by Jay Wilburn
The plan is to reread all of Stephen King’s works in the order that they were published. Richard Chizmar of Cemetery Dance had the vision. I’m doing it because I am a writer and I want to improve my fiction. I think there is something to be learned through this challenge. As Richard Chizmar and Bev Vincent put up their posts on the official site, I will link those in the corresponding ones of mine on this blog, typically with the “After” posts.
The next animal we encounter is Cujo.
I’m very excited to reread this. I’m not sure I can actually recall when I first read this. I got no reference in my head for when it was. That always bothers me when a memory is dislodged from its reference in time. Most books I read, I have a vague idea of when at least. A lot of reading is done in isolation though, so if there are no key interruptions to anchor it in a moment in time, the memory of the book itself can be a self-contained thing.
I seem to recall starting and stopping more than once, but I can’t figure out the spans between. I got less than halfway and there was a long gap before I resumed. I stopped again just shy of the end and then not long after that found the bookmarked copy and realized I hadn’t finished it.
All this was before I ever saw the movie, but many years after the movie came out. That’s the best I can do on memory.
This book captures my imagination as I prepare to read it again, because I read in some commentary King gave of his drinking and drug problems that this was the one book he had no memory of writing. That kind of makes me sad. It is like the whole experience was stolen from him. I got the same kind of feeling when I learned that Ronald Reagan no longer remembered being President. These are major accomplishments and regardless of the person or the reasons for the loss, there is something sinister about the idea of an achievement being erased from our experience while we are still alive. I suppose it is a horror of its own.
King derived from this reality of the condition he was in and the blackhole in his memory of that particular creative process that Cujo is an inferior work to what it could have been or what it should have been. That’s tough to judge. There is a myth that the drug induced states of artists are part of what made their work what it was. That has to be true at the time it was created, but it does not have to be true for positive reasons nor does it mean the resulting work is the best version of itself as a result. Artists who sober up and continue to create often frame the experience in saying that the earlier work was good despite the intoxication and not because of it. Struggle and experiences of pain do give artists something to draw from in the creative process. Artists who have experienced both sides of those conditions generally recommend the creative process with a clear head and good health. It is probably hard to build upon the foundation of your previous work, if you don’t even remember it. Still, all that said, King does not generally look on Cujo as his worst book. He does attribute some of his lesser works and their quality to the effects of his addictions.
Cujo is so ingrained in our culture that at one point, this dog character’s name could be used as a pop culture reference. It could be used to describe any dog or animal that was going crazy and people knew exactly what it meant. People who never read the book and never saw the movie got it. It is probably still one that many people would get, although I suspect some fewer of the younger generations would identify it right off.
Harkening back to Danse Macabre’s definitions on horror, Cujo probably connects to King’s definition of the werewolf. It is the family dog transformed into the monster. It is predestined horror in the sense that it comes from forces on the outside and the coincidences and timing which isolate the characters with the monster are outside their control as well. Like Dracula, the horror in Cujo is made to be very familiar and close though. It is horror rather than terror because they and we the readers are shown the horrifying thing. It touches on the visceral and the gross-out too with the decay and destruction of the monster and its victims.
It’s such a simple concept and a very confining and claustrophobic horror. It is a ticking clock of dying slowly where time is not on the heroes’ side. Each point in the story, the characters are less able to face the horror than they were before. Somehow, the characters have to get stronger in their weakness, their struggle, and their desperation. The ending then becomes something more powerful because of the journey which never really took us anywhere, but stranded us with the characters in the midst of the horror.
It’s time to find safe, tight space and do battle with Cujo. The next post will be After Cujo.
— Jay Wilburn, writer and constant reader