rachelmanija: (Books: old)
rachelmanija ([personal profile] rachelmanija) wrote2017-01-07 07:22 am

Cujo, by Stephen King

I read or re-read a lot of Stephen King this year. (Of the new-to-me ones that I have not yet reviewed, so far my favorite is The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.) In some cases, the re-reads were of books I’d read once thirty years ago. Cujo was one of those. I hadn’t re-read it before partly because I’d vaguely classified it as a high-concept potboiler along the lines of Christine (“car/dog/lawnmower turns EVIL”), and partly because I remembered it as really emotionally brutal. But when I was sorting through King’s long backlist, I realized that those two recollections don’t mesh. So I re-read.

The latter is correct. Along with Pet Sematary, it might King’s most emotionally traumatizing novel. It’s surprisingly well-written and interestingly constructed, with way more going on than “rabid dog traps mom and son in car.” And I will probably not re-read it for another thirty years, so you’re getting the long analysis-for-posterity now.

King, of course, is a horror writer. But I’d like to separate out two worldviews that often get lumped together as “dark,” “grimdark,” or “horror,” but which are actually quite different.

One is “everything sucks.” Terrible things happen because most people are terrible, there is no God (or God is evil), and good people are either idiots for trying to do right or subconsciously not good at all, but merely deluded or self-righteous.

The other is “life isn’t fair.” Terrible things happen for a lot of reasons (bad people also have free will and may exercise it on you, nature can kill you, etc), God may or may not exist but either way is unlikely to personally reach down and save you, and while most people are not terrible (in this worldview, usually most people are neither angels nor monsters), neither altruism nor innocence is a shield of protection.

In general, King’s worldview is “life isn’t fair.” One of his main themes is “Why do bad things happen to good people?” This is one of those huge life questions that doesn’t have any easy answers, and if you read a lot of his books you see him tackling it in different ways and providing different possible answers.

In The Stand, an interventionist God exists, but can only save the world from the Devil at the cost both of a huge death toll of innocents and the willing sacrifice of good people; this brings up questions like is “Is it worth it?” and “Is that God worthy of worship?” In The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, God probably exists but is not interventionist in large or obvious ways, though he/it may be in small and subtle ones; bad things happen because tiny errors can snowball and nature is an inhuman force that’s much more powerful than any given human, though that doesn’t mean the human doesn’t have a chance. Cujo reads like there is no God and no Devil, just people: some good, a few bad, most flawed but trying, in a universe that doesn’t even know they exist.

A lot of King’s books say, “Bad things happen because life is like that. Maybe you made a mistake or a bad choice, but we all do because we’re all human. You got caught and chewed up in the cogs of fate or chance, not because you did anything to deserve it, but because we live inside a big scary machine and sometimes it eats people. What happened to you could happen to any of us. And if along the way you were brave or good, even if it didn’t save you or anyone, even if no one but you will ever know, at least you tried. And that matters.”

There can be a bleak but real comfort in that worldview, and if you feel it, King is a good writer to read when you’re going through hard times. (Apart from the more obvious comfort of “My life sucks but at least I’m not imprisoned by a killer fan who addicted me to painkillers, cut off my foot, and is forcing me to write on a typewriter missing the letters r, n, and e.”)

Sometimes what you really need to hear isn’t “Everything will be okay.” Sometimes you need, “Maybe everything won’t be okay. But it’s not because you did something wrong. It has nothing to do with you at all. It’s just the way life is.”

(You may be thinking, “How the hell is that comforting?” Two reasons. One is that if things are going sufficiently badly, hearing nothing but “No they’re not! Stuff like that can’t happen!” is unhelpful at best, crazymaking at worst, and definitely makes you feel like people aren’t listening. The other is that the alternative possibility is that everything is your fault and if you can’t fix it, it’s because you personally are a failure and also suck.)

