First edition cover
|September 8, 1981|
|Media type||Print (hardcover)|
Cujo's name was based on the nom de guerre of Willie Wolfe, one of the men responsible for orchestrating Patty Hearst's kidnapping and indoctrination into the Symbionese Liberation Army. Stephen King discusses Cujo in On Writing, referring to it as a novel he "barely remembers writing at all". The book was written during a period when King was on a cocaine binge. King goes on to say that he likes the book and that he wishes he could remember enjoying the good parts as he put them down on the page.
According to King, the novel was partly inspired by his trip to a mechanic during "the spring of 1977."  In a 2006 interview with The Paris Review, King describes how issues with his motorcycle led him to visit an auto shop on the northern outskirts of Bridgton, Maine. He claims that his motorcycle died when he arrived at the shop, and moments after, a Saint Bernard emerged from the garage, growling at him and eventually lunging for his hand. Although the mechanic stopped the dog from harming King by hitting the dog’s hindquarters with a wrench, King was still startled by the encounter. This incident, as well as a story published in a Portland, Maine newspaper about a young child that was killed by a Saint Bernard served as inspirations for the novel. King also owned a dysfunctional Ford Pinto at the time, which is the same car model that the novel’s protagonist, Donna Trenton, drives to the auto garage where she encounters the rabid Cujo.
The story takes place in the setting of numerous King works: the fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine. Revolving around two local families, the narrative is interspersed with vignettes from the seemingly mundane lives of various other residents. There are no chapter headings but breaks in between passages to indicate when the narration switches to a different point of view.
The middle-class Trentons have recently moved to Castle Rock from New York City, bringing with them their four-year-old son, Tad. The father in the family, Vic, discovers that his wife, Donna, has recently concluded an affair. In the midst of this household tension, Vic's advertising agency is failing, and he is forced to travel out of town, leaving Tad and Donna at home. The blue-collar Cambers are longtime residents; Joe is a mechanic who dominates and abuses his wife, Charity, and their ten-year-old son, Brett. Charity wins a $5,000 lottery prize and uses the proceeds to trick Joe into allowing her to take Brett on a trip to visit Charity's sister, Holly, in Connecticut. Joe acquiesces, and secretly plans to use the time to take a pleasure trip to Boston.
Cujo, the Cambers' large, good-natured St. Bernard, chases a wild rabbit in the fields around their house and inserts his head in the entrance to a small limestone cave, where a rabid bat bites him on the nose and infects him with the virus. While Charity and Brett leave town, Cujo kills their alcoholic neighbor, Gary Pervier. When Joe goes to talk to Gary about the trip, Cujo kills him as well.
Donna, home alone with Tad, takes their failing Ford Pinto to the Cambers' for repairs. The car breaks down in Camber's dooryard, and as Donna attempts to find Joe, Cujo appears and attacks her. She climbs back in the car as Cujo starts to attack. Donna and Tad are trapped in their vehicle, the interior of which becomes increasingly hot in the sun. During one escape attempt, Donna is bitten in the stomach and leg but manages to survive and escape back into the car. She plans to run for the house, but abandons the idea due to her fears that the door will be locked, and that she will be subsequently killed by Cujo, leaving her son alone.
Vic returns to Castle Rock after several failed attempts to contact Donna and learns from the police that Steve Kemp, the man with whom Donna was having an affair, is suspected of ransacking his home and possibly kidnapping Donna and Tad. To explore all leads, the state police send Castle Rock Sheriff George Bannerman out to the Cambers' house, but Cujo attacks and kills him. Donna, after witnessing the attack and realizing Tad is in danger of dying of dehydration, battles Cujo and kills him. Vic arrives on the scene with the authorities soon after, but Tad has already died from dehydration and heat stroke. Donna is rushed to the hospital, and Cujo's head is removed for a biopsy to check for rabies prior to cremation of his remains.
The novel ends several months later with both the Trenton and Camber families trying to go on with their lives: Donna has completed her treatment for rabies, her marriage with Vic has survived, and Charity gives Brett a new, vaccinated puppy named Willie. A postscript reminds the reader that Cujo was a good dog who always tried to keep his owners happy, but the ravage of rabies drove him to violence.
- Cujo: A friendly Saint Bernard that becomes murderous after contracting rabies from a bat bite.
- Donna Trenton: The wife of Vic Trenton. She becomes trapped in the car after arriving at the auto shop where the rabid Cujo lurks.
- Vic Trenton: Donna’s husband. He is on a work-related trip when his wife and son encounter Cujo at the Camber auto shop.
- Tad Trenton: The son of Donna and Vic. He becomes trapped in the car with Donna at the auto shop.
- Joe Camber: The mechanic and owner of the auto shop where Donna and Tad encounter Cujo.
- Charity Camber: The wife of Joe Camber. She and her son leave Cujo behind while on a trip to visit Charity’s sister.
- Brett Camber: The son of Joe and Charity. Cujo is Brett’s dog.
- Frank Dodd: A former Castle Rock policeman who was discovered to be the “Castle Rock strangler:” a serial killer traumatizing Castle Rock during the 1970s. Cujo makes many references to Dodd throughout the story.
- George Bannerman: The current Castle Rock sheriff. He once worked with Dodd and ultimately discovered Dodd’s guilt in the Castle Rock murders. He is killed by Cujo in his attempt to save Donna and Tad.
- Steve Kemp: The man Donna has an affair with. He breaks into and vandalizes Donna’s house after learning that she wants to end the affair.
- Roger Breakstone: Vic’s friend and coworker. He accompanies Vic on his work-related trip.
Upon its initial release in 1981, the novel earned and maintained a high position on best seller lists in the United States. Some critics have criticized the novel, given its dismal ending. The original ending was later altered to feature a more optimistic conclusion in the 1983 film adaptation of the novel.
Allusions and connections to other King novels
- There are allusions to Cujo in King’s other works, which often reference the Saint Bernard and refer generally to the incident of the summer of 1980 where the rabid dog killed four individuals in Castle Rock, Maine.
- The characters of Frank Dodd and George Bannerman appear in both The Dead Zone and Cujo. Dodd's appearance is referenced in a sub-plot of Cujo where the young son Tad is haunted by the ghost of Frank Dodd, who appears in the King novel The Dead Zone. In Cujo, Dodd's ghost inhabits Tad's closet, causing him to have horrifying nightmares where Dodd opens the closet door at night, taunting Tad that Dodd will eat him alive and kill him.
- On the official Stephen King website, Cujo is listed as a character in numerous other novels including: Needful Things, The Dark Half, and Pet Sematary. 
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