Literary Sins: Cujo Is Not About a Killer Dog

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.

I’m delighted.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Charity and Brett leave to visit her sister, with Brett noticing that Cujo is behaving oddly the morning that they depart.
  4. Joe decides to take advantage of Charity and Brett’s absence and plans to go to Atlantic City with his neighbor.
  5. His neighbor, in a drunken state, is attacked by a fully rabid Cujo. He is killed.
  6. When Joe goes to pick up his neighbor, he too is also killed at the neighbor’s house.
  7. 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.
  8. Just as they arrive at Camber’s garage out in the middle of nowhere, the car finally breaks down for good.
  9. 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.)
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. 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.
  19. 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.
  20. 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.

Dracula: A Mire of Misogyny

I decided to reread a horror classic for the blog (and myself), giving it a more thorough analysis than I ever did in college (and I was an English major).

Most of you are probably aware of the existence of Dracula. How could you not be? Written in 1897, Bram Stoker’s Gothic tale of horror about a vampire made shockwaves through the genre, creating a solid foundation of tropes we use to this day.

However, what I thought I’d focus on is how Dracula tied horror elements to a woman’s sexual agency.

‘Cause holy shit, if you didn’t know, you’re about to.

When you think about it, a lot of horror movies do this even now. In movies where a group of young teenagers are slowly killed off one by one, the females who are more sexually active are typically the first to go, while the “virgin” character is either left for last or is the only one to survive. Movies like The Cabin in the Woods do a delightful job of pointing out this trope to us.

In Dracula, there are two prominent female characters: Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker.

Let’s start with Lucy.

Lucy is Mina’s best friend, and she seems like an all-around kind person. It’s clear she adores Mina, she’s very generous, and she is very beautiful, enough to attract three suitors. Unfortunately for her, she’s also what I like to call the “starter victim.”

In horror movies, you often see a person undergo a horrible fate for the sole purpose of knowing what lies in store for your protagonists. Lucy Westenra is this person for Mina. Lucy is Dracula’s first victim in the novel, and everything we see happen to her spells out how Dracula’s later attack on Mina will play out.

However, there is a stark difference between Lucy and Mina that makes it more “acceptable” for the evil fate to fall on Lucy while Mina ultimately gets saved.

And that would be the fact that three guys like Lucy.

Three men propose to Lucy, and she likes all of them well enough, though she ends up agreeing to marry one. However, she does make the statement, “Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble?”

And because Dracula was written during the Victorian Era, this daring idea is what seals Lucy’s fate to be the doomed starter victim.

But the misogyny doesn’t stop there, oh no. My mouth fell open in resentment and shock more than once.

Once Lucy comes under the sway of Dracula, well on her way to becoming a vampire herself, she is described as being more sensuous. Her looks and demeanor changes. Her voice becomes soft and inviting, and the men who loved her for her “purity” draw back in fear from her “voluptuous wantonness.”

So basically, Stoker ties sexual confidence to the evil growing inside of Lucy.

Now let’s look at Mina, the leading lady who is sure to survive.

Mina is absolutely loyal to her husband, doing work for him, learning new skills to ease his career, and caring for him when he’s ill. When Dracula attacks her, she’s a more unwilling victim than Lucy. Where Lucy sleepwalked out of her house to a cemetery at Dracula’s call, he has to break in to the house where Mina is staying at with the help of an asylum patient to get to her.

And even aside from the fact that Stoker paints Mina as an “angel in the house” (another popular Victorian-era trope), the other characters are also incredible dicks to her, albeit in a roundabout, kindly-meant way.

Get a load of this.

Any time Mina does something smart, whether it be to learn shorthand, combine all their records so they can create a timeline of Dracula’s activities, or use river maps to figure out how Dracula intends to return home, the men compliment her by telling her she has the mind of a man.

“She has man’s brain – a brain that a man should have were he much gifted – and a woman’s heart.”

“…her great brain which is trained like man’s brain, but is of sweet woman…”

Like seriously, what the fuck, you guys.

Van Helsing is the worst of them. He constantly praises Mina for being so smart for a woman. His doddering compliments only served to make me angrier and angrier as I read through the novel, especially because when things looked to get too dangerous, he would be the one to say, “We men must go on, while dear Madam Mina must stay behind.” Dracula turns into the most annoying save-a-damsel story I’ve ever read.

Dracula gave the horror genre a lot of its tropes, for better or worse. Clearly, there were already issues with how people perceived women and their role in society back then.

