Book #12. Cujo.
First published September 8, 1981
Re-reading Cujo some thirty years after I first read the book was an interesting experience. I never owned a copy of the book back in my teenage years, and only acquired a hardcover of the book a few years ago; but I had never opened the cover to re-read it. It wasn’t because I didn’t like to story as such. It’s probably just that as I had only ever read it once it hadn’t become one of Stephen King’s books that had grown so greatly in my mind that I wanted to re-read it over and over again as I have with so many of his novels. Thirty years is a long time, and one’s perspective does change over that period of time, if my thoughts on Cujo are to be taken as an example.
Apart from the three novels he had put out under his Richard Bachman pseudonym, this was the first novel Stephen had released that did not have a supernatural theme about it. Instead, the horror of the story was a dog that had been infected by rabies, and as such was terrorising his immediate community. No telekinesis, no vampires, no evil spirits, no end of the world battle between good and evil. It is a story built around normal lives with normal people battling normal-type problems in their own lives, and being placed in a situation that was completely realistic without those outside factors that populated all of King’s previously published work.
So here’s the thing. When I first read this book I was a teenager, with little idea of the world and how it worked except from my own perspective. And I liked the book. I didn’t love it (which would explain why I never got a copy of my own and then read it to death like so many others) but I liked it and enjoyed the journey that the story took me on. It had no real hold on me, nor any great emotional factor.
However, flash forward those thirty-odd years, and now I’ve got emotional baggage that made this a much more taxing journey than I remember the first one. Now I’m married with three kids, and the emotional ties of that played hard on reading this again. Vic and Donna Trenton are having major dramas, with Donna having been in an affair with the officious Steve Kemp, who then informs Vic as such when Donna breaks it off. That pulls at strings and memories that aren’t so pleasant. Joe Camber is obviously a bully and a violent man towards his wife and child. That isn’t so pleasant when you have both of your own. Put that on top of the main plotline of the story, with Donna and son Tad trapped in their car by the rabid Cujo, and with Tad obviously flagging to the point of death. That now becomes dramatically more disturbing to an adult with wife and children than it did to a teenager with no such emotional ties whatsoever, one who just read the story and enjoyed it for the thrilling plot rather than any feelings of dread it raises in the adult. What it made me realise, perhaps for the first time as I go along with this plan to re-read all of King’s books, is that there are books coming up down the track which will be dramatically affected in regards to my feelings about them, simply because instead of being an unattached teenager I am now a married man with offspring of his own. It was an interesting revelation.
There are no winners in this story, which is not particularly unusual. Or perhaps there are but only in a certain perspective. Poor old Sheriff George Bannerman, who made his first appearance in The Dead Zone when he asked for help from Johnny Smith in solving the killings perpetrated by Frank Dodd, unfortunately gets the raw end of the prawn again, this time falling to his fate by being killed by Cujo when he turns up looking for Donna and Tad. It’s a sad way to go for someone we had started to get to know well. Tad’s demise actually comes as a shock, as you mostly expect that somehow he and Donna will get through this, probably not unscathed but surely both alive. You take the deaths of Gary Pervier and Joe Camber in your stride. Unlikeable characters are grist for the mill In that way. And Joe’s demise obviously opens up a better life for his wife Charity and son Brett going forward. No matter how the book ends, one wonders how long Vic and Donna’s relationship can stretch after this.
As you may have guessed, this was a tougher journey for me this time than it was in my youth. I can’t say that it disturbed me or gave me dark thoughts or nightmares or any of that sort of thing. But it most definitely was a harder slog to get through taking into account all of the ‘adult’ themes that are in the story that I hadn’t ever thought about before in regards to this book. “Dog gets rabies, kills some people, a kid dies because of it but not actually by the dog”. A teenagers summary. It wasn’t so cut and dried this time. Did it detract from the story? No. Did it make it less enjoyable? Yes, actually it did. Perhaps when I read it again, and my kids are all grown up, I will have got past that stage, and I will find a different level of enjoyment again. That’s the great thing about books. They can surprise you depending on what you are feeling at the time.
Rating: What a cute dog... WAIT! NO!!