Cujo is the purest expression of the “Bad stuff happens because life is like that” view that I’ve read from King so far. A lot of its literary interest is how that theme is reflected in both content and structure. And in case you missed it, toward the end King states the theme explicitly:

It would perhaps not be amiss to point out that he had always tried to be a good dog. He had tried to do all the things his MAN and his WOMAN, and most of all his BOY, had asked or expected of him. He would have died for them, if that had been required. He had never wanted to kill anybody. He had been struck by something, possibly destiny, or fate, or only a degenerative nerve disease called rabies. Free will was not a factor.

Huge book spoilers from here out.

Short summary of Cujo that you probably know if you haven’t actually read the book: A St. Bernard named Cujo gets rabies, then traps a mom and son in their car.

This is correct, but incomplete. The book is written as three (or four or more, depending on how you’re counting) interwoven stories without chapter breaks. They flow in and out of each other, which has the obvious effect of making the book hard to put down but also gives it a deceptively unified feel. The three main plotlines don’t intersect much until near the end, and one of them has almost no direct connection to the other two beyond that it involves the family that owns Cujo. It’s an unusual structure that really hammers in the theme, which is chance. (Or fate.)

For a horror thriller about two people trapped in a car by a rabid dog, it’s got a surprisingly large amount of other stuff going on, and pulls off the unusual trick of not feeling padded or irrelevant despite a structure based on theme rather than plot and a plot based on the idea that everything is relevant. Some of the best parts are Cujo’s POV, which is heartbreaking and beautifully done, steering just to the right side of over-sentimentality. King obviously loves dogs and Cujo feels very believably doggy.

Plotline # 1. Donna, Tad, and Cujo. Donna is a discontented mom who had an affair with an asshole named Steve Kemp; when the story begins, she’s already broken it off and thinks her husband, Vic, doesn’t know. Tad is their young, over-sensitive son. When Vic has to leave town due to a work crisis, Donna takes Tad with her to get their car fixed. They end up trapped inside the car by Cujo, the rabid St. Bernard owned by Joe Cambers, the mechanic.

Plotline # 2: Vic and the ad campaign. Vic is an ad executive who came up with a genius ad campaign using an actor with a sort of Mr. Rogers persona to persuade kids’ parents that his company’s cereal is healthy. In a recent screw-up, a new cereal dye turned body fluids bright red, leading to parents rushing their kids to the ER thinking they’re bleeding to death. It’s harmless physically and but catastrophic in terms of PR, so Vic and his partner rush out of town, in theory to fix it but knowing that it’s unfixable. Mostly they’re hoping to not get fired. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Vic has just found out about Donna’s affair via a note from Kemp, who is a real asshole.

Plotline # 3: Joe Cambers’s family. Cambers is an abusive asshole mechanic who owns an isolated garage and a sweet St. Bernard named Cujo. His wife, Charity, has gotten scared that her son, Brett, is going to grow up to be like Dad, so she plots and executes what she hopes will be their escape, taking him to her sister’s place out of state for a vacation she hopes to make permanent. It turns out to not be that simple, because the sister isn’t that great either – not abusive, but still not a good place for her son. Now what?

Other plotlines: The main one is the story of how Cujo got rabies in the first place, and follows Cujo from his POV. He chases a rabbit, sticks his head down a hole, and gets bitten by a rabid bat. Because Brett is gone and Joe is irresponsible, no one realizes until it’s too late.

There’s also storylines following Kemp, Joe Cambers, and a cop looking for Donna. Mostly they explain how the entire tragedy was constructed from individual decisions that made sense in context, but led to horrific, unpredictable, spiraling consequences. In the one part of the book where the Horror Of Cujo takes on a distinctly gleeful tone, Cambers gets gorily eaten. (It’s okay, he deserves it. However, it’s notable that this is almost the only time anything happens to anyone because they deserve it.) In a cleverly plotted cringe-at-the-trainwreck storyline, Steve Kemp vandalizes Donna’s house in revenge for her dumping him. This has the unintended consequence of making the cops think he kidnapped her and Tad, so they go on a wild goose chase after him and no one follows up on Donna’s mechanic visit until it’s too late.

