In Gilmore Girls, aka the best show ever written, bright-eyed Rory Gilmore is continually seen reading a wide array of books. Whether in preparation for Harvard or for her time at Yale, she is always improving herself via literature.
Juxtapose this with Patrick Lenton, who found himself re-reading The Wheel of Time for the seventeenth time, grimly hoping the ingrained misogyny might somehow disappear if he just believed hard enough. What happened to his days of challenging himself? What about that one time he read Moby Dick and felt good for eight years? Patrick decided to take a leaf out of Rory’s books and read Rory’s books.
Cujo is a horror novel about a giant dog with rabies that traps a woman and her four-year-old son in a car. The book was once described to me as the perfect horror novel by a friend, so I was keen to get to this – despite finding Stephen King a rather annoying writer at times, and not being a particular connoisseur of horror. As far as Stephen King novels go, this is probably my favourite. I found it pretty creepy, surprisingly affecting (although we’ll get to that later) and just weirdly annoying in weird Stephen King ways. I’m going to spoil it heavily, by the way, just in case that’s a concern for you about a book released around twenty years ago.
The bulk of this book is about a woman trapped in a boiling car with her (frankly, quite shitty) four-year-old son, while a massive rabid Saint Bernard named Cujo prowls outside. Cujo has already killed two grown men by this stage, and will go on to kill more, and is legitimately terrifying. The bit where he disembowels a police officer is brutal, and completely shows how powerless the protagonist is, and how high the stakes are.
The oppressive heat wave and the remote, isolated setting are a perfect backdrop to the story. When I was growing up in NSW, there was a really hot summer in my town, which was nestled in the Royal National Park and isolated by at least a forty-five minute drive through dense, winding bushland. Lots of rich people had holiday houses there, and at that point the most prestigious dog was the Alaskan Malamute, a large snow dog related to huskies.
Anyway, a bunch of them went mad from the heat (because of their dense, lush fur) and then formed a pack and terrorised the town: killing and mauling several smaller dogs, attacking and wounding a few grown men, and forcing the police to drive through the town with a loudspeaker, telling us to wait inside. I believe rangers came and shot the dogs in the end. I never really appreciated how terrifying that all was, until reading Cujo.
However, there’s also a lot of other crap in this book. I appreciate that horror is about raising suspense, so the long lead that focuses on domestic problems and the goings-on in this sleepy Maine town is probably justified. I can also see how the intricate set up of personal conflicts and infidelity and stuff helps raise the stakes and makes Donna and Tad’s isolation even more effective.
But why did King spend so much time on completely superfluous scenes, such as Cujo’s owners’ family vacation, or the vaguely Mad Men-esque ad stuff? And why is everyone vaguely psychic in Stephen King books? And what the hell is it with shitty Tad’s scary closet? (There’s this closet in cry-baby Tad’s room that everyone is scared of, and it ends up being absolutely nothing at all.) Was King perhaps leading people to think this was a supernatural horror story, and then surprising them when it was about a big dog?
The unforgivably sad part for me was how King would write sections of the book from the perspective of classic good dog, Cujo. This is a fucking tragedy, and I really resented being forced to experience Cujo’s confusion and sadness as he slowly goes insane and turns on the people he loves most. I’m not sure if I was meant to feel this way, but I resented it. I didn’t really care when the boy dies at the end, to be honest. I have this feeling that King wasn’t writing a book about a tragic dog death, but then again, he very masterfully establishes how fucking delightful of a dog Cujo is.
But in the end, regardless of King’s intentions, Cujo is a book about a scary mad dog who terrorises a town. This can even be seen from the Gilmore Girls reference that spawned this article: Lorelei playfully calls Luke ‘Cujo’ because he’s been barking at people all day, because Luke is a grumpy butthead. We get why this reference works – not because Luke is dying of rabies (and wouldn’t that be a dark and unexpected addition to the #GilmoreGirlsRevival), but because he’s angry, like Cujo. But while Cujo has rabies to blame, Luke just has a bad attitude.
Curious to see the full reading list? You can view it here.
Patrick Lenton is a blogger at The Spontaneity Review and the author of A Man Made Entirely of Bats. He is the recipient of the Thiel Grant for Online Writing, and shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize. Find him on Twitter @PatrickLenton.