King's Highway pt. 13: Cujo

I hadn't read or seen Cujo before this past week. (I think after the Firestarter fiasco, my parents shut the door on my checking out anything King-related on VHS.)

"What do you mean, Bryan? Sure, this is Cujo..."

I started reading Harlan Ellison in 1986 or so, and I knew at the time that he thought the book was "just okay." I'm very impressionable, so that meant for study halls at the time, it was pushed down the list and I never got to it. King himself regrets not remembering having written it, as he likes it. Me...

...this is probably my least favorite of the books I've read so far for this project. Not to say it's not enjoyable, but some of the writing seems kind of gimmicky. Not Tom Robbins-gimmicky, but you get a lot of backstory for things that don't necessarily advance the plot or pad it out significantly, and then some capitalization-stuff like "Cujo saw THE MAN and THE BOY" Okay, I get it... that's how Cujo sees the world (more on that below) but come on. And then there's a lot of
(the man... the dream)
stuff between the paragraphs, sometimes
breaking up the sentences themselves. King's left a lot of this stuff behind over the years, which I like. He stills breaks into italics to approximate inner monologue. But he's hardly alone in that, and that isn't as intrusive. Maybe gimmicky's not the word, and maybe I'm unfairly projecting King's admission he wrote it in more or less of a blackout onto it. It feels like kind of a drunk rambling story, with a lot of stuff to pad it out, but not much there. But I think he's left
(the man... the dream)
behind in his later work.
Not that there isn't symbolism that comes through. Is marriage the rabid dog? Or is it the broken-down pinto? (Or is it the lies in a marriage that create the monster/ the broken-down pinto?) Or the Red Raspberry Zingers? (I don't want to get into it) None of the above? Whatever your poison, there's a case to be made of artful construction The book is basically three different threads:

1) Vic and Donna's disintegrating marriage. She's had an affair, and the lover returns to the narrative much as Cujo himself does. Their son, Tad, projects or sublimates his awareness of this the way little boys sometimes can do - the monster in the closet.

2) Brett and Charity Camber's abusive marriage and their son. They're the ones who have Cujo, the St. Bernard who chases a rabbit down a hall, wakes some rabid bats, and gets a bite on the nose.

Quick side-note: I'm not a particular fan of a narrative switching to the p.o.v. of an animal. For me, it's a slippery slope. Once you switch over and have Cujo start describing things, what's to stop you from switching to a squirrel or any animal in the story? Logically, at that point - you've already shown us the mind of a non-human, what's the author's justification for not including the squirrel's narrative, and so on? I don't know, not my thing.

3) Vic's advertising account. I won't get into it. But, sure, preserving the image of something/ giving a failed account an honorable burial - these things definitely reflect on the above.

But I don't think points 2 and 3 tie in to the main point of 1 as successfully as they could. Donna and Tad have their rendezvous with Cujo pretty early on, and it's apparent that struggle is the climax. It seems to go on too long. The end is grim.

Which brings us to the movie, which may be a better take on the same material. Cuckoo for cocoa puffs? Crazy in the coconut? Maybe. It's not a masterpiece but certainly successful enough for what it is. Considering the subsequent work of director Lewis Teague, it's a high water mark for him, anyway.

Yeah, rough day. Dee Wallace is Danny "Who's the Boss" Pintauro's mom, here, and played Henry Thomas's Mom in E.T., and Andy Bernard's mom in The Office. Whole lotta' moms!

I've always enjoyed the animal vs. man sub-genre of films where the attacks bear some Freudian or other-ian deconstruction of human relations.

The Birds is perhaps the best example. Tho...
isn't bad either.

I don't know if Cujo belongs in the same category of films, but a case can be made for it. At any rate, it conveys some horrible things quite effectively - particularly everything that happens to Dee Wallace in the car. I don't recommend this for prospective moms or children under 10.

Cujo in happier times.
Cujo after the rabies.

Tad's Dad by the way is played by Daniel Hugh Kelly, who may not sound familiar but is instantly recognizable to men of a certain age as Skid McCormack from McCormack and Hardcastle, and, for me personally, as what's-his-toes from Star Trek: Insurrection.

That guy, with Donna Murphy and Patrick Stewart,

The biggest differences:

1) The film eliminates most of the cruder or more violent elements of the novel. The character of Gary Pervier, who gets such lines as "I don't give a shit if he was hitting line drives into her catcher's mitt" in the novel, doesn't do too much here except get to be the first victim. And there's no battering the rabid St. Bernard's head into near-unconsciousness with the car door, for example. But the terror of the child screaming/ claustrophobic space comes across even more immediately than in the reading.

