The Monster Never Dies
(A Book Review of Stephen King’s Cujo)
Things start out starkly simple in Stephen King’s 1981 novel, Cujo. Once again King transports his readers back on the fictional small town of Castle Rock, Maine, the setting of his earlier and memorable novel, The Dead Zone, where one day the 200-pound gentle St. Bernard, the eponymous Cujo (which, incidentally, is an ancient Indian word meaning “unstoppable force”), is running innocently in a field on the back of his owner’s house located at a dead-end road, miles away from other houses. Seeing a rabbit pass by, he chases it for fun, but instead meets a bad end when he got stuck on a small limestone cave, where the rabbit ran off to hide, and bitten by a rabid bat nesting there.
Then things get awful as it tends to be just like in any other Stephen King novel. Pretty soon Cujo isn’t feeling so good. Pretty soon, Cujo is getting rabid himself.
Meanwhile, Donna and her son Tad Trenton venture out to the mechanic who owns Cujo to have their Pinto worked on. Their car suddenly breaks down, the battery dead. The weather is stiflingly hot. All this is happening right at Cujo’s doorstep, in time after the virus’s hibernation period, the erstwhile good dog driven insane by a degenerative nerve disorder, turning it to a 200-pound mean killing machine. Mother and son find themselves trapped in the car. Nobody knows they are there. Well, except Cujo, lurking nearby.
One thing that I really like about King’s novels is he doesn’t write about the common spooks, spells and slitherings. He writes about ordinary things, about real life fears and makes them bigger and imagines worst possible scenarios for them. This motif is evidently seen in his first collection of short stories Night Shift; Cujo is no exception. King explores the all too palpable fears that we struggle and grapple with day-to day: the monsters in our closet (both real and imagined), of losing one’s job and not being able to provide to one’s family, the sometimes flimsy foundation where relationships rest.
What’s surprising about the suspenseful tale of Cujo is it’s devoid of any supernatural element. Instead the focus here is in the anticipation of dread, the ever-present fear of death that will make you ask “Who’ll die next?” And that’s the other thing that I always admire with King’s literary gift — the believable build up and development of his characters, making the readers care and feel for them deeply as we are let in on the characters’ intensely troubled lives, interspersed with vignettes from the seemingly mundane lives of other residents and even on what Cujo the dog is thinking of. By the time mother and child arrived to meet their great foe and stand their ground holding on for dear life in the blazing Maine heat, we’ve already established a connection with them. There’s a certain kind of power with the narrative ploy King used here and all too soon you’ll find yourself a part of the characters’ feeling of helplessness. It gets heavier once you’ve realized that you’re complicit to the author’s manipulation of terror, caught up with the claustrophobia they are going through, of being trapped in the sunlit Pinto that becomes a coffin, and a witness to this “daylight burial” happening in your very eyes. Then there’s that nagging feeling that it’s not almost over. Making you wonder what’s the worst thing that could ever happen?
The beginning intrigued, the climax heightened, and the ending was sad as hell. Others would say the ending was grim, a tad too depressing, to which I agree. Like one of the character I was shocked with what King did. It all came unbidden. That it was impossible. No God, no fate could be this cruel. But it is. And I find the lack of hope or a sense of release in its final pages exhausting. The reader is once again a part of the author’s manipulated terror.
Though I can’t count Cujo among my favorite of his novels, I had really come to expect this to be one of King’s lesser efforts (but it won the British Fantasy Award in 1982 anyway, Hah!) knowing that he “barely remembers writing [it] at all.” Still, there’s enough of King here and he bites with full-force. The characters are believable, the attack scenes powerful, the ending justifiably sad, the atmosphere rendered perfectly, and the dog attacks vicious.
“The world is full of monsters, and they were
allowed to bite the innocent and unwary.”
Published by Viking
(1981 Hardcover Edition)
Started: August 9, 2010
Finished: August 13, 2010