That said, I’ve always thought that the horror genre serves as an excellent vehicle for social commentary. You can find out a lot about societal pressures and fears by taking a look at their horror stories. (The Victorian Era was clearly ripe with sexual anxiety.)

Combining sex and terror makes for truly uncomfortable tales, but putting readers/viewers in a place of discomfort and fear is all part of what makes the genre tick. We should look at old classics with (very) problematic sections as windows onto perspectives instead of an accurate representation of real life.

I mean, that’s fiction in a nutshell.

Dinosaur Lore Galore: A Review of The Dinosaur Lords

I’ve always had a fascination with dinosaurs, ever since I was a child, so it stands to reason that a fantasy epic set in a world where dinosaurs exist would catch my eye. Browsing through the aisles of a Barnes & Noble (pre-pandemic), I saw a book cover depicting an armored knight holding a lance aloft while riding a reined raptor, and it caught my attention like a magnet attracts metal.

And to make the book seem even more appealing to me, a blurb made the bold statement that it was like a cross between Jurassic Park and Game of Thrones. My curiosity thoroughly piqued, I snatched the book up, paid for it, and took it home.

The Dinosaur Lords builds a world that is ripe with dinosaurs, and it is a truly fascinating place. It makes you, as a reader, want to spend more time learning about the ways in which people exist in this particular dino-riddled universe. However, choppy writing and unclear character motivation stops the book from fully endearing itself to you.

Caution. There be spoilers ahead!

The story follows several characters navigating the politics and wars of a land called Paradise, particularly focusing on the Empire of Nuevaropa. There is Voyvod Karyl, the disgraced fighter who is called upon to enter the fray once more. Rob Korrigan, a brash bard, accompanies Karyl as he attempts to organize a resistance among peasants against warmongering lords.

Following the more political side of things is the Princess Melodia and Jaume, two lovers who must deal with the trials of perhaps being on the wrong side of a war while also staying true to their ideals.

I’ve just given you my basic understanding of these characters, and, unfortunately, I’m still not entirely clear where their paths may take them or even if I pegged them right in these brief descriptions.

There is a lack of characterization throughout the novel, that makes motivations incredibly unclear. As such, character details that might make me like one character more than another are…well, missing. I formed absolutely no connection with these characters because I couldn’t really understand what they were fighting for.

Let’s take Karyl, for example. He becomes “disgraced” after losing a battle, but since he was betrayed by people from his own side, I was never entirely on board with the whole “he’s a disgraced commander.” If anything, his downfall was completely out of his hands. He returns to his natural role as a military leader after being approached by a deity of some sort and acceding to her requests. And it honestly seems like he did so because he had nothing better to do. It’s almost as if we as readers spend no time in Karyl’s head whatsoever.

Rob, Karyl’s bardic companion, is an easier nut to crack. He’s looking for a good story, and he’s always admired Karyl as a dino handler and strategist. It makes sense why he would follow Karyl in his endeavors. But Rob’s one of the exceptions when it comes to learning about motivations. As I was reading, I kept expecting to finally come to an understanding about why a character does the things they do, but each time I felt like I was coming closer to some sort of answer, the revelation just wouldn’t happen. It was like turning a corner expecting to find a door and finding nothing there.

One reason this happens is because the author skimps on details even when he is being forthright about personalities. Victor Milan’s writing style is to-the-point, a true exercise in brevity. And if the novel had been based in real-life, I would have had no problem with this. But The Dinosaur Lords is set in a fantastical world with its own religions, forms of government, and species of animals. To be frugal with details in a fantasy land leaves readers grasping at straws.

Try imagining the world of The Lord of the Rings if J.R.R. Tolkien decided he didn’t really care about informing readers concerning Hobbits.

And this writing style also causes characterization to suffer, as I’ve said before. For instance, Princess Melodia’s father is briefly described. He is kind and doting toward his daughters, but he has a vague sense of clarity when it comes to retaining his throne. And, hand to heart, that’s all I really learned about him. So when a scheming knight tells Melodia’s father that she has betrayed him (a scene we don’t even read about directly), and she is pushed into a prison and left to the mercy of this devious knight, there is a massive part of you that wonders in bewilderment why her father, the freakin’ Emperor of Nuevaropa, would allow this to happen.

So not only are reader connections to characters missing (meaning how well we can relate to one of them), reader comprehension of character actions is gone too!

