Friday, June 29, 2012

Stephen King: Cujo (1981)

I love Cujo. It does what I want books to do.
It feels like a brick thrown through somebody's window ... 
It feels anarchic, like a punk rock record.
Stephen King

Douglas Winter, in his book Stephen King: The Art of Darkness, asks: After six novels and "a pattern of increasingly monolithic evil", coupled with various sociopolitical fears, what could be worse? With Cujo, King answers: Reality.

The main plot of Cujo is well-known, even to people who have never read the book: a mother and her young son are trapped in their car during the heat of summer and terrorized for several days by a rabid, 200-pound St. Bernard. Indeed, the dog's name has become part of popular culture, in much the same way as Lolita and Catch-22.

But there are other themes that King explores in Cujo, and that is what I want to write about. Loneliness, the failure of humans to truly understand each other, fate and random chance and, for the first time, the death of a young child (which King unpacks at length in Pet Sematary).

Cujo is framed as a fairy tale. It begins:
Once upon a time, not so long ago, a monster came to the small town of Castle Rock, Maine.
It opens on the fears of four-year-old Tad Trenton, who is terrified that there is a monster lurking in his closet. At the very end of the story, the narrator says that "so far as I know" (one of only two instances of "I" in the book) the bones of the rabbit that Cujo chased into a small bat cave remain there.

Cujo also can be read as a sequel of sorts to The Dead Zone - not a sequel as far as plot, but of place: King's fictional town of Castle Rock. The serial killings committed by police officer Frank Dodd are mentioned in the book's first few sentences and, much later on, Castle Rock Sheriff George Bannerman makes an appearance.

Cujo is an intensely written novel; it moves with seemingly instinctive pace, sustaining a relentless, and often disagreeable, tension. It is a harrowing reading experience, uncompromising in its terror and suspense, yet imbued with humor, warmth, and a deep sense of the human condition, of which fear is after all, only an element. As in his earlier novels, King evokes the horror of Cujo not by a concatentation [sic] of circumstances but by the exposition and understanding of characters.
Some readers were furious with King for having young Tad Trenton die while trapped in his parents' overheated Pinto, but while King himself was not fully comfortable with the book's pessimism, it was what the story demanded:
You can't continue to write this kind of thing over and over again and finish up by saying, "Oh, yes, and the kid was all right. God took care of him again, folks. Go to bed. Go to sleep. Don't worry." Because they die. Kids get run over ... People pick them up and take them away forever. Crib death. Leukemia. It isn't a large percentage - most of them do fine. But it has to be put into the equation; the possibility that there is no God and nothing works for the best.
As with most of King's novels, the real horror is not vampires or haunted hotels or fire-starting young girls. The true horror is the unpredictability of everyday life, and the actions of our fellow humans. In that respect, King's work differs from the brand of horror fiction that serves as an escape from reality, with surreal, exotic, futuristic places and plots. King's horror is grounded in our world (his much-criticized use of brand names being good evidence of that), in situations that all of us have either been in or can easily imagine being in.

In the novella "The Mist", published in 1980 and collected in 1985's Skeleton Crew, King writes:
When the machines fail . . . when the technologies fail, when the conventional religious systems fail, people have got to have something. Even a zombie lurching into the night can seem pretty cheerful compares to the existential comedy/horror of the ozone layer dissolving under the combined assault of a million fluorocarbon spray cans of deodorant.
A strong undercurrent in Cujo is the fear of aging, of growing up and growing old. (King was 30 years old when he began writing the novel.)

Victor Trenton tells his younger advertising partner, Roger Breakstone, of the vast difference in perspective between the ages of 31 and 42. (Vic is also terrified of what will become of his career and family if he loses the Sharp Cereal account. The dissolution of the American dream is another common King theme.)

Holly Camber looks at her sister, Charity, and sees that her beauty has prematurely faded. And Charity, trapped in a stifling, abusive marriage she knows she will not leave, wants to broaden her 10-year-old son's view of the world before his father's damaging influence becomes too strong.

Steve Kemp - perhaps the greatest evil presence in this story - lives an aimless existence, driving a van with desert murals on the sides, acting like he is still in college, and running from all responsibility.

And Donna Trenton has moved with her husband and son from New York City to rural Maine, but she hates it. Vic, ignorant of her feelings as he pursues his career, actually assumes Donna is glad to be away from the dangers of the big city. The move has been great for Vic - he has never felt so alive - but he has paid little attention to the concerns of his wife.

