The world was full of monsters, and they were all allowed to bite the innocent and the unwary.
As with many of Stephen King’s books, Cujo opens on a peculiar darkness enveloping a small town in Maine. From the first page, we’re told that ten years ago, a bad cop named Frank Dodd terrorized Castle Rock. He had killed several women, only to off himself soon after being discovered. Though a monster rots away in his coffin, the true monster never really dies. And it’s this monster, which through a rabid bat, finds its way into a playful and lovable St. Bernard named Cujo. It’s also this same monster that subtly infects the lives of each character in the book.
The main plot focuses on the Trentons, an average American family composed of four-year-old Tad and two parents in a stable, but staid marriage. Recent migrants from the hustle and bustle of New York, Donna Trenton finds herself scared of growing old and falling into the mold of the small-town housewife while her husband, Vic, is absorbed in his work, trying not to lose his career over circumstances outside his control. These are only some of the elements pulling Castle Rock’s citizens into a downward spiral, the churning of which brings about a heart-wrenching conclusion which I won’t spoil for you (If you’ve only seen the movie, just know the book ends differently).
For those who have read It, you’ll recognize the same sort of evil at work–one which feeds the people, but is also fed by them. The atmosphere in Cujo is more nihilistic in comparison, maybe not surprising given that King admits to being in such a drunken stupor; he barely remembers writing the book at all (see King’s On Writing).
A recurring theme in this book is isolation. We see it physically, when Donna and Tad are prisoners in their own car, scared and helpless during the hottest summer in twenty years. We see it emotionally in Vic and Donna’s marriage. We also see it in the various minor characters throughout the book, which brings me to another point.
People either love or hate Stephen King, depending on whether or not they’re character readers. I think that because you can find his books in the supermarket, some readers expect plot-heavy fluff. And maybe some of his books are like that, but the few that I’ve read prove to me that King’s knowledge of the human makeup is both insightful and unnerving. He has a tendency to go on beautiful tangents for even the smallest characters. A great example is his description of a man who winds up being Cujo’s first lunch:
In 1944, when Gary Pervier had been twenty, he had singlehandedly taken a German pillbox in France and, following that exploit, had led the remains of his squad ten miles farther before collapsing with the six bullet wounds he had suffered in his charge of the machine-gun emplacement. For this he had been awarded one of his grateful country’s highest honors, the Distinguished Service Cross. In 1968 he had gotten Buddy Torgeson down in Castle Falls to turn the medal into an ashtray. Buddy had been shocked. Gary told Buddy he would have gotten him to make it into a toilet bowl so he could shit in it, but it wasn’t big enough. Buddy spread the story, and maybe that had been Gary’s intention, or maybe it hadn’t.
Either way, it had driven the local hippies crazy with admiration. In the summer of ’68 most of these hippies were on vacation in the Lakes Region with their wealthy parents before returning to their colleges in September, where they were apparently by a local-yokel reporter who construed the act as an antiwar gesture. That was when the hippies started to show up at Gary’s place on Town Road No. 3. Most of them wanted to tell Gary he was “far out.” Some of them wanted to tell him he was “some kind of heavy.” A few wanted to tell him he was “too fucking much.”
Gary showed them all the same thing, which was his Winchester .30-.06. He told them to get off his property. As far as he was concerned they were all a bunch of long-haired muff-diving crab-crawling asshole pinko fucksticks. He told them he didn’t give a shit if he blew their guts from Castle Rock to Fryeburg. After a while they stopped coming, and that was the end of the DSC affair.
This kind of classic Stephen King character sketch, I think, is the key to his success. I rarely meet a character that I’m ambiguous about. I either love ’em or hate ’em, but even for the ones I hate, I feel a certain sympathy. There’s not a single person that I just don’t care about.
If you’ve seen the movie, I still recommend you check out the book. It’s not long. Just be forewarned that King’s state of mind at the time of writing is reflected in the book, for good and for bad.