Man’s best friend goes on a rampage in Cujo, a 1981 novel by Stephen King. Supposedly written under the influence, Cujo’s rather modest position in King’s canon belies its quality as a powerful piece of horror.
Surely it’s no The Shining or Salem’s Lot, but there’s a sheer, unbridled energy in these pages. This simple story about a rabid dog has a vicious, nervous quality to it, the way it determinedly moves the characters around, setting them up for a final showdown: the Trentons, Donna and her son Tad, cooped up in a broken Pinto while Cujo, a giant, insane St. Bernard, waits outside.
The meat of the story is in the events that lead up to the Pinto; there’s the husband Vic with his work problems, there’s Donna’s spurned lover with his petty revenge, there’s Cujo the dog getting bit by a bat, and so on. The story segments come in a steady succession of paragraphs, with no chapter breaks. There’s an inevitability to the events that make reading feel like watching a train crash; you’re uncomfortable, you know what’s going to happen… but you still keep turning the pages.
It’s a wicked recipe, but it works. Cujo changes from a cuddly giant into a mindless beast, with King occasionally giving us a peek into the dog’s constantly eroding consciousness. While the novel’s firmly grounded in reality, there are small sprinkles of the supernatural, some foreshadowing shadowplay and a hint of telepathy, both giving the novel an extra oomph precisely where it counts.
It’s tempting to read King’s own alcoholism at the time of the novel’s writing into the story: the owner of Cujo certainly likes his drink, his family is scared of his violent nature and it’s because of his oversight (Cujo is not vaccinated against rabies) that good old Cujo becomes a killing machine. Alcoholism is, of course, a disease that creates monsters, same as rabies. It might not be quite as brutal, but it’s a nasty business all the same.