Another Page: ‘Cujo’*
* — aka, “The Horror Novel That Isn’t Really a Horror Novel Nor Is It Really About a Rabid and Murderous Saint Bernard”
By Jim Thomsen
I never had a “Hemingway moment” as a kid, as most modern-day male writers have. Nor a Steinbeck one, though my inner road-tripper was mesmerized by Travels With Charley. My tastes tended toward Encyclopedia Brown and The Three Investigators, and trended in my young teens toward Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt adventures and true crime. In retrospect, I see now that I liked (a) painless diversionary fare that (b) allowed me to project my own fantasies for dark adventure in a safe and silent way.
None of that explains why I felt a strange ping in my solar plexus the first time I picked up a Stephen King book. It was the fall of 1981, and I was a junior in a Christian boarding high school. And as a social maladroit, I spent large swaths of time staring out of my dormitory window being bored out of my Christian gourd.
One of the fellow doinks in my dorm had lent me a stack of horror paperbacks, and the one on top was Cujo. I don’t know why I even opened it, based on the back jacket copy: A big friendly dog chases a rabbit into a hidden underground cave—and stirs a sleeping evil crueler than death itself. A terrified four-year-old boy sees his bedroom closet door swing open untouched by human hands, and screams at the unholy red eyes gleaming in the darkness ….
I am not a bit into tales of the supernatural, paranormal or extraterrestrial, so I am surprised that I bothered to crack the cover. I have always preferred tales of hardcore reality in everyday circumstances (which made my unfortunate side trip into Cussler-dom a blessedly brief one). Somehow I got past that and into the story, and discovered three things with the aforementioned zing:
- Cujo is not really a story about a rabid, murderous dog. It’s a nuanced, bittersweet, deeply real tale of anger, love, marriage and corrosive compromise.
- The language. The voice. Oh, my God. I never knew that a writer’s voice could be so original, so brimming with feeling, and yet so wise and crisp and literate. And so unaffected. And so awesome. Holy crap!
- The characters come to fully realized life in a way I’d never seen in a novel before, and haven’t all that often in the thousands of literary novels I’ve read in the thirty years since.
Oh, yeah, and No. 4. There’s story, and there’s more story, and then there’s even more story.
Here’s an example that encompasses all four of the above virtues … and it concerns a secondary character in Cujo, for crying out loud.
His grateful country had given him the Distinguished Service Cross. A grateful hospital staff in Paris had discharged him in February 1945 with an 80 percent disability pension and a gold-plated monkey on his back. A grateful hometown gave him a parade on the Fourth of July (by then he was twenty-one instead of twenty, able to vote, his hair graying around the temples, and he felt all of seven hundred, thank you very much). The grateful town selectmen had remanded the property taxes on the Pervier place in perpetuity. That was good, because he would have lost it twenty years ago otherwise. He had replaced the morphine he could no longer obtain with high-tension booze and had then proceeded to get about his life’s work, which was killing himself as slowly and pleasantly as he could.
Now, in 1980, Gary Pervier was fifty-six years old, totally gray, and meaner than a bull with a jackhandle up its ass.
I find that just about perfect. It sets a scene. It establishes a character (a very Hemingway character, at that). It makes backstory, often a dreary undertaking for most writers, as fun as the front story. And it does so with remarkable insight in an utterly effortless shoot-the-shit tone. Most writers, I suspect, couldn’t resist the self-conscious impulse to doll this up with prose with something purple like “puffy rolls of fishbelly flesh pitched and rolled on his ancient and agonized bones, fueled by nothing more thin blood and strong alcohol.” Because, you know, in the literary tradition, seediness is next to godliness.
But that passage, as wonderful as it is, isn’t really what the book’s about. (I’m giving away very little when I say that Gary Pervier, the poor bastard, never makes it to fifty-seven.) Cujo is about two couples fighting mortal battles for the souls of their unions and their children. Vic Trenton is a man at the end of his tether, fighting to save his advertising business even as he fights a battle within himself about whether to keep his family intact in the aftermath of his wife Donna’s confessed infidelities. Charity Camber is fighting to keep alive her dreams for her ten-year-old son’s future from the coarse, alcohol-crushed clutches of her contentedly white-trash husband, Joe.