Donna is terrified of drifting into the mundane life of a housewife, and that fear leads her to have a brief affair with Kemp. After she ends the relationship, Kemp retaliates, spilling the beans in an anonymous letter to Vic. Donna tries to explain to Vic why she did it:
I got so I was spending enough time in front of the mirror to see how my face was changing, how no one was ever going to mistake me for a teenager again or ask to see my driver's license when I ordered a drink in a bar. I started to be afraid because I grew up after all. . . .

It's more [than growing and feeling old]. It's knowing you can't wait any longer to be a grownup, or wait any longer to make your peace with what you have. It's knowing that your choices are being narrowed almost daily. For a woman - no, for me - that's a brutal thing to have to face.
Later, trapped in her car and considering various means of possible escape from Cujo, Donna thinks: "In matters of life and death, the right time only comes around once - once and then it's gone."

The big dog is thus a personification, a cumulation, of our everyday fears - horrors woven from the dark strands of the American social fabric: decaying marriage, economic woes, malfunctioning automobiles, and junk food. Cujo affirms the irony of Stephen King's popular success: we are obsessed with fear, running sacred of our daily lives, where we can no longer trust the food we eat, our machines, our neighbor's dog, or even ourselves. . . . We are trapped by a reality as loathsome and ambiguous as the good dog gone bad - trapped between an uncertain future and an unreachable past, unable to tell guilt from innocence or true identity from false, unable to believe or to be comfortable in our unbelief.

King again reminds us of the minimal amount of control we have over the course of our lives.

Donna, trapped in the car and wondering if anyone will come along to rescue her (she is the fairy tale's damsel in distress) and Tad, muses about the series of coincedences - "utterly random but mimicking a kind of sentient fate" - that has brought her to this point.

When sisters Holly and Charity talk over the past, they have an unspoken agreement to leave out the bad parts (perhaps because "Holly would recognize that she might have escaped a similar marriage or similar life, by the thinnest of margins. . . . The two of them had discovered it was all right to open the closets . . . as long as you didn't poke too far back in them. Because things might still be lurking there, ready to bite.")

Holly won life's lottery, and married well - with a purse full of credit cards and a house filled with shiny appliances to show for it, while Charity is ruled by a petty tyrant. She is so beaten down she is barely aware of an alternative - until she and her son, Brett, visit Holly.


The ultimate What If? in Cujo is Tad's death. Back in the late '70s, King said that his biggest fear was walking into one of his children's rooms and finding his daughter or one of his sons dead.

When Donna realizes that Tad is no longer alive, she thinks: "It was impossible. No God, no fate, could be so monstrously cruel. . . . Her son was not dead; she had not gone through this hell for her son to be dead, and it simply would not be. It would not be."

Vic wonders: "Why? Why had something like this been allowed to happen? How could so many events have conspired together?"

Back at the beginning of the book, when Tad was afraid of the monster in his closet, his father had written a poem intended for Tad to recite to keep the monsters away. Vic sees the crumbled sheet of Monster Words in the back seat of the car.
The paper was a sentimental lie . . . It was all a lie. Ther world was full of monsters, and they were all allowed to bite the innocent and the unwary.

In this story, that element of fate is not limited to humans. Cujo was a big playful dog who wanted nothing more than to please his boy and maybe chase a rabbit or two, though he knew he was too old to be chasing rabbits. It is heartbreaking when King takes us into the dog's mind as the rabies takes over, pushing out his good habits and thoughts and allowing confusion, pain, and anger to become all there is. And despite the horrific violence Cujo metes out, King evokes empathy for the dog right up to the end.
It would perhaps not be amiss to point out that he had always wanted to be a good dog. . . . He had been struck by something, possibly destiny, or fate, or only a degenerative nerve disease called rabies. Free will was not a factor.

In On Writing, King bluntly addresses his alcoholism and drug abuse: when it started, how it evolved, and how he was forced to confront his addictions. He admits that he has little memory of writing Cujo.
There's one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing at all. I don't say that with pride or shame, only with a vague sense of sorrow and loss. I like that book. I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page.
Next: The Running Man (as Richard Bachman).


johngoldfine said...

Zach Dionne said...

awesome post, thanks