Cujo by Stephen King (building realistic, intelligent characters)

In his memoirs, Stephen King says that he was so drunk when he wrote Cujo that he doesn’t even remember writing it—which is a shame because he says he likes Cujo.

I have to say, this is absolutely astonishing that he was loaded when he wrote Cujo because it is a fantastic book.

The gist of the story is a mother and son are trapped in a car by a rabid Saint Bernard.

It’s scary. But it’s also a surprisingly complex family drama. There are two parallel stories of marriages under stress, and through those families, King manages to cover such weighty topics as domestic violence, fear of growing older, and adultery.

I’d like to quote a passage that totally blew me away in which husband and wife, Vic and Donna, are discussing Donna’s infidelity. Donna speaks first:

“You don’t know about emptiness, Vic. Don’t think you do. You’re a man and men grapple. Men grapple and women dust. You dust the empty rooms and you listen to the wind blowing outside sometimes. Only sometimes it seems like the wind’s inside, you know? So you put on a record, Bob Seger or J. J. Cale or someone and you can still hear the wind, and thoughts come to you, ideas, nothing good, but they come. So you clean both toilets and you do the sink and the little pottery knicknacks, and you think about how your mother had a shelf of knickknacks like that, and your aunts all had shelves of them, and your grandmother as well.”

He was looking at her closely, and his expression was so honestly perplexed that she felt a wave of her own despair.

“It’s feelings I’m talking about, not facts!”

“Yes, but why—”

“I’m telling you why! I’m telling you that I got so I was spending enough time in front of the mirror to see how my face was changing, how no one was ever going to mistake me for a teenager again or ask to see my driver’s license when I ordered a drink in a bar. I started to be afraid because I grew up after all. Tad’s going to preschool and that means he’s going to go to school, then high school—”

“Are you saying you took a lover because you felt old?

[…] She took his hands and spoke earnestly into his face, thinking—knowing—that she might never speak so earnesty (or honestly) to any man again. “It’s more. It’s knowing you can’t wait any longer to be a grownup, or wait any longer to make your peace with what you have. It’s knowing that your choices are being narrowed almost daily. For a woman—no, for me,—that’s a brutal thing to have to face. Wife, that’s fine. But you’re gone to work, even when you’re home you’re gone at work so much. Mother, that’s fine, too. But there’s a little less of it every year, because every year the world gets another slice of him. Men…they know what they are. They have an image of what they are. […] And what a woman does—what I did—was to run from becoming. I got scared of the way the house sounded when Tad was gone.”

Damn. That’s some amazing stuff!

Stephen King is a horror writer, a storyteller, but he really gets psychological nuance. He understands domestic despair. As someone once said about Updike, Stephen King has a very good spy in the female camp.

What I really loved about this book was how true to life King chose to play it. His characters are truly complex. In this intense marital crises, Vic and Donna still listen to each other and try to give each other the benefit of the doubt based on the years of love they had shared.

I don’t think a less skillful writer could have handled this scene with nearly as much delicacy and grace. When faced with domestic discord, a less skillful writer would probably have turned this into a hack-job of some melodramatic fight.

I think we can all take a lesson from this little scene and think about moments when we can go deeper into our characters. Think about moments when we can give them their due.

About E.S.O. Martin

E.S.O. Martin is a writer, a California native, and a graduate of SF State's Creative Writing MFA program.
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