Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Cujo

Go To
Kids, this ain't Beethoven.

"Nope, nothing wrong here."

It's summertime in Castle Rock, Maine. Two of the resident families, the middle-class Trentons and the working-class Cambers, are going through a rough patch.

Vic Trenton has discovered that his wife Donna has been having an affair, and as if that weren't enough, his advertising agency is in dire straits thanks to problems with one of their clients' products. Vic is forced to travel out of town to try and fix things with the agency, leaving Donna and their five-year-old son Tad home alone for two weeks.

Meanwhile, Charity Camber is enduring a marriage to her dominating and abusive husband Joe, who works as a mechanic. One day, a lucky lottery ticket brings her $5,000, and possibly a way out for both her and their 11-year-old son Brett, if she plays her cards right. In the midst of all this, the Cambers' pet dog, Cujo, chases a rabbit through a field one day that summer, and into an underground bat cave, where one of the bats ends up biting Cujo on the nose.

And with that, two families at domestic crossroads are about to have their lives altered in bloody, violent fashion. For Cujo is a five-year-old, two-hundred-pound Saint Bernard who has never had his rabies shots...

Cujo, the second of Stephen King's novels to feature the fictional Maine town of Castle Rock, was published in 1981, and adapted into a film starring Dee Wallace in 1983. It's notable for being a kind of pseudo-sequel to King's earlier novel The Dead Zone (the first of his works to take place in Castle Rock), beginning shortly after the infamous Castle Rock Strangler's murder spree. A few minor characters from The Dead Zone appear in cameos, and it's implied that the titular dog might be possessed by the ghost of the Castle Rock Strangler himself.

"Rattlesnakes", a sequel short story centering on Vic, will be published in King's collection You Like It Darker in 2024.

