I still feel bitterly guilty that I haven’t read every single book that Stephen King has written, so yes, I’m calling it a sin that I just barely got around to reading Cujo.
I was rather hesitant to pick up Cujo, which is completely out of the norm for me when it comes to devouring Stephen King books. I read Stephen King more easily than I breathe sometimes.
But Cujo is about a dog, and I love dogs.
I was more than a little reluctant to plunk myself down and read hundreds of pages about a killer dog that terrifies a small town, which is what I thought the book was going to be about. I mean, who else thought that? “Cujo” is a name synonymous with “giant killer dog” the same way “Pennywise” is synonymous with “giant killer clown.”
Imagine my utter surprise upon finishing Cujo and realizing that the book is less about a monstrous canine creature and more about the terrifying nature of pure happenstance.
That’s right, folks. Cujo is less about the dog and more about how downright terrifying the notion is that a series of events happening in a precise manner can lead to the worst day of your life.
I haven’t felt this lied to since I finished Moby-Dick.
The big difference this time is that I’m not upset over how many whale facts that I had to suffer through.
Low-key horrified after reading the last page, but delighted with the experience overall.
If you have any intention of reading Cujo, DO NOT CONTINUE READING AFTER THIS POINT. I’m about to just deep-dive into spoiler territory. It’s the only way I can gush. But just know that I was impressed with the novel, and I would recommend it not as some kind of monster book, but more as a slice-of-life horror novel.
Cujo starts with two families: the Trentons and the Cambers.
Donna and Vic Trenton have a very young son named Tad. He’s an imaginative little tyke who is terrified of a potential monster in his closet, but a good kid nonetheless. Donna and Vic are going through a rough patch. Donna cheated on Vic with this guy named Steve Kemp. She called things off with Steve, but in a fit or revenge, Steve sent a letter to Vic (a very not-pleasant letter) making him aware of his trysts with Donna. Vic is made miserable by this information, but has to depart to New York for a meeting that could potentially save his business. Donna is left alone at home with Tad and a car that needs to be taken to a mechanic’s.
Joe Camber is a great mechanic, but a bit of a rough husband to his wife, Charity. They and their son, Brett, live in the boonies, out at the end of a country road. Charity does not want her son to end up a deadbeat mechanic at the end of a country road, so after winning the lottery (literally), she negotiates a trip to her sister’s with Joe as a way to introduce Brett to a better side of life. She buys Joe a fancy piece of equipment in exchange for allowing this, leaving Joe behind to take care of the family dog, Cujo.
What then follows is a sequence of events that leads to tragedy.
- Cujo chases a rabbit into a cave that has some bats and gets nipped on the nose after startling them with his bark. This gives him rabies.
- Donna’s car breaks down on a grocery shopping trip, so she decides to take it in to a mechanic that Vic recommended the next day, i.e. Joe Camber.
- Charity and Brett leave to visit her sister, with Brett noticing that Cujo is behaving oddly the morning that they depart.
- Joe decides to take advantage of Charity and Brett’s absence and plans to go to Atlantic City with his neighbor.
- His neighbor, in a drunken state, is attacked by a fully rabid Cujo. He is killed.
- When Joe goes to pick up his neighbor, he too is also killed at the neighbor’s house.
- Tad does not want to be left alone at the house with a sitter while Donna takes the car to Joe Camber’s. He begs to go with her and she relents.
- Just as they arrive at Camber’s garage out in the middle of nowhere, the car finally breaks down for good.
- Cujo attacks them, but they are able to safely retreat into the vehicle. However, they are stuck there, with no one living close by for miles. (The closest neighbor is dead.)
- Steve Kemp, Donna’s former lover, is so incredibly steamed she broke things off, he decides to confront her at her house. Seeing no one is home, he goes around breaking things and ejaculating on the bed in the strangest fit of rage I’ve ever read.
- Donna and Tad are stuck in the car for an entire day at this point because no one knows they went there and Vic, her husband, does not think it too odd that they have not called yet. He is also consumed with thoughts about saving his business.
- Donna hopes to wait for the mailman to come along and then honk for help, but it turns out that Joe called ahead of time to hold his mail for his pending trip to Atlantic City. She and Tad spend another day in the car. (Cujo is being preternaturally watchful of their vehicle and has attacked several times.) It is summer. It is hot. They have no food or water to last them.
