Two families. In one a mother and her son take a rare opportunity to get out of town and visit family. In the other, the father goes on a business trip leaving his wife and son alone with a finicky Ford Pinto that needs repair. Meanwhile, an unsupervised St. Bernard chases a rabbit and winds up getting bit instead. Without anyone knowing it, the scene for a devastating, outrageous tragedy has been set-up.
The dog, of course, is the title character and the bite infects him with rabies, turning a gentle giant into a nightmarish monster. The nightmare comes to fruition thanks to the elaborate plotting of Stephen King. While the high concept plot of Cujo is well known, readers may well be surprised (as I was) that the book takes a long time to get to “rabid dog on the prowl.” Going through the book I found myself wondering why King was talking so much about the weather in Castle Rock, the uncertain future of one character’s advertising firm, and marital infidelity. What does this have to do with a rabid dog? But all of these come in to play in the novel’s climax.
Cujo, the novel not the dog, might best be thought of as an exercise in taking an idea to the farthest limits. From the basic premise of Donna Trenton and her young son Tad having to fend off the attack of a rabid dog King pushes out, always seek to make their predicament more dire, their rescue more far-fetched. To say too much would give away the game, but King expertly raises and then dashes his character’s hopes.
Cujo is a taut, effective thriller which packs an unexpected punch. King’s pitch is impeccable as he puts the Trentons in a situation that, however heightened, feels plausibly real. Their struggle to survive makes them relatable in a way that cuts to the bone.