In 1978, Stephen King was invited to be writer in residence at the English department of his alma mater, the University of Maine at Orono. He moved his family into a rented house on a major highway in Orrington. The heavy traffic included transports heading to and from a nearby chemical plant. A new neighbor warned the Kings to keep their pets and children away from this road, which had “used up a lot of animals.” In support of this claim, the Kings discovered a burial ground not far from the house, with “Pets Sematary” written on a sign in a childish hand. Among its residents: dogs, cats, birds, and a goat.
Shortly after they moved in, daughter Naomi’s cat, Smucky, was found dead on the side of the road when they returned from a trip to town. King’s first impulse was to tell her that the cat had wandered away. Tabitha, however, believed this was an opportunity to teach a life lesson. They broke the news to their daughter and conducted a feline funeral, committing Smucky’s mortal remains to the pet cemetery. A few nights later, King discovered Naomi in the garage, jumping up and down on sheets of bubble wrap, indignant over the loss of her pet. “Let God have His own cat. I want my cat. I want my cat,” she was repeating.
The road almost “used up” the Kings’ youngest son, too. Owen was about eighteen months old when he wandered dangerously close to the highway. To this day, King isn’t sure whether he knocked Owen down before he reached the highway as a tanker approached or if the boy tripped over his own feet. Owen had been born with an unusually large head, and the Kings had already agonized over the possibility of losing him to hydrocephalus. This near miss was an unwelcome reminder of the fragility of their children. » Read more
Different Seasons is a collection that contains only four tales and, with the exception of “The Breathing Method,” there is nothing remotely supernatural in them. None of the stories had been previously published. That may not seem unusual now, but at the time it was something of a departure for King.
The publishing landscape was different in 1982. In his lengthy afterword to Different Seasons, King bemoans the sad state of the novella, that peculiar form of fiction that falls between longer short stories and shorter novels, tales in the 25-30,000 word range. This is a territory King called “an anarchy-ridden literary banana republic.” Nowadays, there are more opportunities to publish novellas, especially in the small press. Even “The Mist,” a later novella, was published as a standalone book from one of the big houses as a movie tie-in.
He calls the stories in this collection his bedtime stories. The ideas came to him while he writing other novels. He couldn’t stop those books to tackle these ideas, so he got into the habit of telling the stories to himself while he was going to sleep at night instead of counting sheep. He says that he often has six or seven of these ideas going on at the same time and many of them never pan out. Either that or he ended up telling the entire story to himself, so there was no point in writing it down. In a later interview, King says he originally submitted only three novellas to his then-editor John Williams but, since he called them “seasons,” Williams felt there should be a fourth, so he wrote “The Breathing Method.” » Read more
Unlike most rabid King fans and purists, I came to Cujo rather late. I was barely into double-digit age when I first snuck my mother’s copy of Pet Sematary into my room and read it under the covers (a book that is largely responsible/to blame for the path my life and career took in later years), and after devouring it over the course of a few nights, I promptly took my library card and, using the excuse that I was getting the books for my mother, read almost everything King had released to that point.
To this day I can’t explain why I skipped that one title in King’s oeuvre. His name on the cover alone was enough to draw me in. But perhaps it was the cover itself that put me off. Back in those days, the European covers—British, specifically—of King’s paperbacks tended to run from gruesomely effective to just plain silly. And if memory serves, the cover of Cujo was just an illustration of a drooling muzzle, which resembled a cross section of a corned beef sandwich. Or perhaps it was the movie adaptation, which despite winning performances by the actors (including the dog) and some effective moments, doesn’t hold a candle to the book. Usually if I see a movie before I’ve read the book, I don’t bother with the latter. The reverse, however, does not hold true. » Read more
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. » Read more
King has said that most of his books start with a situation and an opening scene. If he can figure out where the situation might go or see a progression toward an end—even if that’s not how it actually does end—then he will start working on the book.
Cujo (September 1977 – March 1981) had its genesis in an encounter King had in the spring of 1977. His motorcycle wasn’t working properly and he wasn’t having any luck gapping the plugs, so he took it to a mechanic who lived on a farm out in the middle of nowhere on the recommendation of a friend, who told him the man had a strange habit of estimating a price and then charging that exact amount. King rode the bike several miles out into the country and barely made it before the vehicle quit on him.
Two memorable things greeted him: a man who looked like a character from Deliverance and “the biggest dog in the world.” The Saint Bernard growled at King, but the man assured him that “he don’t bite.” King reached out to pet the dog and it went for him. The man walked over to the dog and gave him a whack with a socket wrench. The dog yelped and sat down. It had never done anything like that before, the man said. “He must not have liked your face.” King had no place to hide if the dog decided to attack him. The motorcycle wouldn’t run and he couldn’t outrun the dog, which probably outweighed him. » Read more
The end of the 1970s saw a change in direction for Stephen King. He switched publishers and, for the first time, had a literary agent. He met Kirby McCauley at a publishing party in 1976, but didn’t sign up with him right away. When he and Doubleday reached an impasse on a contract for his next few books, despite internal support from Bill Thompson, he consulted McCauley, who suggested offering the books to NAL, his paperback publisher. NAL met his demands and sold the hardcover rights to Viking. The deal was big news, reported in Publishers Weekly.
His first book at Viking was a change of pace, too. King considers The Dead Zone to be science fiction, unlike the fantasy/horror of his previous books. The Stand was meant to be a “summing up” of what he’d done to date, and it was time to move on to something different. » Read more