Cujo by Stephen King

Warning Spoilers Ahead Proceed With Caution!

One of Stephen King’s classic tales of horror turned into a film in 1983. Cujo is a book about family dramas with a side of rabid-dog thrown in. Until the Last half of the novel you would be excused for thinking you were not reading a horror novel at all; but that is how King excels at storytelling. By devoting most of the first half of the book to intricately describing the lives of the various characters that become involved in the final act, and also sidelining Cujo’s slow terrifying change as he becomes rabid, King manages to lull the reader into a false sense of security (Monsters aren’t real). Even when Cujo begins his rampage the stakes are not fully raised, every victim comes close to putting an end to the rabid dog before some vicious final blow is delivered to them. The fact that these are not just faceless characters, or boring horror stereotypes but people we have spent the last few hundred pages (Cujo has no chapters) getting to know makes these scenes all the more intense. But perhaps the biggest tragedy with these characters demises is the betrayal that left them disarmed and unaware of their immediate danger. Cujo was their friend. Cujo was “one of your old-fashioned dyed-in-the-wool good dogs”. And Cujo loved them too; in fact “ He would have died for them if that had been required.” But Cujo’s free will had been stolen away by the degenerative brain disease he had been inflicted with.

The segments told from Cujo’s POV are some of the most heartbreaking parts of the book, despite being the inner thoughts of a dog, they show a deadly dance between Cujo and the disease; between his desire to be a “good dog” and protect his family, and a desire to rip them limb from limb because of the maddening pain coursing through him. Surprisingly these segments make a horrifically poignant portrayal of suffering from mental illness (of course In Cujo’s case a rather extreme degenerative one). King manages to make Cujo one of the most sympathetic characters by making it clear all his actions were not taken based on ill-will or out of evil or spite but because he had simply lost control. That, in fact, it is not just the human characters that are suffering through a horror story, but Cujo himself:

“He heard the chimes of heaven and the hoarse screams which uprose from hell. In his madness, he heard the real and the unreal.”

And King makes sure to highlight not just the dogs suffering but his confusion too:

“He wanted to drink the water; kill the water; bathe in the water; piss and shit in the water; cover it over with dirt; savage it; make it bleed. Both times this terrible confusion of feelings had driven him away, whining and trembling.”

This makes the story all the more real as there are no monsters hiding in closets, no bogeymen out to get the protagonists. Just a series of events that led to an unfortunate, preventable tragedy. It’s easy to point at a murderer and say – “He done it! He’s to blame!” and feel a sense of relief and resolution. But in the tale of Cujo no one is to blame; no one, and everyone. Is it Charity or Brett Chambers fault for not telling Joe Cujo was ill? Is it Vic’s fault for being so caught up in his hatred of Steve Kemp that he blamed him for everything and thus wasted precious time in finding his wife and son? Was is Cujo’s fault for getting ill?
As you can see there are no bogeymen, no beings of pure evil; just individuals, with faults and flaws, that all contributed in some way.

Some may complain that a lot of the book felt like reading filler, that most of it were devoted to a pointless daily routine that could have been cut out. But if King had done that we would be left with a short hundred-page story of a rabid dog attacking people we didn’t know or care about. It is in these “filler” sections that we actually learn the driving motivations of all the characters, human and otherwise. And these motivations, flaws etc all come to play in the books final act. While it’s true some of the side plots include information not entirely relevant to the main story – such as the extensive detailing of Vic’s advertising company and it’s current troubles – King does such an excellent job at turning what would normally be boring, mundane events into interesting and relatable stories that these sections feel an excellent complement to the central story. And it is through these King expresses the “Show don’t tell” aspect of writing by interweaving important character details and personality traits in these basic day-to-day interactions and happenings.

Read If:

  • You like slow-burn horror
  • You enjoy Soap-Opera style drama

Avoid If:

  • You love dogs.
  • You want your horror fast-paced from start to finish.

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