What all of this does is point up the role of chance/fate in life. Cujo, who isn’t vaccinated because Cambers is that kind of guy, finds the ONE rabbit that goes into the ONE hole with the rabid bat. An intricate chain of events involving a huge number of unconnected chance factors gets Donna and Tad trapped in the car, then ensures that no one finds them before it’s too late for Tad. If even one of those incidents hadn’t happened, no one would have died, or only Cujo would have, or maybe Cujo and one other person, but certainly Tad wouldn’t have. (There’s a hint of supernatural forces (something in Tad’s closet), but if they even exist, they’re clearly an omen rather than a direct cause of anything.)

Within each story, there’s additional emphasis on chance, unpredictable consequences, and things that happen by accident or don’t depend on the actions of the people who are trying to affect them. The ad campaign and red dye story, which is at once hilarious and tragic and weirdly suspenseful, both occurs and resolves due to factors mostly unaffected by the actions of the characters we follow within it. Donna, who starts off as a very ordinary person whose one bad action (the affair) is done out of weakness, ends up resourceful and ultimately even heroic, but to no avail. Her affair affects the plot, but it’s not why she gets trapped and Tad’s death is not her punishment. Charity and Brett, both doing their best in circumstances where the seemingly right decision has an unexpected price, find an equally unexpected deliverance that has only the most circuitous relationship to the trip that was supposed to save them.

So, why did any of this happen? The closest thing to a root cause is Joe Cambers not vaccinating Cujo. But really, it happened because rabies exists.

Why does rabies exist?

Why do children die?

Why can’t life be more fair?

The entire structure of the book says: because the universe is a thing without consciousness, not an entity with feelings. Because chance. Because fate, if you believe in that. (But then, why that fate?)

The story wraps up with a sense of “This happened; what more can I say?” And it ends as it should, with an elegy to Cujo, who in a just world would never have been an instrument of terror and who, no matter how terrifying he became, was always also pitiable. No one’s fault: just a disease.

Just.
alatefeline: Painting of a cat asleep on a book. (Default)

[personal profile] alatefeline 2017-01-07 06:19 pm (UTC)(link)
Brrrr. I'm glad I read your review of Cujo. It sounds like both a very good book and one I would prefer not to read, ever.
alatefeline: Painting of a cat asleep on a book. (Default)

[personal profile] alatefeline 2017-01-07 08:34 pm (UTC)(link)
I found The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon as a teen, and adored it as a story of survival (I also liked Hatchet, My Side of the Mountain, Julie of the Wolves, and everything by Avi). Later I noticed some darker subtleties than I had appreciated at the time that made it more like real horror. I still like it and am probably overdue for a reread.
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[personal profile] alatefeline 2017-01-08 02:21 am (UTC)(link)
*nods*
kore: (Default)

[personal profile] kore 2017-01-09 06:05 pm (UTC)(link)
'Tom Gordon' was one of the first books that got me back into reading King after I was really put off by some of his terrible books in the nineties, which I don't think was a good decade for him (Gerald's Game, Rose Madder, Insomnia, &c &c).
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[personal profile] movingfinger 2017-01-07 07:32 pm (UTC)(link)
As a side comment on the rabies issue, apparently there are a lot of people who still don't get their dogs vaccinated. My suburban mother's kind neighbor the fire chief was one. His dog, kept in a fenced area in their yard or indoors, occasionally allowed an off-leash romp across the joined backyards of their house and a couple others, tested positive for rabies. He didn't go slavering mad, but they had to have him euthanized.
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[personal profile] movingfinger 2017-01-07 08:06 pm (UTC)(link)
The dog was a bigger-than-average retriever type. My mother was appalled---we had always, and still do, get all dogs and cats rabies-vaccinated---and she and I had no idea what the reasoning was there.
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[personal profile] commoncomitatus 2017-01-07 07:39 pm (UTC)(link)
This is such a compelling review. I went through a King phase about a year ago, and Cujo was so far down my shortlist that I never got around to it. Reading your thoughts, I'm almost tempted to put my current reading aside and get stuck into this one instead.
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[personal profile] commoncomitatus 2017-01-07 07:54 pm (UTC)(link)
Well, first and foremost I must've read On Writing about a zillion times, and it never stops being inspiring.

