveable, if a bit big, family pet. That all changes when he gets rabies from being bitten by a bat whilst chasing a rabbit down a hole. He then starts to change into something a bit more monstrous.

Despite this basic and quite ridiculous plot, it’s a surprisingly thematically rich and layered story that makes the silliness feel real and earnt. The main thematic conflict is that of the two families and the similarities and differences that define them – whilst the Trentons are a well meaning and well off family, marital issues as well as the collapse of the business Vic Trenton is working at is causing conflict and uncertainty in the family. Meanwhile, Joe Cambers is abusive to his wife and child causing them to want to escape and find a way out of their situation. These dual storylines tap into the ideas of patriarchal domination, the similarities between social classes and, perhaps most importantly, neglect. Especially neglect of a certain big dog.

OK, it’s not as rich in metaphor or power as The Shining or several previous King books, but you know what? That’s fine. The metaphors and characters serve one purpose and one purpose only – to get Donna and Tad Trenton into a car and get stuck just as a rapid predator is approaching them.

About halfway through the novel, King switches to an almost singular perspective of the mother and child stuck in a hot car whilst Cujo is trying to break in. The setup is that the Trentons use the Camber’s garage to fix their car but with Joe Cambers already killed by Cujo there is no one to help them when the vehicle gives up and the dog begins the attack. Considering the issue of leaving dogs in hot cars is still an issue I wonder if this subversion was deliberate on King’s part. These passages are incredibly tense and powerful, tapping into a primal fear of being trapped with nowhere to go and the dread of an overwhelming force overpowering the characters. One particularly great sequence is when the sheriff arrives to help and Donna is forced to watch Cujo kill him from inside the car. 

There are several interesting literary and structural choices made by Stephen King in this book. For starters, there are No. Chapters! Why? Obviously there are paragraphs and switches in perspectives but there’s no real reason to not have chapters. It makes trying to find your place once you start reading it again really weird. It does contribute to the free flowing, rapid pace of the narrative however, so it’s not a major detraction. Just a bizarre factor that makes the book unique among the books reviewed so far.

Another interesting choice made is the choice to have several sections of the book told from Cujo’s perspective. This is done to make him a more sympathetic protagonist/antagonist, as the big dog is unaware of the drama going on in the family and simply wants to keep his “master” Brett safe. It’s interesting to note how the characters Cujo kills are all abusive or hostile towards Brett, such as Joe Cambers. The exception is the local sheriff, but even then he represents authority, and it could be argued that Cujo represents a rebellion of authority also represented in Donna and the Cambers, who are central to the narrative and who also seek to break from the metaphorical chains forced onto them. Both Cujo and Firestarter are similar in this regard with a theme of authority vs freedom, society vs the great unknown and the power and consequence of choice.

Stephen King’s 80’s period represents some of his best and most insane writing, and these first two books offer a nice and relatively low key start to the themes he will be exploring over the decade. Cujo is a blast from start to finish, never dulling and actually making a story about a rapid St Bernard not only tense and exciting but full of interesting ideas and questions. Could the situation have been avoided if the adult Cambers had paid more attention to Cujo? If Vic Trenton wasn’t so preoccupied with fixing his marital issues upon returning to Castle Rock could he have helped earlier? It’s an entertaining read but quite bleak, but one I recommend regardless.

Right, onto our regular features –

Drinking game?

Maine, of course. And what would a Stephen King story be without antagonistic male figures and faceless corporations threatening to destabilise the equilibrium? And his time honoured tradition of writing realistic child characters who know more than they should continues.

Adaptation?

Fear not, for my habit of not having seen Stephen King adaptations will soon end. But from what I’ve gathered the film is quite accurate and faithful, although there’s not much to miss out from this one. If you have dog and car, you’re fine.

The King multiverse

Oh yes, now we’re getting somewhere. Frank Dodd, the serial killer from The Dead Zone, is back. Kinda. He appears as a nameless ghost in Tad’s closet and his rampage in the earlier book casts a shadow over the events in this one. His superior, Sheriff George Bannerman, also returns from that book and is killed off here. It’s also implied but not confirmed that it’s Dodd’s ghost, not rabies, that has possessed Cujo. And Cujo himself will be referenced many times to come, but we’ll get there when we get there. Finally, the books are connecting together into a satisfying and cohesive universe.

Next time, more vehicle mayhem with Christine, the sole and only reason why I have not picked up driving since going to uni (not really).

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