- Vic, finally nervous that his wife hasn’t called him or answered his calls, calls the police to check on their place. The cops think he is just being overly worried, but they change their tune when they get to his place and find it trashed. Vic heads home.
- After examining the wreckage and the ejaculate, Vic knows for a fact that it was Steve Kemp who did this, and everyone assumes that Steve abducted Donna and Tad. The one thing that is odd is that her car is missing, but given the abundance of evidence that Steve was in the house, he is the prime suspect.
- Donna tries to make a run for the house to get to the Cambers’ phone, but she is tired, dehydrated, and hungry. Cujo attacks her and is able to wound her leg and stomach before she is able to escape back into the car. Tad starts having seizures. He is having severe heatstroke.
- The police find Kemp, and he admits to breaking in but swears he had nothing to do with kidnapping Donna or Tad. The police learn from Vic when he arrives that Camber’s garage is a place she might have gone to get the car fixed. A cop is sent there.
- The cop arrives and sees Donna’s car. Instead of calling this in immediately, he gets out of his car first. He sees them inside, but is attacked and killed by Cujo before he can relay this information to others.
- The next day, Vic has an epiphany after seeing that his son’s “monster words” (a paper used to protect him from the monster in the closet) are missing from his room. He connects this with the fact that Joe Camber has a really big dog at his place, and hey, maybe that’s where they are after all.
- Donna makes one last-ditch effort to escape to the house after Tad has another seizure. She actually succeeds in killing Cujo just as Vic pulls up.
- Vic runs over to help, but by the time he has gotten there, Tad has passed away from heatstroke. Everyone was just too late.
And…well…there you have it. That’s the basic plot to Cujo.
This is Stephen King at his finest, if you ask me. He does excel with B-movie horror and Cthulhu mythos type stuff, but I really feel like he has total mastery over the many wiles of human evil and random chance.
More than Cujo’s brutality, you fear Steve Kemp’s outbursts or Joe Camber’s grim abuse. And you also fear the just insane amount of randomness that led to Tad Trenton’s death.
As I turned every page, my jaw dropped not from shocking scenes but from the sheer suckiness of how one person’s decisions could lead to someone being stuck in a car in the middle of the country in the middle of summer with a rabid St. Bernard patrolling outside.
So many little choices led to Donna and Tad not being found in time.
And that was goddamn terrifying.
More than the poor pooch who got rabies.
I rate Cujo a chilling-book-that-is-less-about-canine-terror-and-more-about-how-random-events-can-just-fuck-you-up.
4 thoughts on “Literary Sins: Cujo Is Not About a Killer Dog”
This is a great review. This is one I have read/skimmed, and the movie isn’t utterly horrible. You’re right too, with the interpretation. The dog isn’t the problem – life, or the really bad day, is the problem. 😬
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Sorry, I’m late to this post! I really wanted to comment because Cujo is one of my favourite King novels — mostly because I became really emotionally invested in both families. I think these are some of King’s most fully realised characters. Interestingly, King has said he has no recollection of writing Cujo as it was written at the zenith of his addiction.
I agree that the legacy of this story is strange! The way it’s remembered (or maybe the way it was marketed), you’d think this was about some demonic dog on a murderous rampage. It’s really an intimate domestic story, and an awful tragedy.
I haven’t read it for maaaany years, but I do have a faint recollection of some crappy supernatural subtext. King references a famous serial killer who lived or was maybe executed in the town in which the novel is set (I believe the killer is a character from another King novel; he loves his shared universes!). I think there’s some lame and subtle insinuation that Cujo is like a reincarnation of this killer, or like the evil ju-ju surrounding this killer has temporarily taken hold in Cujo. That’s why he’s so doggedly (lol) persistent.
Personally, I think this explanation is a lame copout that undermines the story. But it’s easily ignored. Really, it’s just another potential layer or interpretation. (I hope I’m hoping this right and not just talking nonsense!)
Anyway, phenomenal review! I’m really glad you enjoyed Cujo. Just reading your thoughts makes me want to read it again. I’m currently reading Rosemary’s Baby, which I would enthusiastically recommend.
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HOLY MOLY THERE’S A ROSEMARY’S BABY BOOK????
The movie is one of the trippiest, creepiest things I’ve ever seen. I saw it in summer, middle of the day, after spending the morning in my tia’s pool.