rachelmanija: (Books: old)
( Jan. 7th, 2017 07:22 am)
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. Read more... )

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