Cujo by Stephen King

CujoMan’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.

**** (4/5)


The Darkest Lullaby by Jonathan Janz

15814092The Darkest Lullaby by Jonathan Janz (Samhain, 2013) is a novel with a great beginning and a good finish, and a whole lot of nonsense in between.

The story goes as they always do: a couple, Chris and Ellie, inherit an old house, only to realize that they’ve gained more than just a decrepit piece of real estate. Located on a vast, forested tract of land somewhere in Indiana, the house used to be a center for a child-sacrificing coven of cultists.

The beginning of the novel reads like an unpublished script out of T.E.D. Klein‘s desk drawer (as a nod, the couple adopt a stray dog they call Petey). Rich in atmosphere, the house and the encroaching woods ooze with promise. Anything can happen. What primeval horror will come creeping out of the forest?

Nobody expects Richard Laymon. The husband, Chris, gets seduced by an apparition of his aunt Lillith, the previous owner of the house, who, as it happens, was not only a leading cultist, but also a sort of a vampire. Having sex with your aunt would probably make you crazy anyway, it certainly doesn’t help if she’s undead to boot.

Sadly, it’s downhill from here on in. The novel literally loses its plot after Chris goes bonkers and gets his creepy sex drive on. The sudden appearance of Ellie’s more glamorous sister doesn’t help, it only seems to result in more juvenile sexual tension. Small nonsensical things crop up, stealing the novel of its power. The scenes come and go, with a couple of graphic murders and casual grave digging thrown in for good measure, but they barely amount to anything.

The villain, Lillith, is certainly part of the problem. She seems to be there for the plot alone, not as a character in her own right. The novel doesn’t tell much about her, except that she tended to give Ellie the evil eye and partook in some unsavory bloodsucking. Her partner, a dog-loving, child-sacrificing Destragis is even less a character. The novel’s vampire mythology seems original, but it mostly confuses rather than clears things up. There are some hints that the forest itself is evil, but none of this history is adequately explored, leaving the book without a proper backbone.

As a side note, the title and cover of the novel seem slightly more baby-obsessed (in a Rosemary’s Baby kind of way) than the novel actually is. There is a pregnancy, to be sure, but its significance is lost somewhere in the confusion.

After the derailment the novel finds its groove again in the finale. It’s an atmospheric sendoff that works despite its innate ridiculousness. The open ending, with Ellie walking alone through the woods, leaves a nice, lasting image that could’ve crowned a great novel. But, unfortunately, it’s a badly uneven story that she leaves behind her.

*** (3/5)