Revisiting Cujo by Richard Chizmar
THAT WAS THEN…
I don’t remember a lot about my first reading of CUJO. Not sure how old I was or where I was or even where I got my copy (I recall it was a paperback, but that’s about it).
I remember liking the book quite a bit, but thinking it was dark and depressing. Everything about it. The people. The town. The dog. Even the damn weather.
Oddly enough, I also remember really disliking the lack of chapter breaks — don’t ask me why because I don’t have an answer — and thinking that I knew a couple guys who were well on their way to growing up to become Steve Kemps.
I don’t recall being that surprised or upset by the death of young Tad Trenton. I figured if King could kill off Susan Norton in ‘SALEM’S LOT, no one was safe.
One thing I do remember about that initial reading of CUJO, and with great clarity, is Tad’s Monster Words. You see, although I never had any pre-planned, written down, magic words to shield me from monsters when I was young, I did have my very own monster.
As mentioned before, I was the youngest of five children growing up in a military family that moved around quite a bit (we were Air Force brats; two of my sisters were born in Spain; I was born in Venezuela). When I was five years old, we moved to Edgewood, Maryland to be close to Edgewood Arsenal and Aberdeen Proving Grounds, where my soon-to-be-retired father would eventually work at the airfields.
Our house on Hanson Road was a neat, three bedroom split level, with a big basement and a single car garage. My parents took over the master bedroom, leaving my oldest sister — soon to leave for college — in the smallest bedroom, and my other two sisters sharing a decent-sized room (my brother was already in the Army and gone by then).
This left me in the basement.
All by myself.
A very large and very dark basement — at least to a five year old.
There was a sofa and recliner and coffee table and television in the basement. There was also a small gray wardrobe in the near corner by the stairs leading up to the kitchen and in the farthest corner — the darkest corner — my father set up a single bed for me to sleep in.
At the time, I didn’t complain (I remember once sharing a cramped bedroom with my sisters Mary and Nancy, where I was forced to sleep in a crib when I was clearly too old and big to do such a thing, but we made the best of it and some of our most cherished childhood memories are of that time; trust me, when they say you sacrifice to serve in the military, they mean the whole family sacrifices).
So, anyway, I didn’t complain…even after I found out there was a witch hiding in my little gray wardrobe in the basement.
How I first became aware of the witch’s presence, I don’t remember. I just recall that she was a short witch — she had to be to live in that wardrobe — and fast and had green skin and did indeed wear a pointy little black hat. She was wrinkled and ugly and older than time itself and never spoke, but she had a low, hissing laugh that was pure evil and would chill my soul even today if I was to hear it.
On a nightly basis, I was terrified — but I didn’t tell anyone about the witch. I would like to say it was because I was brave and wanted to handle the situation on my own without bothering the rest of my family or because my father had taught us not to whine or complain…but that would be a lie.
I didn’t tell for the same reason that so many other children don’t tell their secrets — because they know they won’t be believed.
Even now, I don’t expect you to believe my little detour of a monster story…but I swear to you, it’s true.
I laid in that bed, night after night, the covers pulled up to eyes the size of half dollars, waiting for the witch to make an appearance. And when she did, (not a nightly occurrence, but close), I would bury myself as deeply as I could under my covers and pillows, hands over my ears, eyes squeezed closed, waiting for her to laugh her laugh and disappear again.
I’m not entirely sure how long this torment lasted. Weeks, probably. Maybe months. I just know that there were countless nights of terror. Of uneasy sleep. Tossing and turning. Nightmares. Waking at the slightest of sounds.
Until I decided I’d had enough.
I needed to make a stand.
So, that’s exactly what I did.
On that historic night, I remember staring over at the shadow-draped wardrobe for what felt like hours. Watching. Waiting. Until I finally heard it — the creak of the wardrobe door opening; just a crack at first, but then swinging all the way open, so she could emerge from the darkness within: the witch.
Only that night was different — because instead of burrowing underneath those blankets and hiding, I somehow found the courage to throw back the covers and stand up by the bed. All fifty-five pounds of me.
And then I started walking toward the witch. My skinny right arm outstretched, pointing at her.
“Get out of here,” I said in a trembling voice.
And walked closer.
“I’m not afraid of you.” Voice stronger now. “Get out of here and don’t come back.”
The rest of the night is a blur. I don’t remember the witch’s reaction. I don’t remember walking back to my bed or falling asleep or even waking up the next morning.
I only remember that my own version of the Monster Words worked its magic — and the witch never came back. Somehow, I had won the night and banished her to wherever all defeated witches are banished to.