But none of these characters are as sympathetic — or unsympathetic — as they sound. Joe Camber isn’t really a bad guy, and Donna Trenton is no shrewish whore. And that’s the story with real people, as opposed to people usually found in literature. Most writers don’t have the space or patience or skill to develop multi-dimensional characters. Genre writers are often too busy shaping the traits of their characters to the demands of their plots; literary writers are often more concerned with crafting perfect sentences to describe their characters than with the characters themselves.
King’s talent, by contrast, is so ridiculously off the charts that he manages to have it every which way. He spends pages and pages on the turmoils in the Trenton and Camber households, and the reader doesn’t notice that we haven’t seen the rabid, eponymous Saint Bernard in twenty or so pages at any given time because King has crafted unbearable suspense in the spaces between the words of the husbands and the wives, making everything they say — and don’t say — like a sprint through a minefield at darkest midnight.
They walked together to the stairs.
Donna asked, “So what comes next, Vic?”
He shook his head. “I just don’t know.”
“Do I write ‘I promise to never fuck the local tennis bum again’ five hundred times on the blackboard and miss recess? Do we get a divorce? Do we never mention it again? What?” She didn’t feel hysterical, only tired, but her voice was rising in a way she didn’t like and hadn’t intended. The shame was the worst, the shame of being found out and seeing how it had punched his face in. And she hated him as well as herself for making her feel so badly ashamed, because she didn’t believe she was responsible for the factors leading up to the final decision to fuck Steve Kemp — if there ever had been anything so thinking as a decision.
“We ought to be able to get it together,” he muttered, but she did not mistake him; he wasn’t talking to her. “This thing —” He looked at her pleadingly. “He was the only one, wasn’t he?”
It was the one unforgivable question, the one he had no right to ask. She left him then, almost ran up the stairs, before everything could spill out, the stupid recriminations and accusations that would not solve anything but only muddy up whatever weak honesty they had been able to manage.
I can’t help but think that most genre writers would never think to probe this part of their characters’ psyches — and now, back to our gun-riddled chase scene, folks — and that most literary writers would dance around it, forsaking direct dialogue for deep searching studies of the strained planes of the patrician bones of Donna Trenton’s face under her ashen skin and the allegedly immutable truths contained within each sweat-stung pore and puckered fold around the eyes. King cares, and cares and cares and cares, page after page after page.
This is where his critics over the decades have gone horribly wrong: King is not a horror writer. He is a teller of stories about people whose character traits — the full messy buffet plate of them — emerge in horrific situations. Which, yes, sometimes involve vampires, telekinetic teens, underground creatures, postapocalyptic satanic figures and Chryslers possessed by the souls of cranky old men. And, of course, rabid Saint Bernards. And I say, so fucking what?
I could belabor the point, but the point here isn’t to get into a critical dissection of Stephen King’s man-of-letters credentials, it’s to geek out about a book I loved at a time when I needed not only a quality diversion but also quality beyond diversion, as can only be needed by a boy at a time when he’s trying to fumble his way toward being a man.
Not that the diversions themselves weren’t lighting up my nerve endings. I can remember reading in the bed of my dorm room after lights-out, balancing a flashlight on my pillow, thoughts of sleep driven away by a surge of adrenaline as I took in passages like this:
She looked out the car window, saw the baseball bat lying in the high grass, and opened the car door.
In the dark mouth of the garage, Cujo stood up and began to advance slowly, blood-flecked head lowered, down the crushed gravel toward her.
“Come on then, motherfucker,” she whispered.
It was twelve-thirty when Donna Trenton stepped out of her Pinto for the last time.
Thirty years later, I still get the chills when I read those few paragraphs. That is the power of Stephen King. The enduring power. Where’s my flashlight?
Jim Thomsen is a freelance writer and manuscript copyeditor who lives near Seattle. His clients have included well-known crime authors Gregg Olsen, M. William Phelps and J.D. Rhoades. He is at work on The Last Ferry of the Night, a literary crime novel, among other projects, but he could always use more work to pay the bills. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.