As to his fiction, I remember Carrie really surprised me by how tight and well-paced it was; I think, knowing it was his first, I was expecting something more awkward, but I had to read through a good few more before I found one I enjoyed quite as much. And The Stand, naturally, is one for the 'must read at least once in your life' list.

That said, I couldn't stand The Gunslinger. I had great big plans to work through the Dark Tower series, being a big fan of the poem it's based on, but I barely even finished the first one. Can't even explain why, it just felt like a chore every time I picked it up.
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[personal profile] commoncomitatus 2017-01-07 09:26 pm (UTC)(link)
Wow, that's actually really comforting -- I'd heard so many good things about the series, I thought I was reading it wrong! I'll definitely give the second one a shot, then, if it takes a different tone. Thanks for the tip!
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[personal profile] cereta 2017-01-08 01:02 am (UTC)(link)
I always tell people to race through the first book, and even if you didn't like it, start the second. Almost everyone I know has gotten hooked by the second. The first suffers from too much influence of the modernist poetry King was studying in college, and it's just not a good fit with his storytelling.
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[personal profile] edenfalling 2017-01-08 02:38 am (UTC)(link)
I started the Dark Tower series with The Drawing of the Three (because my library didn't have a copy of The Gunslinger), and went back to read The Gunslinger (via interlibrary loan) afterwards. I am not at all sure I would have gone on to book 2 if I'd started with book 1, and I love that series to pieces (though yeah, the final two volumes get a little iffy). So there's another data point, for whatever it's worth. :)
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[personal profile] shati 2017-01-07 07:49 pm (UTC)(link)
I'm not likely to read the book, but the condensed version via review was compelling! (I was going to say I enjoyed it, but I think appreciated is a better word...) And now I'm thinking over other King books in this light.
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[personal profile] shati 2017-01-07 08:30 pm (UTC)(link)
I haven't read enough (or at least not enough I remember clearly) by him to have favorites, but I remember liking the more fantastic/surreal horror ("1408", a lot of the Dark Tower books, parts of Rose Madder come to mind) over the body horror, just because the surreal stuff scares me less. ("This wasn't as effective, I enjoyed it!" But the Dark Tower books had a lot going on besides scaring me, and Rose Madder overall was as scary as it should be, but at least ended less scary?) In related news, I like escapism! and don't usually seek out horror -- I've mostly read King on recs from friends/while shelving his books on slow days at the library where I used to volunteer.

I do have a least favorite, but "why do alien ass weasels happen to any people" is still...a question.
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[personal profile] sholio 2017-01-07 08:48 pm (UTC)(link)
I do have a least favorite, but "why do alien ass weasels happen to any people" is still...a question.

HAHAHA. This would be the reason why I've never read that particular book a second time. I really enjoyed it once the plot kicked into high gear, but the NOPE factor was off the charts for those early chapters.

(It also has one of my favorite King instances of characters screwing themselves over with genre-savviness, in responding to the major plot development like any reasonable person would, i.e. calling in the authorities, and making everything SO MUCH WORSE.)
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[personal profile] iknowcommawrite 2017-01-07 08:00 pm (UTC)(link)
(continued spoilers)

Another thing keeping this in the "life isn't fair" category rather than the "everything sucks" category for me is that Vic and Donna's marriage holds true: it would be realistic enough, admittedly, for it to collapse, to not be able to survive the affair, let alone the death of their son, but their ability to hold onto each other and help each other has a kind of beauty to it. They not only survive their circumstances but continue to love each other throughout them. It's hopeful.

I often find King's novels sad, in some ways, but I hardly ever find them depressing, and I think the "life isn't fair" vs. "everything sucks" distinction is a big part of why.
alatefeline: Painting of a cat asleep on a book. (Default)

[personal profile] alatefeline 2017-01-07 08:42 pm (UTC)(link)
It's an excellent distinction.

