Thursday 18 August 2011

Devouring Stephen King: Cujo

My first real introduction to Cujo probably came from that Friends episode where Rachel is watching Cujo and is completely terrified by it (did she learn nothing from reading The Shining?!) and then Joey comes in and tells her off for watching it alone, and then she asks him how he can be watching it- "aren't you scared?!" and he says "I'm terrified", but we all know that it's because he's in love with her, and doesn't know what to do about it, rather than because it's a scary film. Yes, that's how well I remember Friends trivia, and Stephen King references don't exactly pass me by either. Joey may well have been terrified by these scary new feelings, but I suspect that he would have found this film scary- having read the book I can only imagine how disgusting it would be rendered on the big screen, and I was pretty scared by the book.

I want to firstly talk about the description of the book on the back of my copy because, to be honest, I found it completely inaccurate. According to the Warner Books Edition,
"Outside a peaceful town in central Maine, a monster is waiting...Cujo is a two-hundred-pound Saint Bernard, the best friend Brett Camber ever had. Then Cujo chases a rabbit into a bolthole- a cave inhabited by sick bats. What happens next, how Cujo becomes a horrifying vortex, inexorably drawing in all the people around him, makes for one of Stephen King's most terrifying, heart-stopping novels."
I mean really, who writes these things? I don't dispute any of the clearly set out facts (Cujo is indeed a Saint Bernard, a fact which means I'm never going to be able to watch Beethoven again, or even the one where he has puppies!) but I really think that the publisher is trying to capitalise on King's reputation as a horror writer by over-emphasising what is supernatural in this book that is mostly grounded in a real-life situation of horror. I get that this is pretty much their job- if they just said "yeah, it's scary, but it's scary because you think about what would happen if you were trapped in a car and a dog with rabies was circling rather than because he's a monster from the planet Zork" or whatever. But really, I don't need the inaccurate descriptions!

Moving on... It takes quite a long time for Cujo to get scary, but that's ok because it allows King to do what he does best, namely build up tension so we can hardly take it anymore, and then spring the main attraction on us. This also allows him the other thing that he does best, build up wonderful characters and the situations they are in at the time of these events (the unhappily married couples, the wounded vet. slowly killing himself with alcohol, the kid with monsters in his closet), and something that you don't necessarily see until later, but he is laying out a row of dominoes, letting them all fall down when the big event finally happens so that it becomes a complete crisis rather than one that can be easily solved. It's actually a pretty masterful piece of work, and one which I would be really proud of if I could write half as well as King.

Am I actually going to talk about the main attraction? I guess that the main joy (or, rather, horror, I suppose) in this book comes from the descriptions of what happens rather than the knowing what happens anyway- it's actually a pretty simple story, albeit one that will probably keep me away from big dogs for a little while, at least. As you may already know, Cujo is a dog that basically gets infected with rabies, and the parts of the story from his perspective show his mental deterioration, as he comes to blame everyone he comes into contact with for his feeling so sick. It is unfortunate that Donna Trenton and her son Tad, come to his home (a garage on a dead end road) to get their car fixed, when a whole series of events has already conspired to mean that they are stuck in the car, in the middle of the summer, for an indefinite amount of time as they try not to get mauled by the dog. There is so much tension surrounding this stand off that it really has to be read to get it's full effect, but trust me, it even had me contemplating staying up and carrying on reading it last night, even though I obviously can't read Stephen King books at night because the monsters might crawl out and get me while I'm sleeping! True story.

As I mentioned before, there really isn't much that is supernatural in this book at all. There is an interesting link to The Dead Zone in that Cujo is set in the same town as the one where the hero of The Dead Zone solved all these horrible murders that happened there, and there was a sense that the spirit of the murderer is hanging around the town, just waiting for the opportunity to cause more havoc. It is tentatively suggested that this is really what Cujo is infected with, but actually, no, he really has rabies. I sort of got the sense that King saw it more of a duty rather than anything else to include this supernatural element, and it really is only hinted at rather than anything else. I think that the scenario, as well as the rabid dog, are pretty much as scary as anything supernatural that King has to throw of us, by pure virtue of being something that could happen to any of us, and we would be as helpless to get out of the situation as poor Donna and Tad are.

Cujo is, overall, well worth a read, if only to finally know what the hell Joey and Rachel could have been watching in that Friends episode. But really, it is an excellent example of the tension that King is able to build, and the way he is able to scare the shit out of me, without even including any supernatural crap (not crap. I love the supernatural stuff! But awkwardly slotted in in this book, it was a tiny bit crap.) Probably not advisable if you're already scared of dogs, but other than that, knock yourself out. Just stay away from independent garages, ok?

Note: A google image search has just shown me some stills from the movie version of Cujo, and have convinced me that I should probably never, ever watch it. It looks pretty faithful to the book though, which I guess is good..?


  1. I got the same impression as you, that King added in a hint of supernatural to the book because he had to. It doesn't really fit and probably would have been better to remove it altogether but at least there isn't much. Not that I dislike the supernatural but this story works so well without it.

    I haven't actually seen the movie but I did hear the ending is changed.

  2. Oooh, interesting if they did change the ending... Seems like a very hollywood thing to do tbh- although the ending was horrid! I'm glad it wasn't just me who sensed the reluctance of the supernatural bits of the book- because, really, a rabid dog is scary enough, right?!

  3. This isn't my favourite King book to be honest although I first read it years ago. If I read it again I might think differently. It do remember it building up the tension well though and liked the fact that we saw the world from Cujo's point of view too. I only vaguely remember the supernatural element. Actually, totally forgot all about it until I read your review. Whilst it's not my favourite book by King it was still a good read. I LOVED your review though. Plus that scene in friends is one of my favourites. Joey is wise beyond his years. Scary films should not be watched alone and scary books should be placed in the freezer to prevent monsters from getting out and eating you.

  4. @Karen- I think you might be the only person to have ever called Joey wise hehe! I'm not sure that Cujo is necessarily one of my favourites either, but I definitely found it a pretty masterful piece of writing!

  5. "but I really think that the publisher is trying to capitalise on King's reputation as a horror writer by over-emphasising what is supernatural in this book that is mostly grounded in a real-life situation of horror"

    The more I read Stephen King the more I realise how big an issue ^this^ is! Even the books of his that do contain supernatural elements i.e. Pet Semetary, the horror is more central to the realism of the novel (losing a son) than the supernatural, most of the time anyway. At least in my opinion!

    Also I love that scene in Friends! After watching that I totally put a few books in the freezer to hide them from me!

  6. I definitely think that king always brings 'normal horrors' to his books really well, as well as the supernatural thing which he does just as well, but it just touches you less in empathy terms. Even the things that the supernatural monsters do- ie killing family members and stuff, is dealt with in an emotional way, and not just as a racked up sort of body count. Just one of the reasons I love him so!