The one aspect in which The Dinosaur Lords shines is in its premise. The very potential of a world in which dinosaurs are used as mounts, as hounds on a hunt, or as a veritable tank in battle, kept me reading to the very last page. I wanted to see the dinosaurs in action more than I wanted characters speaking to each other.

The setting of The Dinosaur Lords is also enhanced by the strange religion they have going on. Quotes from their version of a “Bible” introduce every chapter, and it’s interesting to note how they perceive the world and the dinosaurs in it.

This curious and unique environment is the novel’s only major draw.

After some quick research, I discovered there is a sequel to The Dinosaur Lords. However, before I even attempt to purchase and read it, I seriously want to give the first book another go. This is not because I enjoyed it so much that I want to read it again. I want to reread The Dinosaur Lords to see if I can understand characters better a second time around.

I rate The Dinosaur Lords an epic-premise-that-covers-an-intriguing-but-fairly-unsatisfying-narrative-that-will-leave-you-more-puzzled-than-a-paleontologist-who-has-gotten-requested-to-endorse-a-theme-park.

Ian McEwan Is a Writing Genius

Most know that intricacy and simplicity are two different things. Upon examining the definitions of those two words, they almost seem to be polar opposites.

However, in my experience reading the written works of one Ian McEwan, I now know otherwise. In all the novels I’ve read of his, he combines the two notions seamlessly.

Granted, I’ve only read three of his books.

But goddamn if I didn’t love each one.

McEwan is a skilled writer, with a firm grasp on how to use the English language to convey so much emotion without inundating a reader with too much diction. If you’re looking for a hard-hitting, emotional read without wishy-washy plots, McEwan is your man.

As with many of my favorite books and authors, I first got introduced to McEwan through my middle school library. While browsing the shelves, I saw a book titled Atonement. The cover had a lonely girl sitting on some steps looking off to the side. It wasn’t the cover alone that caught my eye. It was the hefty word “atonement” in conjunction with that young girl about my age that made me pick the book up.

Next thing you know, I’m crying during second period as I flip through the final pages of McEwan’s novel.

I absorbed Atonement like you wouldn’t believe. Book lovers aren’t necessarily born; they’re grown. And that story was the best fertilizer I ever could have used. Even though it was not a book I had been assigned to in class, I dissected it. I pored over every page looking for themes that spanned from beginning to end.

It’s honestly because of Atonement that I got a 5 on my AP English Literature exam. The final essay question had us write an analysis of a novel, and it could be any novel from a number of assorted literature the prompt listed. Atonement was one of the books on that list. Have you ever written an essay for school and actually cared about what you wrote? Yeah, that was probably the first and last time that happened for me.

Just so I’m being upfront with you guys, I’d like to reiterate that I’ve only read three of McEwan’s books.

The first, as I stated just now, was Atonement. The story is all about a girl who tells a single lie in her youth that drastically affects the lives of the people around her. There is a fantastic film adaptation for it, starring James McAvoy and Keira Knightley. Just be prepared for tears.

The second is Nutshell. This one has a strange premise. It’s told from the perspective of an unborn fetus as it overhears that its mother is conspiring to murder her husband with her lover. I just read the little snippet about Nutshell within its book cover, and I was hooked. I mean, aren’t you with that premise alone?!

The third one is The Children Act. I just finished it a few days ago. It is about a judge who hears a case regarding a young boy who refuses life-saving treatment because of his religion, and her decision affects both of their lives in ways neither imagined possible. After reading this book, it was confirmed to me that Ian McEwan should properly be called one of my favorite authors.

Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is fucking destiny.

The simplicity that McEwan captures comes from moments. From what I’ve seen, his stories capture brief snippets in time. While the entire narrative might span years or weeks, the story is pieced together over what occurs in small moments. The situations he writes about are never overly extravagant. There is no drama for the sake of drama. A lot of the complications he talks about feel so relatable they don’t have to be explained.

That’s where the intricacy comes in. The details of a person’s feelings are utterly delved into, leaving little to be left unsaid. The ups and downs of what you might think is an average moment are examined through similes and metaphors. He captures the nuances of everyday occurrences.

I don’t want to shove Ian McEwan donw your throats, but…

…well, actually, I do. He’s that good. He’s a superb writer. I feel like I’m running out of words to describe how awesome he is.

Bottom line, his premises are gripping, his writing style is engrossing, and I’m flipping out over how excited I am to pick up something else he’s written.