Interestingly, my *reading experience* of King books leans closer to the 'everything sucks' side because of the sheer prevalence of depressing stuff even when the writing thematically leans towards 'life isn't fair'; it's one reason why I love, but rarely reread, certain of his novels.

Also, I enjoy the 'life isn't fair'/'bad stuff happens' theme handled elsewise, with more emphasis on 'so fuck it, let's try anyway.' (I also tend to use a slightly different concept with the title 'life isn't fair...', thus my renaming of it.) That can be done in fiction or nonfiction, but the immersive quality (or lack thereof) of the narration makes or breaks it for me. Horror and its cousins are very hit or miss for me, though I enjoy many things that are often misclassified as horror. Frex, 'the monster wins' stories wherein 'monster' is a sympathetic character (for me) by means of either higher morals, sadly familiar experience, or sheer charm. (If the monster kills everything, and then dies, it usually isn't winning.)
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[personal profile] rydra_wong 2017-01-07 08:22 pm (UTC)(link)
A lot of King’s books say, “Bad things happen because life is like that. Maybe you made a mistake or a bad choice, but we all do because we’re all human. You got caught and chewed up in the cogs of fate or chance, not because you did anything to deserve it, but because we live inside a big scary machine and sometimes it eats people. What happened to you could happen to any of us. And if along the way you were brave or good, even if it didn’t save you or anyone, even if no one but you will ever know, at least you tried. And that matters.”

This is causing me to have emotions and I object. *g*

(Thank you for writing a great review of a book I will probably not want to read.)
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

[personal profile] sholio 2017-01-07 08:44 pm (UTC)(link)
Agreed about King's overall theme being "life isn't fair" rather than "life sucks" -- which I think is actually what makes so many of his books an emotional kick in the teeth, because most of his characters are good, likable people, who mostly do decent things and at worst tend to have ordinary human failings (aside from the characters who are awful and evil, obviously) ... AND THEY DIE ANYWAY. Or have basically horrible things happen to them. It wouldn't be nearly as difficult to get through some of his books if all of this were happening to people who weren't trying their best to be good people anyway.

I read Cujo during my big King phase in college, and I think it was one of the early ones I read. I had read ones like Salem's Lot first (i.e. a few of his more conventional horror novels), and I remember being surprised by the lack of any supernatural elements and finding the ordinary-world horror of the family trapped in the car EVEN MORE HORRIFYING than people being menaced by vampires or whatnot. It was definitely not what I was expecting. It was a good book; I think that was the book that made me start thinking King is highly underrated as a serious writer (and I still think that). But all these years later, I have no desire to ever read it again.
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[personal profile] cyphomandra 2017-01-08 01:35 am (UTC)(link)
Cujo and Pet Sematary are on my short-list of books I cannot deal with re-reading until the kids are quite a bit older, and maybe not even then (it's not King-exclusive - Dorothy Dunnett's Pawn in Frankincense is on as well, which is a pain as it's book 5 of a 6 book series that I would quite like to re-read).

Are you reading his short stories? You mention preferring his novels as being less horrific, which is definitely true, but he does have some less horrifying ones which I love (e.g. The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet)
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[personal profile] vass 2017-01-08 05:18 am (UTC)(link)
Thank you for this review. You've satisfied my curiosity while confirming that I definitely don't want the book itself in my head.

It sounds like a really good book, though. Compelling and right and with a whole lot of moral force and humanity behind the horror. Which is exactly why it'd fuck me up if I read it.

Theodicy is a hell of a drug.
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[personal profile] orcofnewyork 2017-01-09 01:33 pm (UTC)(link)
I will probably never read this book, but I really enjoyed your review of it. I appreciate how you highlighted the difference between the "everything sucks" and "life isn't fair" philosophies, because it is such a distinction in horror that gets overlooked by a lot of reviewers.
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[personal profile] kore 2017-01-09 05:56 pm (UTC)(link)
Yeah, all this, plus for me Cujo is the big illustration of one of King's most horrific themes -- that parents can't really protect their children, not really from everything. Even moreso than Pete Semetary. I read it once when I was reading a lot of King as a teenager and never again.