Cujo is special. This was my introduction to Stephen King; oh, I'd read that story of his about toy soldiers (in seventh grade English class, no less), but this was my first real Stephen King experience. It was also my first truly adult novel; there's some pretty racy stuff in here, especially when you're an innocent twelve-year-old kid. Steve Kemp, Donna Trenton's jilted lover, is a cretin. That's part of the reason why Cujo has always been my least favorite Stephen King novel - until now, that is. Having finally reread this book, I am quite bowled over by the experience. This is King at his most visceral, his most unrelenting, his most vicious. Dark doesn't begin to describe this novel. The ending was and is controversial (so controversial that it was changed - quite cowardly - in the film adaptation). Speaking of the film, it's important not to judge this novel by that adaptation - in the movie, young Tad is almost impossible to like because Danny Pintauro was just such an annoying child actor, and Cujo himself is little more than a monster because we don't get inside his increasingly disturbed head the way we do in the novel. The real Cujo is a good dog.
King has said he does not remember writing very much of this novel, that it was written in an almost perpetual drunken haze. It's ironic because Cujo is an amazingly sober read. Maybe the booze explains the brutality of the story, but I think not - like any great writer, King lets the story tell itself. What happens at the end of this novel just happens; King doesn't make it happen. That ending - actually, the whole book - opens up all kinds of questions about Fate and justice. I have a hard time liking Donna Trenton, and a part of me thinks there is a certain amount of justice in her fate (although the punishment grossly outweighs the crime in this case). How do you explain what happens here, though - all these coincidences that seal our characters' - especially the child's - fates? Why and how does such a horrible tragedy happen? As the reader, you ask these questions, and they echo the questions we sometimes ask in real life. King taps directly in to your worst nightmares with this seemingly simple story.
The basic foundation of this novel is a pretty simple one: man vs. nature. In one corner, you have a mother fighting for the life of her son as well as herself; in the other corner, you have Cujo, a two hundred pound St. Bernard, a gentle, loving dog who has gone rabid - very rabid, insanely murderous rabid. It's essential to realize that there are no villains here, though, only victims. Curiosity killed the cat, but it gave Cujo rabies, and we experience his own canine mental breakdown as the disease lays waste to his central nervous system. Cujo would never dream of hurting anyone; the rabies eventually kills the real Cujo, though, and turns his huge canine body into a horrible killing machine, a very fiend from hell itself, the personification of the terrible monster in the closet that frightens young Tad so much every night in his room. King conjures this malevolent connection in a wonderfully tangible way, going even farther to tie "the monster" in to the murderous deeds of Frank Dodd - King directly cites events chronicled in The Dead Zone, already building the aura of the doom-shrouded town of Castle Rock.
So it's a simple story - yet it's not simple at all. You have marital discord between the Trentons, the result of a stupid affair between Donna and the aforementioned cretin Steve Kemp. Vic is trying to save his business at the same time that he is hammered with the news of his wife's infidelity. You have Tad's fear of the monster in his closet and his trust in his father to keep him safe. You have the wife of country mechanic Joe Camber and her fears that her son will turn out just like his father. You basically have all manner of compelling subplots going on at the same time, somehow coming together to conjure an unimaginably horrible series of events. In other words, this is real life taken to extremes - and there are monsters in real life, oh yes.