Still, just to be safe, I remember watching and waiting for her return. For a long time.
To be honest, I’m still waiting.
* * *
I have much clearer memories of a second reading of CUJO many years later. I was a brand new father at the time, and I remember appreciating the adult characters and the depth of the novel a lot more. Probably because I had a better understanding of what it was like to be an adult myself: what it felt like to deal with doubts and fears and pressures and the maddening consequences of Fate (more on this later).
This time around, I hated that Tad died. I hated the thoughts that it wormed into my head. Thoughts I found hard to shake for many days after.
And I wasn’t the only one who had a problem with it: just a few years ago, I found myself reading a magazine in a waiting room to pass time until the Doc was ready to see me. Across the room, a very large, black woman was reading a paperback on her lap. At some point, I heard her murmuring to herself, “No, sir, you did not.”
I looked up just in time to see the woman hurl her book across the room where it hit against the waiting room wall and bounced to the carpet. She repeated in a louder, more pissed off tone: “No, sir, you…did…not.”
I’m the curious sort, so I casually leaned over to read the cover of the book: it was CUJO. And I instantly knew which scene she had just read.
I sat back in my chair, trying not to smile, took out my phone and immediately emailed Steve to tell him what had just happened. He responded with delight, and — many miles away from each other — we both shared a laugh.
True story, folks.
* * *
THIS IS NOW…
First things first. CUJO’s dedication is one of my absolute favorites of all of King’s dedications:
This book is for my brother, David, who held my hand crossing West Broad Street, and who taught me how to make skyhooks out of old coathangers. The trick was so damned good I just never stopped. I love you, David.
That, my friends, is a beautiful thing.
* * *
CUJO’s (untitled) prologue ranks among my top five all-time favorite pieces of King prose. I’ll probably get sued, but I’m going to reprint the entire thing below. It’s that damn good.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, a monster came to the small town of Castle Rock, Maine. He killed a waitress named Alma Frechette in 1970; a woman named Pauline Toothaker and a junior high school student named Cheryl Moody in 1971; a pretty girl named Carol Dunbarger in 1974; a teacher named Etta Ringgold in the fall of 1975; finally, a grade-schooler named Mary Kate Hendrasen in the early winter of that same year.
He was not werewolf, vampire, ghoul, or unnameable creature from the enchanted forest or from the snowy wastes; he was only a cop named Frank Dodd with mental and sexual problems. A good man named John Smith uncovered his name by a kind of magic, but before he could be captured — perhaps it was just as well — Frank Dodd killed himself.
There was some shock, of course, but mostly there was rejoicing in that small town, rejoicing because the monster which had haunted so many dreams was dead, dead at last. A town’s nightmares were buried in Frank Dodd’s grave.
Yet even in this enlightened age, when so many parents are aware of the psychological damage they may do to their children, surely there was one parent somewhere in Castle Rock — or perhaps one grandmother — who quieted the kids by telling them that Frank Dodd would get them if they didn’t watch out, if they weren’t good. And surely a hush fell as children looked toward their dark windows and thought of Frank Dodd in his shiny black vinyl raincoat, Frank Dodd who had choked…and choked…and choked.
He’s out there, I can hear the grandmother whispering as the wind whistles down the chimney pipe and snuffles around the old pot lid crammed in the stove hole. He’s out there, and if you’re not good, it may be his face you see looking in your bedroom window after everyone in the house is asleep except you; it may be his smiling face you see peeking at you from the closet in the middle of the night, the STOP sign he held up when he crossed the little children in one hand, the razor he used to kill himself in the other…so shhh, children…shhh…shhh.
But for most, the ending was the ending. There were nightmares to be sure, and children who lay wakeful to be sure, and the empty Dodd house (for his mother had a stroke shortly afterwards and died) quickly gained a reputation as a haunted house and was avoided; but these were passing phenomena–the perhaps unavoidable side effects of a chain of senseless murders.
But time passed. Five years of time.
The monster was gone, the monster was dead. Frank Dodd moldered inside his coffin.
Except that the monster never dies. Werewolf, vampire, ghoul, unnameable creature from the wastes. The monster never dies.
It came to Castle Rock again in the summer of 1980.
See what I mean? It reads like the beginning of a (very dark) fairy tale, and after several readings, I guess that’s as apt a description of CUJO as any.
* * *
A dark fairy tale for grown ups? A monster story for us old folks?
Whatever you want to call it, CUJO’s a damn good story, and that’s enough for me.
This time around, I not only experienced a better understanding of the novel’s theme and relationships, I came to really appreciate the book’s structure and pacing. The narrative drive of CUJO is relentless and breathless (so that’s what King was doing when he decided to forego any chapter breaks; nothing but sheer forward momentum).
