A friendly Saint Bernard is bitten by a rabid bat and soon poses a threat to the small community he lives near in Stephen King’s Cujo…
Anyone familiar with Stephen King‘s work will recognise Cujo as a classic at the height of his career. Telling the story of a Saint Bernard gone rabid, it features tropes abundant in the author’s early work, not least in its ability to turn the familiar into a nightmare. Yet it is also a novel King claims to have no recollection of writing, being it was written at a time where he was suffering from drug addiction and alcohol dependency and, for better or worse, this seeps through into the text.
One of King’s leaner work’s, Cujo tells the story of a gentle Saint Bernard who is infected with rabies. Told in parts through Cujo’s eyes, we see the mental degradation that turns him from man’s best friend to murderous killing machine. During this time, for various reasons, our protagonist Vic and his wife, Donna, are in conflict due to Dona’s infidelity. Whilst Vic is away on business, Donna makes her way to Cujo’s owners in order to get her car fixed. However, when the car dies outside the house, Donna and son Tad find themselves trapped as Cujo, having already killed his owner and their neighbour, has become deadly territorial.
There are moments in Cujo that demonstrate why King was the biggest author of his time. His ability to make the mundane riveting is uncanny, as the residents of his fictional town of Castle Rock (a place he would revisit in The Dark Half and Needful Things) go about their day to day business. What should be dull is somehow enthralling, with even the smallest of characters becoming their own individual beings despite being expendable in narrative terms. This makes the primary plot thread of Vic and Donna’s marital strife all the more compelling, especially once Donna and Tad are left in mortal danger. The friction between mother and father is left unresolved whist Vic leaves on business, creating a great need to see things end happily. Donna, despite doing a bad thing, is not a bad person and deeply regrets her actions and as a sympathetic character, the dangerous plight of being trapped by a man-eating monster adds the necessary resonance, however far fetched, to feel emotionally attached to these people.
Cujo is also truly frightening at times. King’s primary motif is to bring extraordinary horrors to your neighbourhood, be it vampires in ‘Salem’s Lot or Satan himself in Needful Things. The aspect of a rabid dog, however, is far more believable and, therefore, more chilling. Try not to feel tingles when King details Cujo grinning maniacally mere inches from the driver’s side window.
Why then, has this reviewer awarded a score of only three? Ultimately, despite being only three-hundred pages in length, it feels overwritten and drawn out. There is a feeling here of Cujo starting life as a short story only to end up a victim of King’s tenacity to deliver a book that overstays its welcome. The real meat of the story is of the family unit thrown into disarray. Why then, during palpable moments of tension, does the writer feel the need to detail that actions of minor characters who, past the initial set-up, have no further bearing on the story? Considering the ferocious nature of the book (there is a bitterness in the writing style that could be attributed to King’s addicted personality at the time), it would have benefitted from being a lean, taught chiller that economises to its bare bones. It’s odd to think this for such a short book yet Cujo would have been great had it been some fifty pages shorter.
There are moments of sheer greatness here, and scenes that will literally chill you to the marrow. Unfortunately, all semblance of tension dissipates during the down time much to the reader’s dismay.