What I Learned from Stephen King: 'Cujo' and Other Grown-Up Monsters

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Cujo and Other Grown-Up Monsters

cujocoverConsidered to be one of his darkest works, Stephen King’s Cujo is not for the cowardly. It is relentless in its forward motion, coming at you “like a brick heaved through a window,” as King himself once described.

It’s frightening. It’s gruesome. It’s savage. It’s violent.

It’s also incredibly depressing.

The story of Cujo, like many of King’s classics, seems to have taken on a life of its own. Like some twisted version of an Aesop fable, one doesn’t need to have read the book or seen the movie to be familiar with the tale. When I mentioned to friends recently that I was reading Cujo for the first time, I was met with responses like: Isn’t that the one about the dog that gets rabies? Is that the one where the mom and her five-year old boy get stuck in their car with a big dog outside? Didn’t King kill the kid in the book, but they let him live in the movie?

Yes, yes. That’s the one.

Most of us know the story of Donna and Tad Trenton. They’ve been taken captive in their broken down Pinto by one very bad doggy. (Though Cujo was never really a bad dog.) It’s been two days now and the windows – rolled up so their predator cannot get his foamy jaws of death at them – have produced a sort of greenhouse effect. Both the mother and her small boy are suffering. They are starved for water and food. Tad has started having seizures. Donna has started formulating a plan. If she could just get to that baseball bat across the lawn without the dog catching her. Or if she could make her way to the front door of the farmhouse where their Pinto is stranded. She’s tried this already. That’s when the dog took a chunk out of her leg. Next time, it just might take their lives.

This is the story of Cujo as your average Joe knows the tale. Ah, but Constant Readers know there’s much more to the story. There’s things much darker that haunt in Stephen King’s Cujo. Much scarier, too. Much more real… more like you and I.

Donna’s been a bad girl.

She’s fooled around with the local tennis instructor. It’s happened a few times, in fact. Never in her husband’s bed. No, never. Not that. And to her defense, Donna’s come to her senses recently and has decided to call the whole thing off. When she comes clean to her doting husband (albeit only after he receives a crude letter from said jilted jock), he wants to know what all men want to know: Why?

After much probing, Donna gives a sort of monologue (one that ranks with some of King’s finest) expounding on the nature of womanhood. If you’ve ever seen Eyes Wide Shut, this is Donna’s “Nicole Kidman moment.” Here, Donna speaks about the emptiness of being a woman:

I didn’t want to be on the Library Committee and I didn’t want to be on the Hospital Committee and run the bake sales or be in charge of getting the starter change or making sure that not everybody is making the same Hamburger Helper casserole for Saturday-night supper. I didn’t want to see those same depressing faces over and over again and listen to the same gossipy stories about who is doing what in this town. I didn’t want to sharpen my claws on anyone else’s reputation. I didn’t want to sell Tupperware and I didn’t want to sell Amway and I didn’t want to give Stanley parties and I don’t need Weight Watchers. You – you don’t know about emptiness, Vic. Don’t think you do. You’re a man and men grapple. Men grapple, and women dust. You dust the empty rooms and you listen to the wind blowing outside sometimes. Only sometimes it seems like the wind’s inside, you know? So you put on a record, Bob Seger or J.J. Cale or someone, and you can still hear the wind, and thoughts come to you, ideas, nothing good but they come. So you clean both toilets and you do the sink and one day you’re down in one of the antique shops looking at little pottery knickknacks, and you think about how your mother had a shelf of knickknacks like that, and your aunts all had shelves of them, and your grandmother had them as well. … I’m telling you that I got so I was spending enough time in front of the mirror to see how my face was changing, how no one was going to mistake me for a teenager again or ask to see my driver’s license when I ordered a drink in a bar. I started to be afraid because I grew up after all.  … It’s more [than that though]. It’s knowing you can’t wait any longer to be a grownup, or wait any longer to make peace with what you have. It’s knowing that your choices are being narrowed almost daily. For a woman – no, for me, that’s a brutal thing to have to face. Wife, that’s fine. But you’re gone at work, even when you’re home you’re gone at work so much. Mother, that’s fine too. But there’s a little less of it every year because every year the world gets another little slice of him. Men… they know what they are. They have an image of what they are. They never live up to the ideal, and it breaks them, and maybe that’s why so many men die unhappy or before their time, but they know what being a grownup is supposed to mean. They have some kind of handle of thirty, forty, fifty. They don’t hear that wind, or if they do, they find a lance and tilt at it, thinking it must be a windmill or some fucking thing that needs knocking down. And what a woman does, what I did, was run from becoming. I got scared of the way the house sounded when Tad was gone. Once, do you know – this is crazy – I was in his room, changing the sheets, and I got to thinking about these girlfriends I had in high school. Wondering what happened to them, where they went. I was almost in a daze. And Tad’s closet door swung open and… I screamed and ran out of the room. I don’t know why… except, I guess I do. I thought for just a second there that Joan Brady would come out of Tad’s closet, and her head would be gone and there would be blood all over her clothes and she would say, ‘I died in a car crash when I was nineteen coming back from Sammy’s Pizza, and I don’t give a damn.’ … I got scared, that’s all. I got scared when I’d start looking at knickknacks or thinking about taking a pottery course or yoga or something like that. And the only place to run from the future is into the past. So… so I started flirting with him. 