Think about it… King takes around 70 pages to set up his story. We learn everything we need to know about the Trenton family (a decent, but flawed, group heading toward some trouble in both their personal and business lives), the Camber family (already in some deep trouble), and last but certainly not least, Steve Kemp (one of King’s best realized pricks, and that’s saying something).
Seventy some pages, a nice leisurely opening…
…until we hit page 73 (Signet pb) and: “That dog’s going bad.”
And then it’s on, and you better hang on tight, because King doesn’t let up until…well, until very bad things have happened — to pretty much everyone he has made us care about in his story (and some we don’t care about all that much).
Gary Pervier is Cujo’s first unlucky victim, and when his buddy Joe Camber is killed twenty pages later in particularly gruesome fashion, I neither mourned nor cheered their deaths (although I admit I wanted to send up a little cheer).
Instead, I found myself feeling sorry for their unwitting murderer. We all knew the real Cujo wouldn’t hurt a butterfly, but this Cujo was something altogether different; he was a killing machine. Still, thanks to King’s clever device of allowing us readers to “hear” Cujo’s confused inner thoughts, I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for the monster instead of revulsion.
Trust me, the sympathy wouldn’t last much longer.
As, soon after, Donna and Tad arrive and find themselves immediately trapped at the Camber house (this occurring at precisely the halfway point of the novel; I told you this King guy is a clever one).
She reached the front of the hood and started to cross in front of the Pinto, and that was when she heard a new sound. A low, thick growling.
She stopped, her head coming up at once, trying to pin-point the source of that sound. For a moment she couldn’t and she was suddenly terrified, not by the sound itself but by its seeming directionlessness. It was nowhere. It was everywhere. And then some internal radar — survival equipment, perhaps — turned on all the way, and she understood that the growling was coming from inside the garage.
Cujo came out of Joe Camber’s garage. Donna stared at him, feeling her breath come to a painless and yet complete stop in her throat. It was the same dog. It was Cujo. But–
But oh my
(oh my God)
The dog’s eyes settled on her. They were red and rheumy. They were leaking some viscous substance. The dog seemed to be weeping gummy tears. His tawny coat was caked and matted with mud and–
Blood, is that
(it is it’s blood Christ Christ)
Scared? I know I was.
And that was only the beginning.
I’m not going to rehash all of my favorite scenes here. I’ve already excerpted enough of the book and to be honest that was a surprise to me. I always liked CUJO just fine, but I don’t think it was until this most recent reading that I realized just how good the actual writing is. I really believe CUJO contains some of King’s very best.
Okay, a few more observations and I’m outta here:
* Coincidence and Fate play major — and maddening — roles in CUJO. Imagine if Vic hadn’t left town for 10 days, an unusually long business trip for him. Or if he hadn’t called early the day Donna and Tad find themselves trapped; if he had called at his normal time, he would have wondered about their absence. Imagine if the Cambers weren’t away overnight, an almost miraculous coincidence. Or if Joe hadn’t decided to stop the mail delivery.
Not long after she realizes they are trapped, Donna runs these coincidences through her mind, and it’s this that frightens her the most: how life (and sometimes death) can be left up to such things.
It’s a brilliant — and haunting — moment in the story.
* George Meara, the Castle Rock mailman, farts a lot. He makes a brief but memorable appearance in the book because of this fact. Very few authors utilize farts in their stories. As far as I’m concerned, King earns extra points for this.
* No other image in CUJO is as clear to me as the short distance of ground from Donna’s Pinto to the Camber’s porch door. I can still see it in my mind. I’m grateful I don’t see it in my dreams.
* I think CUJO really starts cooking once the policeman discovers the Trenton’s vandalized house, and the already ticking clock quickens its pace. Now, an investigation is underway, which means one thing for Donna and Tad — hope.
They might not know it, but we as readers, do — and that’s precisely what makes us turn the remaining pages that much faster. Where before, it was difficult to see a way out for Donna and Tad, now it seems entirely possible, if not probable. Stephen King is an evil evil man for tossing us this nugget of hope…
* I didn’t skip the part where we realize that Tad is gone — “How long has he been dead, Donna?” — but I wanted to.
Same with the scene shortly after where Vic leans in the heat-blasted Pinto and sees his wife’s purse, Tad’s Snoopy lunchbox and one of his shoes, and of course, the Monster Words.
* Another really memorable piece of writing for me occurs when Vic emerges from the Camber house after breaking in to use the phone. Donna, really tottering on the brink now, is still administering mouth-to-mouth on Tad. Vic knows he is helpless to stop her.
