I had nothing to go on before reading this apart from my cursory knowledge of the movie and that Stephen King wrote this novel in a drunken stupor which he barely remembers. Which is to say, I held little hope for a story about a rabid dog that traps a mother and son in their car.
Despite the fact that this book seriously ruined the ability for anyone to call their dog Cujo, I don’t really consider it a horror novel. This is the story of two broken families, each damaged in their own way. The Trenton’s have moved from New York City to Castle Rock following Vic’s decision to start an independent ad agency with his partner, Roger. Donna Trenton is in the midst of an affair when the novel starts, and their son, Tad, is struggling with what appears to be a haunted closet and a fear of monsters. The Camber family is poor, with the husband being a surly and unlikable man. The wife, Charity, is fairly defeated, and her only apparent goal in life is to raise her son to not be like his father. The sword of Damocles in this book is Donna Trenton’s car, which ties the two families together and serves a pivotal role in the story’s climax.
To some degree, I think this book is one of the better examples of King’s writing style. The anecdotes and slow, comfortable narration give an amazingly rich texture, and the town of Castle Rock, with all its charm and misery, is always a nice place to disappear into.
There are undoubtedly horrible moments in this book (more on that in a bit), but the casual and familiar misery in these character’s lives is more striking than a deranged animal frothing at the mouth.
Who hasn’t imagined (or experienced) the gut punch of infidelity, or the fear over losing a job? Haven’t we all had to struggle to pay bills and provide for our children? These are the everyday horrors of Cujo, and they give the story a cold and dark uneasiness that sets in long before the madness begins to consume the dog. It is the mundanity of life that weighs on the soul of Castle Rock, and its inhabitants are bent beneath it’s weight.
What truly marks this book, though, is an unquenchable misery that permeates everything. It goes beyond the everyday struggles that we all contend with, and becomes a pernicious reveling in pain. This is no better exemplified than by the occasional views from inside the dog’s head. His slow disregard of that which he loves, and gradual diminishment into derangement and anger is painful to read. He doesn’t understand what’s going on, and King emphasizes that his actions aren’t a choice; that they are, in fact, alien to him. I’m an animal lover, and find the suffering of others (any others) to be a fairly painful thing to witness. I found some of these portions of the novel to be fairly distasteful. Not that I think this was unintentional – but this isn’t a fun read.
All of which leaves me with the unsettling question of what was going through King’s mind as he wrote this. He’s been vocal about his struggles with addiction, and the lengths he would go to in order to assuage the demands of his dark companion. If he was so lost in addiction while he wrote this that he can’t, now, remember even doing so, I can’t help but wonder if this book was an outlet for his demons. If he was perhaps trying to exorcise what haunts him. Vic Trenton writes a mantra for his son to keep the boy’s imagined (or not) monsters at bay. Could this book not be King’s version of that same mantra? Could not all his writing from this period be that?
Far be it for me to psychoanalyze Stephen King, but this seems to have been written in a dark period of his life, and it is possibly the darkest book of his that I’ve read. I don’t think the connection is accidental.
Highlight for MAJOR SPOILERS —>I mean, for god’s sake, if there are any two things you don’t do in your story, it’s kill the dog and the child. King does both, here. End Spoilers.
I typically enjoy King’s work, even when terrible things happen. And while there’s much to appreciate about this book, it is perhaps his least enjoyable.