Donna’s speech (it was just too darn good to not reprint here in full) is about a certain type of fear that women feel, but I’ve got news for her: It’s not just women. Many men feel it too.

It’s the fear of being an adult. The idea of never being able to go back to who you once were, the life you once had, the carefree attitude that you held and the vices that came with it. Because once you’re a parent, once you’re a husband or a wife, once you’re somebody’s somebody – you no longer have the luxury of being without care. Your life suddenly carries with it the weight of responsibility, a weight sometimes so heavy it can feel like sacks of flour on your shoulders. Adulthood, for some, is a life made heavy by questions like: Am I being the best fill-in-the-blank I can be? Have I remembered to pick up what he wanted at the store? Did he take out the trash, or will I have to? Did I remember to call the school? Did I drink 8 glasses of water today? … Is this all that life is? … Is this what we have become?   

To me, the best line in Donna’s stream of consciousness rant is: “The only place to run from the future is into the past.”

I can certainly see a bit of my own reflection in that line. How about you?

How many of us find the To-Do list of today so daunting that we decide “Screw it!” and play video games instead? Or maybe it’s not video games for some of us. Maybe it’s a bottle of wine. Maybe we sign onto Facebook and look in on the lives of those we haven’t spoken to in years – old friends, old family members… old exes, perhaps? Maybe we flirt with the next door neighbor, or the next door neighbor’s gardener, or the next door neighbor’s daughter. Maybe we spend too much time on those websites that kill the magic and the passion that was once born in our own bedrooms. Maybe we decide to take a stroll into the seedier side of town, just to see what’s up. Maybe we’ll do anything, so long as it’s not whatever we’re supposed to do, who we’re supposed to be, however we’re supposed to behave.

Not all of us choose to rise to the occasion of responsibility on a daily basis, and with that choice, or lack thereof, begins to unravel a new reality. It’s a twisted and warped, crooked-mouthed caricature of what our day was supposed to look like, and sometimes it leads to that same caricatured version of what our lives were meant to be. It’s not so docile. Not so playful. Not so warm and cuddly anymore. It turns sour, a life rotting with madness, oozing with puss, an ill brain that tells us things are bad, we are bad, reasons to be angry, it’s all your fault… kill, kill, kill.     

Remind you of anyone? If not yourself, how about old Cuje?

Let’s backtrack for a moment to an earlier time in the novel, the one in which Cujo contracts rabies.

