I’m a fairly recent convert to the world of horror writer Stephen King – I picked up “Carrie” about two years ago and loved it absolutely, then picked up “On Writing” and found it fascinating and inspirational. Since then, I’ve come across his books regularly in charity shops, as well as some nice deals in Tescos – all of which have lead to a growing collection.
After “Carrie” and “On Writing”, I read and enjoyed “Misery”. Now was the turn of “Cujo”, the horror story of a beloved family dog that turns rabid and starts terrorising the area, drawing in around a family that have just moved into the area.
Vic Trenton is an advertising designer, and he and his wife Donna move with their four-year-old son Tad from New York to Maine. In Maine, the Camber family – abusive husband Joe, his wife and their son – own a big Saint Bernard named Cujo. Joe Camber has a reputation as a fair-priced and skilled mechanic, and when the Trenton’s car breaks down the two families meet briefly.
Shortly after, Cujo falls into a bolt-hole filled with rabid bats and is bitten. He hasn’t been vaccinated, and his sickness (aided by the suggested possession of the ghost of a murderer who once lived in the town) because a “vortex that draws in everything around it”. Suddenly too smart and far,far too strong, the St.Bernard is now not only easily capable of killing, but driven to do so until nothing is left alive.
This story has a lot of Stephen King staples: being set in Maine (in King’s fictional town ‘Castle Rock’), use of weird and wonderful local accents, a ‘big bad’ evil lurking behind the scenes, characters trapped in a deadly situation, and a very tightly-timed sequence of events that sync up in the run towards the finish.
It also has his enviable skill with characterisation shown in full. Throughout the course of the novel he creates an alcoholic, a scared child, a beaten wife, an adulterer, an animal and more, and each role s played perfectly. one of his tricks for this is to slip into first-person narrative during times of strong emotion. Which would be a bit like if I was just writing as normal, getting on with my review and OH GOD A SPIDER WHAT TO DO WHAT TO DO WHERE IS THE NEAREST MALE AHHHH.
In “On Writing”,” Cujo” was mentioned as the story King “barely remembers writing at all” as he was drinking constantly at the time. Which is an interesting tactic. I wonder if this implies that drunk texts from King are, instead of the usual garbled and emotional mess of most people, the beginnings of epic novellas? I don’t think this method would work for most of us, but if you try it, be sure to leave a comment to let us know – and you get bonus points if you’re still drunk while doing so.
Despite its polished and professional charms, “Cujo” is not without its flaws. Horror stories involve some suspension of disbelief, and when you have a sequence of tightly-timed ‘coincidences’ leading up to your finale, this suspension becomes even more important.
You’re wife’s cheating on you, your business is going down the tubes, and your car has broken down. That’s tough luck, but it happens. Your wifes choice in flings in a psychotic author that trashes your house into a conveniently crime-scene like mess? These things happen, I guess. The garage where you repair your car is not only void of all humanity, but inhabited by a rabid dog and your wife and kid are stuck out there? They’re out of gas? It’s the hottest day of the summer? You’ve called them a dozen times but think you might leave it a few more hours just in case she’s out and besides, if you did call the police they’d be kind of incompetent anyway and take their sweet time about figuring out what’s going in?
Plot-writing involves a good amount of convenient coincidences – that’s an old cliche and a true one. However, writing is also all about sneaking in hints and little events that subtly manipulate the characters and story in the right direction, without giving away to the reader how it’s all going to end.
“Cujo” doesn’t quite have this pegged, and it leaves a lot of the book full of frustratingly unrealistic mistakes by characters, as well as choking up their pacing. The characters are stuck in a inescapable situation, and after the first attempts to save the day fail it just gets boring sitting back and tracking how many times people will mess up until King feels it’s time to wrap the story up.
If you’re looking for a quick-moving read, there are worse books to pick up. Other King novels tackle the flaws in”Cujo” more skillfully, but plenty of other writers come up with much worse. Most importantly, new readers will probably be too distracted by King’s skilled prose to notice its flaws.
“Cujo” is recommended as a decent introduction to Stephen King’s work, as well as a fun look into good characterisation and narration for budding writers. If you’ve been reading King’s stories for a while, however, it’s unlikely to be one of your favorites. 3/5.