2) Both the fate of Tad and the manner in which Cujo is disposed - which, depending on your opinions of the subtext here, mean everything or nothing, take your pick. That's not me equivocating, just saying, there's a big difference, if you're looking for one - are very different.

3) The whole Brett/ Charity plot, which see above and didn't-miss-it-if-you-ask-me.

Terrible, terrible way to end the movie, though, with the frozen image and then the Muzack. All that was missing was Joe Cocker's "You Are So Beautiful." What the what?

This would have been better. Albeit creepier.

A final note: in an intentional perversion of the point of King's confession of not remembering writing this, I thought it would be fun to get blackout drunk for the blogging of this. I failed spectacularly - just remembered to pour a second glass of the bottle of wine I bought. (10:36 pm) Sigh. I feel I've let down my 18-year-old self, who was looking forward to putting the headphones on and listening to the Doors or something.


  1. I've only seen chunks of the movie, and the book never tempted me. I mean, to me, and I realize I have to be in a minority here given King's megasuccess, the idea is, at best, fodder for a short story or novella (and yeah, lots of commas in that sentence). A 300 page book? Holy mackerel. Someone needs to airdrop Editor Team Six into Maine.

    I know it's unfair and wrong of me to make a judgment based on such scant criteria. Your review, though, seems to reinforce it.

    Cujo strikes me as being akin to a Star Trek: The Next Generation "bottle" episode. It might have been an amazing episode of a horror anthology show. Well, maybe not amazing, but a solid entry.

    By the way, check entry 20 on Cracked's list of "23 Terrifying Movie Adaptations of Children's Books." THAT picture creeped me out more than the concept behind Cujo.

  2. Very nice: http://www.cracked.com/photoplasty_387_23-terrifying-movie-adaptations-childrens-books_p23/#20

    A lot of those are pretty funny, thank you. And more than a few King concepts on the list.

    Cujo is an unmitigated success in one area - even people who haven't read the book/ seen the movie/ think much about King know exactly what anyone means when they hear anyone say "Cujo." The name comes from what the SLA guy Willie Wolfe's called himself, but say "Cujo" and I doubt anyone will say "Oh, you mean the SLA guy?"

    (For those of you who remember/ know who the SLA were.)

    1. Y'know, that's a great point about "Cujo" passing into the cultural lexicon. It had to have struck a nerve that transcends its artistic and monetary success to achieve that.

      By the way, "Where the Sidewalk Ends" on that Cracked list made me laugh out loud. It also made me reflect once again that I still don't get this widespread "fear" of clowns that supposedly grips our culture. It's a meme that became a meme long before the internet. Clowns can be creepy, no doubt, but even as a kid I was more bored by them than anything. It seems like pop culture occasionally gloms onto some notion at random, obsessing on it beyond all reason until it becomes ingrained in the culture. Like bacon, which has now become this bizarre, obsessed-upon food that is the pop culture standard for good eats. I'll be damned, though, if I can find anyone in the real world who rhapsodizes about it like people do online.

      Anyway, Cujo had a lot of potential to creep me out, as I love dogs. Maybe it had to do with the stuck-in-a-car part of it. It sort of reminded me of the beginning of the original Night of the Living Dead, except Barbara stayed in the car the whole movie.

  3. Also, wanted to mention - when kids today want a taste of a story that hinges on an absence of cellphones, this is a good example. A lot of 80s-and-before horror films are, sure, but this most especially.

  4. One final p.s. It was meant to be funny/ self-effacing but I should probably mention... I wasn't ACTUALLY trying to get blackout hammered on a "schoolnight."

    (Lest anyone is thinking of staging an intervention...)

  5. This was one of the small handful of King books that I just didn't like at all the first time I read it (in high school). Years later, rereading it, it clicked with me. The only thing I dislike about it all that much are the vaguely supernatural elements involving the malevolent spirit of Frank Dodd. That seems like a weak-ass suggestion made by someone who insisted King couldn't publish a book with no ghosts or vampires or similar beasties in it.

    The movie has grown on me a lot over the years, too. I saw Dee Wallace speak at a sci-fi convention one year; she seems like a genuinely delightful woman, and I wish she had had a better career.