The scene begins with the following line:

“Cujo knew he was too old to chase rabbits.”

It would seem Donna and Cujo have a lot in common.

“He wasn’t old; no, not even for a dog. But at five, he was well past his puppyhood, when even a butterfly had been enough to set off an arduous chase through the woods and meadows behind the house and barn. He was five, and if he had been a human, he would have been entering the youngest stage of middle age.”

King goes on to detail how Cujo would have never even gone after the rabbit, if the rabbit had started to run from him sooner. But the closer Cujo came to it, the more it just seemed so possible.

Like Donna, it doesn’t take Cujo long to realize he’s made a terrible mistake. Upon chasing the bunny into an underground hole, Cujo gets his snout caught in a cave – one that happens to be filled with rabid bats.

One bite is all it takes.

Cujo retreats from the game. After getting his nose out from where it doesn’t belong, he throws his head back and sends up a lone woeful howl to the heavens in repentance, as if he somehow knows all that is to come. That life, as he knew it, can never be the same again.

Later in the novel, when post-extramarital-affair Donna meets post-rabies-bitten Cujo, she continuously swears there is something familiar in its eyes. The dog stares at her as if it knows her.

I think maybe it does. Maybe in some sort of strange way, it is her.

cujomovieShe starts to imagine the dog’s thoughts, that it has known her all along, been with her all along, and out here on the empty country farm where no one can hear her scream, it’s going to come for her. It’s going to get her, and then it’s going to get her little boy.

“‘Stop it!’ she commanded herself roughly. ‘It doesn’t think, and it’s not some goddamned boogeyman out of a child’s closet. It’s just a sick dog and that’s all it is. Next you’ll believe the dog is God’s punishment for committing – ’

Cujo suddenly got up. Almost as if she had called to him.”   

For me, that is the single most frightening moment in the entire blood-curdling novel.

Cujo’s disease is symbolic of Donna’s own transgressions. In order to move forward with her life, she’ll need to fight Cujo to the death. She must face the monster in the closet. She’ll have to grow up.

This could also shed some light on the reason Tad has to die. If Cujo is a reflection of Donna, perhaps Tad is a piece of her too. Her childhood, perhaps.

In fact, once Cujo and Tad are both in the ground, Donna and her husband Vic seem strangely more committed to their marriage than ever. There is grief, but there is also love. There is no longer any question of divorce. With the past now truly behind them, all they want is to live the rest of their lives together.  

Cujo is one of King’s darkest novels, not because a rabid dog is on the loose. Not because of the suffering Donna Trenton endues. Not even because a little boy dies. Cujo is one of King’s darkest because it reminds us that there are no small actions. From the mundane to the momentous, for every choice we make there will be consequences. A better life is one born of making better choices.

Choices better than the ones Donna and Cujo made.

Cujo. … It’s not for the cowardly.

Neither is growing up.  

“What I Learned from Stephen King” is a Cemetery Dance Online exclusive series of articles about the wisdom, spirituality and life lessons found within the works of Stephen King. Jason Sechrest began his career at 15 years old as a full-time staff writer for Femme Fatales magazine. His writing credits include LA Weekly,Frontiers, Entertainment Weekly and more. He tweets as @JasonSechrest and posts often on Facebook.

5 thoughts on “What I Learned from Stephen King: 'Cujo' and Other Grown-Up Monsters”

  1. This perspective has made an immediate and important impact on how I perceive women’s issues. Wow! I never knew Cujo should be on the required reading list for women’s studies majors! You have me thinking…

  2. One thing I forgot before re-reading Cujo as an adult was that Cujo was not a villain. He wanted to be a good dog. His pain at not being able to be that was a big part of what the makes the book great. This was impossible to put into the movie which is how most people know the story so Cujo has come to mean a large mean dog. Or an ironic chihuahua.

  3. What a wonderful reflection on this story. You’ve made me want to read it again – and I just finished a re-read less than a month ago!

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