Monday, 14 September 2020

Cujo

Author: Stephen King
Ebook Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Ebook Date: Mar. 2010
File size/Pages: 1716KB / 402pp
First Published: 1981

Now let's get something straight. Stephen King is a brilliant writer. I love to read King. Some of his books have had a major influence on my reading material over the last forty years. I think he is one of the most exceptional authors around today. His style is so comforting to read, which sounds strange to say when you are talking about a body of work that mainly encompasses the horror genre. But it just is. You can start a novel by King and instantly be sucked into the characters and places of his story. He is one of the rare authors around for who, when you see the latest book is over 500 pages, you don't think "jeez, this is gonna be a slog" - you think, "wow! this could be great, can't wait to get into that one."

I won't say, I'm a King efficianado, or even a King ethusiast. I don't race out to the bookshop to grab the first edition hardback for each and every novel to come along. But I do stop and pause when I see a new cover with his name on it, pick it up, read the back cover blurb, and think, "Is this one up my street?". Becuase I know if it is, then I'm gonna eventually read it cover to cover, and usuallly very quickly. Like a dog that hasn't eaten alll day, and is sitting there drool dangling off of his jowls.

So when it came to choosing books for Horror Month, I walked past my little collection of King novels languishing on the small bedroom bookcase we have, and I thought to myself, "Which one of these haven't I read yet? Cujo. I've not read Cujo, yet. I'll have that one thank you ma'am. Let's see what Mr King was all about in 1981 Shall we." Well, it turns out he was on a high. Quite literallly. And literally. Does that make sense?

When Cujo was published in September of 1981, King was coming off the back of successive hits with Carrie, Salem's Lot, The Shining, The Stand, Firestarter and The Dead Zone. He was effectivley untouchable, and had even started writing under the Richard Bachman pseudonym (see reviews of The Long Walk and The Running Man) to see if his books would sell as well without the King 'label', as they did with it. He also simply wanted to just get more of his work out there, but was hindered by his publishers wishes to keep his fans on a strict diet. 
The story of how King was iunspired to write Cujo is now quite famous. In 1977, King took a motorcycle he owned to a mechanic "in the middle of nowhere".  As he is quoted, 
"I took the bike out there, and I just barely made it. And this huge Saint Bernard came out of the barn, growling. Then this guy came out and, I mean, he was Joe Camber-he looked almost like one of those guys out of Deliverance. And I was retreating, and wishing that I was not on my motorcycle, when the guy said, 'Don't worry. He don't bite.' And so I reached out to pet him, and the dog started to go for me. And the guy walked over and said, 'Down Gonzo,' or whatever the dog's name was and gave him this huge whack on the rump, and the dog yelped and sat down. The guy said, 'Gonzo never done that before. I guess he don't like your face.' And that became the central situation of the book, mixed with those old "Movies of the Week," the made-for-television movies that they used to have on ABC. I thought to myself, what if you could have a situation that was an extension of one scene. It would be the ultimate TV movie. There would be one set, there would be one room. You'd never even have to change the camera angle. So there was one very small place, and it became Donna's Pinto--and everything just flowed from that situation--the big dog and the Pinto.*"

 *King himself bought a Ford Pinto with the proceeds of his first book, Carrie.

Cujo is set in King's fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine. The title character, is the above quoted huge lumbering Saint Bernard dog, owned by the Camber family. They live on the outskirts of town, where father Joe runs a workshop and carries out motor vehicle repairs for the locals. When not in school Joe calls upon his ten year old son, Brett to help out, and it's Joe's hope that Brett will stay on and eventually become a mechanic himself. This is not in line with the wishes of Brett's mother, Charity. She is hoping that she can persuade Brett to make good for himself and break out of the overbearing control and influence his father has over her only son.

Over in the more afluent end of town live the Trentons. Vic is a partner in an ad agency, AdWorx, that he helped to establish with his partner Roger Breakstone. Vic and housewife Donna, have a four year son named Tad. Tad has been having nightmares about The Monster in his bedroom wardrobe, and is having emotional issues brought on by regular episodes of anxiety. Donna, feeling abandoned and lonely at home with her soon to be in school son has been having an affair with restless traveller and tennis partner Steve Kemp, but she has just called a halt to the affair.

Cujo, while out chasing rabbits, comes across a cave housed by rabies-infected bats. He gets bitten and immeadiately begins to feel the effects of the deadly disease. Charity Camber meanwhile has a stroke of luck and wins a modest amount of money in the lottery. She convinces her husband to allow her and Brett to travel to see her sister. Joe deigns to allow them to take the trip and secretly plans to also spend time away from Castle Rock with neighbour Gary Pervier gambling and whoring while his family are away.

Back at AdWorx, Vic is having a major crisis with thier biggest client, and both he and Roger need to go on a business trip to try and salvage thier company from ruin. He also finds out about Donna's affiar with Kemp which leads to an uncomfortable evening. Before he goes away he reminds Donna that the family car, a Ford Pinto needs to have a problem looked at, and suggests she take it to Joe Camber to get fixed.

The scene is set for the showdown, Donna and four year old Tad, trapped in a car, in the middle of nowhere, with a rapidly degenrating rabid giant dog attacking anyone he comes across.

So, with all that preamble, just what is Cujo like? Truth be told, I was ultimately dissapointed with it. The central plot device of a rabid dog terrorising residents of Castle Rock is a sound one. But what you actually get, is a bloated short story of a woman trapped in a car. You are being sold on a rabid dog story. However Cujo's involvement in the story was very limited. Instead you will have to wade through a hell of a lot of story about the Trentons and the Cambers and thier family life. There is way too much back-story in this one. There is only so much you can take, but having to read about the history of how AdWorx was founded, or the detail of all the ad campaigns Vic and Roger conducted simply gets in the way of the real story that you want to read about - the rabid dog!

In a similar fashion, King goes to extreme lengths to cover Charity and Brett's visit to her sister. All of which is, as I've said above, very well written, but not particularly relevant. It did seem to be a bit extravagant to cover thier story, when all they have in common with the central threat - is that they own the dog? They don't even get back to their house to play any meaningful part in the final act (which would have then made  sense to build up their characters).

Another element of the novel that did not work for me, was Tad Trenton's nightmares about The Monster in the wardrobe. Because King makes it very clear that the reason for Cujo's rabies is a bat-bite, and not any sort of supernatural phenominon, having a haunted wardrobe back in thier home seemed an odd inclusion that never really went anywhere - and didn't feel like it fitted within the confines of the overall story. It just seemed like a late addition because the dog wasn't 'spooky' enough.

I should also mention that the version of Cujo I read had no chapters. Although this shouldn't have any effect at all - there are plenty of paragraphs breaks - it did feel a bit strange to read a book without them? I have read that Stephen King wrote in his book, On Writing that he "barely remembers" writing Cujo and that he was on a cocaine binge during a lot of the writing of it. This makes a lot of sense, as it does feel like a novel written by someone who doesn't appreciate how long they are talking for.

In summary, I'd say this novel still retains the skill we have come to expect from King on his prose. But it should have been much tighter. Recommended to King fans.

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