When I first started getting into Stephen King, Cujo was one of the ones my mom had read and recommended. In my own head I kind of see it as part of a “canon” that consists of books like Pet Sematary, Misery, The Shining, It, Carrie—basically his “well known” novels, or perhaps I should say “better known.” It helps that all of those had (I think?) reasonably successful movie adaptations.
At any rate, I first read Cujo probably sometime in my mid to late teens…I was perhaps 15 or 16. It was one of the ones that I raced through, not that I don’t race through most of my books, but Cujo was different for some reason. I remember tearing through it and then not remembering most of what I had just read; the experience was like a fever dream that only came back to me at the strangest times. All of a sudden, I would have a random thought that I knew was connected to a book in some way, but for the longest time I couldn’t figure out what book or why. But as I look back on that first reading experience after reading Cujo again, I think that’s where a lot of those weird thoughts came from.
At its heart, Cujo is a pretty basic story: a huge, lovely St. Bernard owned by the rural Maine, blue-collar Camber family contracts rabies. Middle-class Donna Trenton and her son Tad bring her stalling Pinto out to Joe Cambers’ to be repaired while Victor Trenton, husband and father, is away on business. Mother and son are trapped in stalled car for days, in the heat of the summer, while the rabid Cujo lurks in the shadows. Tragedy ensues.
But of course, since this is a Stephen King novel, nothing can ever be that simple, and there are several other background plots that weave the fabric of this story. Donna’s marital infidelity and Victor’s discovery of it occur at the very beginning of the novel, and their relationship is still reeling from the blow. Tad can sense something is wrong with his parents, but at four years old, he is far too young to understand just what. Victor has to take the business trip in the first place because his small ad agency is tanking, and he must travel to Boston and New York in order to even have a shot at retaining the Sharp account; if he doesn’t, his business will surely go under. Mrs. Camber and her son are also away from home on a trip to visit her sister in Connecticut. Tad, in addition to sensing something wrong with his parents, is also plagued by nightmares of a monster in his closet. And finally, Steve Kemp, Donna’s former lover, is basically a raging sociopath and spends most of the book raging over her dumping him. So there’s quite a bit going on.
The problem with this, though, is that for once the stories didn’t seem to mesh. It was all very well-written, but felt disorganized, which would make sense because King was very heavily into drugs and alcohol when he wrote Cujo (in fact, in On Writing, he laments that he doesn’t actually remember writing most of it because he likes Cujo quite a bit). The monster in the closet thing especially didn’t go anywhere I expected it to go—that is, it really didn’t go anywhere. There was something of a suggestion that the monster was actually Cujo, somehow, but I’m not quite sure how that was supposed to work. There were also several references the “monster” that never dies—first embodied in Frank Dodds, a police officer who had raped and killed several women in Castle Rock years before, and now embodied in Cujo, apparently. But Cujo was just a dog with rabies. He wasn’t evil. He wasn’t really a monster—and if he was, it was through no fault of his own. I think this was supposed to tie into the monster in the closet but it didn’t really work for me.
Finally, Cujo was honestly just too freaking depressing for me. Everything, from the first word to the last word, goes completely and horribly wrong. It’s one of those books that just makes me feel terrible inside, and I don’t really plan to read it again after this since I’ve done my duty and posted my review. My final judgment is that if you’re already a Stephen King fan, go ahead and read it because you probably will anyway if you haven’t already, but if you’re new to SK, you can definitely skip this one.by