This book/film contains examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Gary Pervier. He became a morphine addict after his war injury, and when he couldn't get it anymore, he turned to booze.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: The narration takes time to remind us Cujo never wanted to hurt anyone. After his death, it is noted that he was always a good dog.
  • The Alleged Car: Donna's Ford Pinto. In fact, the whole reason why Donna and Tad are trapped is because they took it to Joe's to get the broken alternator fixed. By the time Cujo dies, it's in even worse shape.
  • Angry Guard Dog: Subverted with Cujo: he attacks people because of rabies, not because he was bred that way.
  • Anyone Can Die: Both Sheriff Bannerman, who'd been prominently featured in The Dead Zone, and Tad, a child, die.
  • Artistic License – Biology: The incubation period for rabies in dogs is two weeks to four months, but Cujo starts showing symptoms almost immediately after he's bitten.
  • Asshole Victim: Joe.
  • Ax-Crazy: After getting infected with Rabies from a bat, Cujo's brain starts deteriorating and he eventually starts believing that the humans have done something to him and is so terrified and frenzied from the disease that he attacks them.
  • Back for the Dead: Sheriff Bannerman, a major character in The Dead Zone, shows up in a few scenes before being brutally killed by Cujo.
  • Beware of Vicious Dog: Prior to being infected with Rabies, Cujo was an aversion and was shown to be friendly. However, after being infected with rabies, his brain deteriorates to a point where he attacks humans under a frenzied belief that they are responsible for the agonizing pain he's undergoing.
  • Big Bad Slippage: At the start of the story, Cujo was like any Big Friendly Dog. Upon getting infected with rabies, he transforms into a ravenous animal. None of this was of his own volition, either.
  • Big Friendly Dog:
    • Cujo was one, before he got rabies (as St. Bernards tend to be). When rabies starts to change his behavior and he growls at Gary Pervier, Gary is surprised because he never heard Cujo growl before. The terror comes from how quickly a Big Friendly Dog is turned into a killing machine by the virus. There's a reason why most places require all registered dogs to get the rabies vaccine.
    • This extended to Real Life: a genuine problem in the making of the film because they simply could not get the St. Bernard playing him to act aggressively. They had to replace him with a cunningly disguised Rottweiler for several crucial scenes, and tape his tail to his leg so he didn't wag it constantly. Awww.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Tad dies, a big friendly dog that never wanted to hurt anyone dies, but Vic and Donna reconcile, and by the end, things are getting a little bit better for them. Charity and Brett meanwhile ultimately live better due to Joe's death.
  • Catapult Nightmare: In the movie, after Donna gets bitten by Cujo after attempting to go into the house to get help, Vic springs awake, yelling, "No!"
  • Catchphrase: An in-story example. Vic Trenton, who works in advertising, along with his partner, Roger, creates a character called "The Sharp Cereal Professor", who becomes hugely popular. His catchphrase is "Nope, nothing wrong here" which becomes a national piece of slang...and then a national punchline after the Zingers debacle.
  • Chocolate-Frosted Sugar Bombs: Red Razberry Zingers, a product of the Sharp cereal company Vic works for. It's "halfway between candy and cereal" and leaves behind a red-stained toilet bowl, which makes it look like someone is undergoing internal bleeding. Though it's completely harmless, many horrified parents take their kids to the emergency room, creating a public relations disaster for Sharp.
  • Dog Stereotype: Cujo starts out fitting the Saint Bernard stereotype—he's a Big Friendly Dog who loves children. Then he gets rabies, and all bets are off.
  • Dogs Love Being Praised: The scenes from Cujo's point of view show that until rabies deteriorates his brain, he is very concerned with not being seen as a BADDOG.
  • Domestic Abuser: Joe Camber. To the point (in the book) that during sex, his wife is afraid of crying out, because she's not sure he knows about female orgasms and it might upset him.
  • Emasculated Cuckold: Vic Trenton. His wife has an affair with Steve Kemp, and after she breaks it off, Kemp sends a crude message to Vic in revenge about how he enjoyed "fucking the shit out of her". He also mentions the mole Donna has on an intimate place, so Vic knows that the message is true. It causes him horrible emotional pain.
  • Eye Scream: Donna kills Cujo by thrusting the broken handle of a baseball bat through his eye socket.
  • The Film of the Book: It was adapted into a 1983 film.
  • Groin Attack: Gary Pervier lost a testicle in World War II. Cujo bites Joe Camber in the groin, but mercifully, this is not detailed.
  • Heat Wave: The story takes place during one, which leads to Tad's death.
  • Hope Spot:
    • As the sun comes up on the second day of their "captivity," Donna realizes that she and Tad just have to hold out until the mail carrier comes to the Cambers' and then they'll be okay. While the reader might wonder how the mailman might fare against Cujo, it's a moot point; Camber cancelled his mail delivery since he and Gary were planning to take off for a few days.