Underneath the hatchback’s floor, where the spare tire was, he found an old blanket. He shook it out and put it over Bannerman’s mutilated body. He sat down on the grass then, and stared out at Town Road No. 3 and the dusty pines beyond. His mind floated serenely away.
* * *
The scene where Joe Camber discovers his longtime friend Gary Pervier’s mangled and bloodied body and slowly realizes that Cujo is the killer…and he is about to become his next victim:
He got to his feet and staggered down toward the kitchen. He was moaning deep in his throat but was hardly aware of it. The phone was on the wall in the kitchen. He had to call the State Police, Sheriff Bannerman, someone–
He stopped in the doorway. His eyes widened until they actually seemed to be bulging from his head. There was a pile of dog droppings in the doorway to the kitchen…and he knew from the size of the pile whose dog had been here.
“Cujo” he whispered. “Oh my God, Cujo’s gone rabid!”
He thought he heard a sound behind him and he whirled around, hair freezing up from the back of his neck.
The sound of his rapid, shallow breathing, his racing heart, and the rifle of the thin phonebook pages masked a faint noise from behind him: the low creak of the cellar door as Cujo nosed it open.
He had gone down cellar after killing Gary Pervier.
Now he stood behind Joe in the dark doorway. His head was lowered. His eyes were nearly scarlet. His thick, tawny fur was matted with gore and drying mud. Foam drizzled from his mouth in a lather, and his teeth showed constantly because his tongue was beginning to swell.
All the nerves seemed to run out of Joe Camber’s body. The telephone book slithered from his fingers and thudded against the wall again. He turned slowly toward that growling sound. He saw Cujo standing in the cellar door.
“Nice doggy,” he whispered huskily, and spit ran down his chin.
He made helpless water in his pants, and the sharp, ammoniac reek of it struck Cujo’s nose like a keen slap. He sprang.
This sequence is sheer, hold-your-breath suspense — and I loved every word of it.
There’s only one contender for me: the scene where Charity Camber gives her good-for-nothing husband a chainfall as a surprise gift (bribe) and finally stands up to him, insisting that she and Brett are going away on a trip to Connecticut to visit her sister.
The fact that she does this while serving him dinner and ends up sleeping with him a short time later does nothing to diminish the absolute triumph of the scene.
It’s a tie — one from the beginning of the book and one from the end:
Once upon a time, not so long ago, a monster came to the small town of Castle Rock, Maine.
The world was full of monsters, and they were all allowed to bite the innocent and the unwary.
SCENE THAT STILL MAKES ME CRINGE…
Gary Pervier’s bloody death runs a close third and the scene near the end in which Vic discovers the Monster Words in the battered Pinto and the vet saws off Cujo’s head runs an even closer second — but this passage gets the nod:
The dog was biting him, and as Bannerman saw the first flowers of blood open on the front of his light blue shirt, he suddenly understood everything.
Bannerman grappled with it, trying to get his hands under the dog’s muzzle and bring it up and out of his belly. There was a sudden deep and numbing pain down there. His shirt was in tatters down there. Blood was pouring over his pants in a freshet. He lurched forward and the dog drove him with frightening force, drove him back against the Pinto with a thud that rocked the little car on its springs.
Then Cujo was snapping at his fingers, tearing them, laying them open. He tried to get his knee up, between him and the dog, and found he couldn’t. When he tried to raise his knee, the pain in his lower belly flared to a sheeting agony.
The world was all dazzling sun. It was hard to see. Bannerman scrambled, clawed at the gravel, and finally made it to his knees. He looked down at himself and saw a thick gray rope of intestine hanging out of his tattered shirt. His pants were soaked with blood to both knees.
There’s more, much more, but this is enough. Gory and gross and sad — and I’ve never forgotten Bannerman’s intestines hanging out of his tattered shirt. I’m pretty sure I never will.
CHARACTER I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO…
Brett Camber. Poor kid had the deck stacked against him from Day One, but I think his Momma is going to take good care of him from here on out. No more bad apple of a father. Brand new puppy. College savings account.
I’d like to imagine that — with time — Brett was able to hang on to the handful of good memories he had of his father and Cujo, and that he was able to forget the terror of that hot Summer — and go on to do good things with his life.
START DATE – June 30, 2015
FINISH DATE – July 3, 2015
The complete list of the books we’ll be reading can be found on the Stephen King Books In Chronological Order For Stephen King Revisited Reading Lists page. To be notified of new posts and updates via email, please sign-up using the box on the right side or the bottom of this site.