If I remember my Stephen King lore correctly, this is the book that he wrote while he was so in the grip of his addictions than he doesn’t remember writing it. If that’s true, it’s a real shame. It’s another one that is high on my list of personal favorites. It’s a terrifying book. It only has an air of the supernatural around it, too — mostly this is something that could, in theory at least, happen, which only increases the fear factor.
That’s not to say it’s a perfect book; it’s not. A lot of what’s wrong with it, at least to me, centers on the depiction of women in this story. It honestly makes me glad I came upon some of the later King first, because if I’d come across many of King’s earlier women, I might have dismissed him as a woman-hater and just not bothered anymore.
Donna Trenton is more or less what I imagine Wendy Torrance would be like if Wendy were a bitch as well as being entirely too helpless much of the time. And at least Book-Wendy tried not to be helpless and her extreme isolation gave her a reason for it some of it. (Movie-Wendy didn’t even try, but that’s not King’s fault). Donna has an affair because she’s jumping at shadows because her son grew up enough to go to daycamp? Please. I want to like Charity Camber, and I more or less do until she’s at the point of agreeing with her abusive drunk husband (through her son) that her sister is bad for having a lot of credit cards and her brother-in-law is bad for being a lawyer who buys things instead of an abusive drunk handyman who fixes them up. And then she decides that she would rather be with the abusive drunk, and risk her son turning out just like him, because credit cards and office work are both bad things. It’s its own form of elitism, and it’s also just crappy. She doesn’t have to have the things they have — she wouldn’t anyway, if she left him — but she shouldn’t change her mind about wanting her son to have opportunities because she did an about-face and decided to adopt her husband’s views on the right way to live. Cujo did her a favor anyway, but I still don’t like her.
Speaking of Charity Camber, her sister, Holly, is a character in the book, but she’s basically a cipher. We don’t get to know anything more concrete about her than her childhood was traumatic and she shows off her credit cards. We’re supposed to believe that she’s an OK type, basically, but she doesn’t really seem like anything good.
Who else? Charity calls the wife of a neighbor at one point to check on Cujo. Said wife is so dim she can’t tell one day from the next, and that’s the end of her characterization. Althea, wife of Vic Trenton’s partner Roger, is never shown, but she’s mentioned. She lost a baby, she drinks more now, and she would gossip about her friends over a bridge game and is otherwise pretty milquetoast. Great. And Donna’s mother — also only mentioned, not an actual character — is apparently UberBitch.
That’s it. That’s all of the women. Bitchy, indecisive, weak and helpless, or some mix of the previous. None of them are women you’d want to meet, let alone hang out with. And none of them strike me as particularly realistic, either. It’s hard to tell — I don’t want to say that people like this don’t exist at all, but not one likable woman in the whole book? Seems unlikely.
However, despite the fact that it’s Donna who is trapped with her child in the car by a rabid killer dog, it’s mostly male characters who make the plot go, and more of them are likable. I don’t find Vic an especially believable character, but I like him. Roger is likable too. I already like Sheriff Bannerman from The Dead Zone. You’re not supposed to like Kemp, you’re probably not supposed to like Gary (and I don’t). I don’t like Mr. Camber, and I can’t tell if I should or not — the book certainly describes an unlikeable person — an abusive drunk — but then does that weird doubling back thing where characters we are supposed to like suddenly think he has the right life philosophy, so I feel like we’re supposed to at least sympathize with his point of view. I don’t, really, but I get it.
Then there’s Cujo. I recently saw someone in a Stephen King discussion group somewhere say that they enjoyed when King wrote from a dog’s POV because he “hits it dead on”. I don’t know if I agree with that — as far as I know, we don’t actually know how animals think, so probably no one gets it just right and if they did, we wouldn’t know — but I do find it engaging when King does it, and I normally get annoyed when authors do that, so he’s doing something right for his human readers, anyway.
The ending of Cujo is, I think, one of the worst in the Stephen King canon. I know that Pet Semetary is coming up presently, and I know a lot of people think that’s the worst (“sometimes dead is better”) and maybe I’ll change my mind when I get there. But I remember thinking that this was worse on previous reads too. Poor Tad. I didn’t discuss him when I was talking about the other characters, but it’s impossible to dislike Tad. He’s another one of King’s overly-precocious children, but he’s basically a baby. How can you not feel for a baby?
Tad deserved better parents. He deserved a better home life. He deserved to live. And if he had to die, he deserved a less awful death. It might have been better — if more gruesome — if Cujo had gotten him, even. At least it would have been faster than dying from heat and thirst while trapped in a car. Coming from a particularly hot state, I know what it is to sit in an unmoving car in 100 degree weather when you’re old enough to open the door and get out when you can’t stand it anymore. I’m always horrified at the stories of babies and small children left in vehicles by parents and care providers — usually by accident, so they say — who can’t get themselves out and end up dying in there. I would say it’s chilling, but that’s the wrong word. It’s sweltering, that’s what it is. That’s a temperature word and not a fear word, but it should be a fear word when describing that particular style of heat-based death.
I also find the end so depressing. The monster finally gets defeated, but too late to save the baby. King says the parents are on the mend, toward the end, but I don’t believe it. I don’t know for sure whether King meant us to believe it, but I can’t, regardless. I’ve barely recovered from losing Tad, and Tad is fictional to me. If I lost a real Tad, that would be it, I think. I’d just as soon die of rabies myself at that point. The only thing of King’s I’ve read since that evokes quite the same feeling of doom and hopelessness at the end in me is Revival’s ending, way in the future. The story Cujo is, I think, about as mean as the dog himself once he goes rabid. It bites, it wants to cause pain, and it doesn’t care who it hurts. It’s very effective, despite any flaws. And it’s depressing as hell, in a way that I think most of his stories just aren’t.
Cujo is another one that has a movie that I vaguely remember seeing, but don’t have much of an impression about. I probably saw it when I was very young — it seems to have come out when I was about 3, and while I’m sure I didn’t see it in the theater, I wouldn’t have had many strong impressions of a movie put on TV a few years later either. Plus, I looked this one up, and it seems Tad doesn’t die at the end of the standoff in the movie. That makes it a cheerier story than the book, but probably also a less memorable story. One of the reasons that Cujo sticks with me so hard is because Tad’s death is so gruesome and unfair.
Cujo is a Castle Rock story, so it has obvious ties to the rest of King’s universe, where Castle Rock is very important. I already mentioned Sheriff George Bannerman (who is sadly deposed from his seat by the end of this story) and the book also mentions Frank Dodd, tying his murderous spirit in with Cujo’s. Yet, as I said before, this book is only vaguely supernatural — a rabid dog is a real fear. So what gives?
Well, strange things do happen in Castle Rock. Reality is thinner there; other realities bleed through. My thought is that there is some level of the tower — or some other dimension, if you prefer — where Cujo is not just a rabid dog, but a full-on monster, perhaps inhabited by the possessing spirit of Frank Dodd, or by whatever possessed Frank Dodd to turn him into the human version of a rabid dog. Because I’d guess that the level of the tower where Cujo is a true monster is also the level where Frank Dodd is not a human serial killer, but also a true monster. There may also be a level where Cujo remains a good boy and Dodd remains a good officer. But in our level of the tower, reality is thin, and other realities bleed through. So while we might mostly see a rabid dog or a serial killer, sometimes we get to see the monsters from other levels instead. Because that’s Castle Rock, and several of King’s other creepy towns in his overall multiverse.