    • It happens again when, on the third day, Sheriff Bannerman shows up at the Camber house to investigate Donna's and Ted's disapperance, only for Cujo to kill him before he has a chance to call for backup.
  • Improbable Infant Survival: Averted in the book. Played straight in the movie.
  • Instant Illness: Borderline example. Rabies typically takes longer than a week to begin showing symptoms (it usually takes a few months) - to be more precise, symptoms don't begin to show until the virus reaches the brain. However, the distance from bite site to the brain is actually a factor, and Cujo was bitten on the nose, so there is a slim possibility that the virus could indeed have advanced that quickly. In an unusual case during the modern age, a human victim got bitten by a wolf very close to the head and the virus got into the nervous system almost instantly. Despite the full vaccine course and serum being given the next day at the hospital, the poor guy developed rabies and died a horrible death in less than 2 weeks after the bite. Very rare, one-in-a-million chance, but it still can happen.
  • Intimate Marks: Donna has a mole just above her pubic hair that looks like a question mark. Steve Kemp mentions it in his letter to Vic (see Emasculated Cuckold).
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Gary Pervier, in the book at least, has a touch of this. Despite being a full-blown grouch, to put it mildly, he's friends with Joe Camber, and doesn't mind Camber's son, either, but he has a genuine soft spot for Cujo (pre-rabies, of course) and even keeps some dog biscuits on hand for when the dog comes by.
  • Laser-Guided Karma:
    • Steve Kemp, who is responsible for nobody knowing where Tad and Donna are, is arrested for kidnapping them, which of course he didn't do. Unfortunately for him there's also drugs in his car, and he also vandalized the Trentons' home on top of that.
    • Joe Camber is a wife beater with all that implies. The last thing seen before the book cuts away as Joe is killed off-screen is Cujo going for a Groin Attack.
  • Mama Bear: Donna's primal rage at the end is partly due to Cujo threatening her son, and partly due to early symptoms of rabies. There's Artistic License – Biology on the last part. Rabies has an incubation period of one to three months before symptoms start to appear. While there have been records of incubation periods lasting only four days, she didn't even spend THAT long trapped. Not to mention she almost certainly would have been a goner if symptoms appeared (Post-exposure treatment has a tragically low success rate, and survivors suffer severe neurological problems for the rest of their lives). Also, rabies very rarely manifests as "primal rage" in humans the way it does in animals.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Although the book is realistic horror rather than the supernatural horror that King is most well known for, there are a few lines scattered throughout implying that the rabid Cujo is the reincarnation of the psychotic killer/rapist Frank Dodd. Then there's the "monster" in Tad's closet that turns out to be just a pile of blankets...which return to the closet after his parents remove them.
  • Meaningful Name: Cujo was the nickname for Willie Wolfe of the SLA. The Cambers' replacement pet gets named Willie.
  • Mid-Life Crisis Car: Steve Kemp refers to this phenomenon as "sports car menopause".
  • Misplaced Retribution: Due to the rabies screwing up Cujo's rational thinking, he honestly comes to believe that Donna, and later Sheriff Bannerman, are responsible for him being sick, which is what prompts him to attack them.
  • Mundanger: In contrast to most of King's works, there is no supernatural threat in this book. Just a huge, rabid dog. The end of the book even includes a passage that clarifies that Cujo was simply a large, formerly well-meaning dog driven mad by rabies.
  • My Car Hates Me: Donna and Tad are trapped on the Cambers' farm, because her car (a Ford Pinto) wouldn't start (she actually went there to get it fixed).
  • Never Wake Up a Sleepwalker: During the first night they spend at her sisters' house, Charity finds her son Brett sleepwalking. Although she has enough common sense to know that all those horror stories about the dangers of waking up a sleepwalker are just myths, she still can't bring herself to wake him up and instead watches him untill he goes back to bed. She also recalls how she took Brett to the doctor when he was six because of his frequent sleepwalking, and the doctor blamed poorly researched movies for the wrong ideas people still have about sleepwalking.
  • Never Win the Lottery: Charity Camber's $5,000 win enables her and Brett to stay with her sister - just in time to leave her husband and visitors at Cujo's mercy.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: Joe's death is only implied. As the most unlikeable character in the film, his death would have made for more satisfying viewing than the innocents Cujo savages.
  • Oh, and X Dies: When Charity and Brett leave for Connecticut, the narrator notes that Brett never saw his father alive again.
  • Oh, Crap!: When Joe comes face to face with the rabid Cujo.
    Steve: Oh, my God, you're rabid!
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted with Roger Breakstone, one of Vic's colleagues, and Roger, who advises the Mailman not to make the trip over to the Cambers' house since they'll be away, preventing him from rescuing Donna and Tad.
