When it comes to my least favourite King novels, Cujo is third. Why? It’s disjointed, for one; a lot of the book is taken up by the foibles of the Sharp Cereal Professor and honestly I can’t bring myself to care enough about the dying art of marketing kid’s cereals in the early 1980s. Also, the Trentons are not sympathetic characters. Look, I’ve written elsewhere about how your characters don’t necessarily need to be likable. I’ve gone off at length about how needing your characters to be the reader’s best friend is just a trap that encourages an immature fanbase that will rise up and kidnap you when you decide to kill those characters off…
Wait, actually, I think that was Misery.
Anyway, the Trentons are middle-class assholes. Vic somehow seems to be completely oblivious to the fact that his wife is feeling trapped in their bourgeois life of comfort and Donna spins in place, rebelling against all that awful success that has her feeling like youth has passed her by. Rather than, I don’t know, taking up a hobby or volunteering in her community, she decides to lie, by having an affair with the dirtbag painter/poet who seems more than a little nuts. I mean, if you want to have sex with someone else because you’re feeling bored, maybe communicate some of those feelings with your significant other. So many of the problems in this book could have been solved if the characters would just talk to each other about more than petty surface-level bullshit. Meanwhile, little Tad is having the psychic equivalent of a nervous breakdown but his parents are too self-absorbed to even notice.
The Chambers family, meanwhile, is much more sympathetic, despite being the nominal antagonists, sort of. Cujo is the antagonist, sure, because he kills a lot of people (including Sheriff Bannerman from The Dead Zone) but he’s just a rabid dog. Poor guy. Joe Chambers should have gotten him his rabies shots, but in the end Cujo’s rabies are the product of a very tragic, very archetypal human story. Joe is a solid, working class man who’s been bitten both by the drink and by the bigotry of low expectations. He’s an alcoholic, sure, but his place in rural Maine society is such that no one expects anything else out of him. He drinks, fucks off work, fishes with the boys, and lives that good ol’ boy life that marks him out as a certain sort of person. His son Brett is following quickly in his footsteps, and that’s why Charity Chambers is desperate to get him away from his father’s influence. When her lottery win comes along, it’s the perfect chance to do just that, and herein is a far more interesting tale than the Trenton’s narcissistic story. Will the boy become the man? Will the son become the father? Can Charity make sure her son grows up right, and not become the latest in a long line of Maine tosspots?
Plus, King breaks the cardinal rule of mainstream horror, which is that if one of your main characters is a kid, they have plot armour. When Tad dies, I prefer to think of it as the cocaine talking, rather than King, because he should know better. He’s seen all the movies. I know, I’ve read Danse Macabre.
Anyway Cujo looks like this:
So we have here a book whose major emotional volume seems to occur at the beginning and through the middle; the end tends to be quite a bit quieter.
Unlike a lot of King’s previous books, the sentiment in Cujo seems more evenly distributed. Also of note is that nothing goes over the +20 mark. The full stats range looks like this:
Fairly negative, as far as King books go.
There’s a lot of negative spikes here but there’s three that stand out as guideposts for the book: 10, 45, and 77. They divide the book into three basic parts, with the last one of course being quite short (which seems to be a King hallmark). 10 kicks off Cujo’s downward spiral, 45 is where Donna and Tad arrive at Chez Chambers only to find a rabid dog prowling the yard, and 77 is where Vic realizes that Tad and Donna are missing and the whole “Tad dreaming about dying” thing comes crashing down on him.
Note that the negative sentiment peak isn’t even where Tad dies. That’s not even 80, the little spike that occurs after – that’s where Cujo dies. Tad’s death is relegated to the muckery that comes near the end of the book, near to the zero-mark. Like Wilson in The Naked And The Dead, Tad Trenton’s death occurs between one moment and the next, and his passing isn’t even surrounded with sentiment cues.
Which brings up my ultimate beef with this book: Tad exists in this book just to die. We don’t focus on him much, his story gets lost among everyone else’s and he exists in the car just to provide a foil for Donna to try to keep going. He’s a sketch of a character and his death is used as a token in the ongoing saga of the Trenton Marriage.
So there’s that.
Finally, the word contributions:
Note that “hot” is quite misleading here; Tad dies of thirst in a hot car, but “hot” is counted as positive here, meaning the book is probably more negative than the mean indicates.