  • Police Are Useless: Sheriff Bannerman lasts about 30 seconds with Cujo, and he is by far the most effective cop in the book. In addition, if he'd followed procedure and called in that the Pinto was at the Cambers' before he got out of his car to investigate, backup would have arrived and Tad most likely would have survived.
  • Previously on…: The opening paragraphs summarise the events of The Dead Zone which took place in Castle Rock.
  • Real Award, Fictional Character: Gary Pervier received the Distinguished Service Cross (the second highest military award in the US army) for his heroism in World War II. He eventually had it turned into an ashtray.
  • Resurrected Murderer: There is some implication in the novel that Cujo, after contracting rabies, was also possessed by the vengeful spirit of Frank Dodd, a Serial Killer Cop from Stephen King's previous novel The Dead Zone. Sheriff Bannerman certainly believed so as he was being mauled to death by the rabid St. Bernard, and there are other bits of text that highly imply Dodd's influence over the diseased animal.
  • The Scapegoat: This is how Vic and Roger see themselves in the subplot about Sharp cereals and the Raspberry Zingers controversy. One batch of contaminated food dye makes it into the company's cereal, and even though nobody is actually hurt or sickened by it, and even though the cereal company itself isn't to blame, Sharp's sales fall and their stock price plummets. Obviously the outside advertising agency promoting the cereal had absolutely nothing to do with any of that, but Vic and Roger understand that Sharp will probably fire them just to show they're taking decisive action and recover a bit of their stock price. Ultimately subverted when Sharp decides to retain Vic and Roger for two more years, though the two men understand it's just a stay of execution and they're going to get fired once those two years are up.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Gary Pervier. He served in World War II, where he had single-handedly taken a German pillbox, and was hit by six bullets. After that, he became an alcoholic and developed a nihilistic outlook on life (as he puts it, he doesn't give a shit about anything).
  • Shoot the Dog: Through the entire book, Cujo is shown to be a good dog who had the sheer bad luck to run afoul of a rabid bat and his brain deteriorated to point of aggression, Cujo was only killing people under a frenzied belief that the humans were responsible for the pain he was going through. After everything that happened, the narration points out that Cujo was never truly violent or aggressive and his behaviour was only a result of rabies. Making Cujo's death at the end of the book more tragic and merciful than letting him continue living in pain and killing people.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Tad, in the movie.
  • Stealth Sequel: To The Dead Zone, being set in Castle Rock (which would become a recurring location in King’s stories), with the deceased Frank Dodd's influence looming over the town. Sheriff George Bannerman and one of his deputies also return, and Johnny Smith is mentioned a few times.
  • Stopped Caring: Gary Pervier after the war. He lives on his disability pension, lets his house decay and his main goal is to kill himself "as slowly and as pleasantly as he could" (mainly by drinking).
  • Things That Go "Bump" in the Night: The monster in Tad's closet.
  • Tragic Monster: Cujo. He's shown to suffer terribly from rabies, and he only attacks people under the frenzied belief that they are responsible for his pain. At the end of the book, it's written: "It would perhaps not be amiss to point out that he had always tried to be a good dog. [...] He had never wanted to kill anybody. He had been struck by something, possibly destiny, or fate, or only a degenerative nerve disease called rabies. Free will was not a factor." He was also possibly influenced by the ghost of a previous Stephen King villain... Not to mention his brief encounter with Randall Flagg. Sadly, Cujo isn't even at peace after his death. His restless, malevolent spirit makes a cameo appearance in King's "last" Castle Rock story.
  • Trapped-with-Monster Plot: Being trapped with your sick child in a swelteringly hot car that won't start, as a rabid dog waits for you just outside.
  • Truth in Television: Eating too much food with red dye does produce what looks remarkably like bloody stool.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: That helpful mailman who points Vic Trenton in the direction of Joe Camber? If he had just minded his own business, Donna and her son wouldn't have had to experience the nightmare they went through.
  • Villainous Legacy: Frank Dodd's legacy looms large over the town, but he doesn't play any role in the novel outside of a subplot and a few hints he might be influencing Cujo's rampage somehow on account of being dead.
  • The Virus: Rabies. The effect of rabies was so prominent on Cujo to a point where the main character repeatedly said how Cujo had always been a good dog but it was only the virus that made Cujo lose his mind and become murderously violent.
  • War Hero: Gary Pervier won a Distinguished Service Cross during World War II, and is now an angry and bitter alcoholic. His wartime injuries led to him being addicted to morphine, and once he came home from the war he substituted alcohol for morphine.
  • What Did I Do Last Night?: According to King's auto-biography, this entire book. There are worse things to do on a bender...
  • Xenofiction: Parts of the book are told from the perspective of Cujo. They show him to be a Tragic Villain.