By the time Cujo was published in 1981, Stephen King had already proven himself as a prominent writer in the horror genre. His grasp on the terrifying aspects of life propelled each of his books to become bestsellers. However, with Cujo, King enters into another realm of writing-mainstream fiction. The fact that Cujo became an immediate bestseller reflects what the public wished to read at the time-"a modern novel about modern people facing modern problems" (Schweitzer 131). Although Cujo still maintained elements of the horror that King fans were used to, the novel also provided readers with a high level of character development-especially focusing on the character of Donna Trenton-as well as a connection to ordinary people facing ordinary problems. All of these facets of mainstream fiction that are incorporated into King's version of horror in the novel directly led to its becoming an immediate bestseller.
Stephen King makes use of many elements of mainstream fiction in his novel Cujo. Although 1982's Different Seasons is recognized as King's great offering of mainstream fiction, Cujo is his first effort "at exceeding the traditional limits of the horror genre" (Schweitzer 131). Cujo is viewed as a work that incorporates elements of both horror and mainstream fiction and "belongs among post-1950 literary titles as well as horror titles" (Schweitzer 131). Using plot climaxes to accentuate horror, King examines the often-viewed myth of the American family. This topic, one that is frequently discussed in mainstream fiction, is incorporated into King's world of horror with great skill. "?King can evoke the Middle American scene and yet maintain the credibility of some pretty bizarre characters" (Book Review Digest 1982 731). The myth of the family lies somewhere in between the actual and the ideal. In Cujo the characters are highly concerned with controlling this myth, and this control is achieved or denied through their own personal actions. This control over an institution is also another level of the genre of mainstream fiction that King taps into with his novel Cujo.
The rather mainstream question of youthfulness also plays a large role in Cujo. The American ideal of youth is closely examined and challenged in the novel. "Relinquishing one's youth and accepting the maturity of Adulthood is a crisis for the characters in Cujo?" (Schweitzer 132). This ideal of youthfulness is demonstrated by the protagonist Donna Trenton's lack of desire to relinquish hers. She finally accepts her responsibility as an adult and mother when she battles Cujo with a baseball bat and defeats him, symbolically disposing of her youth and admitting her need to grow up. The question, and ideal, of youthfulness is constantly on the minds of Americans. In a society where youth is venerated and old-age is dreaded and feared, King exposes this fear and presents it for open discussion. While discussion of such topics as aging is an often-talked about facet of mainstream fiction, the genre of horror usually shies away from such subjects.
While King presents a very convincing portrait of horror, he uses common occurrences to do so. This kind of 'mainstream horror' somehow becomes more effective than the supernatural elements of many of King's other novels, such as The Shining and Pet Sematary. As critic Sharon A. Russell states, "the supernatural is not really important in Cujo" (Bloom 205). King makes effectual use of commonplace items and occurrences to induce horror in his readers. By employing such everyday items as cars and closets, and even childhood nightmares, into terrifying scenarios, King evokes a sense of fear not found within the realm of the paranormal. Stephen King places Donna and her son, Tad, in a broken-down Ford Pinto while Cujo attacks them relentlessly. The ordinariness of the car becomes obscured as time goes on; claustrophobia and helplessness take the place of the ordinary, everyday function of the car.
Another of King's uses of the ordinary to imply horror is found within a dream that Tad has about a boy struggling to hit a baseball with a bat. Eventually the boy hits the ball, but as he does, the bat shatters and the boy throws it away. The boy turns and Tad realizes that "the boy was himself at ten or eleven" (King, 141). This dream foreshadows Donna using the broken baseball bat to kill Cujo after the long standoff in the Pinto. Tad essentially foresees his own death, "through a commonplace occurrence, a child's nightmare" (Schweitzer 133).
Another aspect of mainstream fiction that King focuses on is the theme of everyday people battling and overcoming everyday problems. In accomplishing this, King manages to incorporate high levels of character development, as well as "?build[ing] a riveting novel out of the lives of some very ordinary and believable people in a small Maine town?" (CLC 26 238). "Deft characterization and rigorous plotting, a la Hitchcock, inform the best of King's bravura experiments in the horror genre" (CLC 26 238). He concentrates highly on minute character details, allowing for a great deal of reader involvement. This development is present in all of King's major characters in Cujo.
Charity Camber, the wife of Cujo's abusive owner, is determined to show her son Brett a way of life different than the one he currently lives in; "the isolated, backroad existence of Maine" (Schweitzer 133). She is willing to do whatever it takes to insure that Brett does not continue in his father's footsteps, and even contemplates leaving her husband for her son's sake. However, King also explores another factor that links women to abusive husbands: "they are?trapped by internal compulsions, in Charity's case by love for the man who continues to victimize her" (CLC 113 356). By discussing such ordinary societal problems, King engages the reader in his material, with more than just the typical horror and gore.
Another character who is highly developed and deeply explored is one of the major antagonists Steve Kemp, Donna Trenton's lover. Kemp, a local poet and political radical, is making a desperate attempt "to cling to his fading youth and power" (Schweitzer 133). In doing this he feels compelled to have Donna, and when she rejects him he takes his revenge by ransacking the Trentons' home. Kemp sees this action as a "piece of revolutionary anarchy-offing a couple of middle-class pigs, the sort who made it easy for the fascist overlords to remain in power by blindly paying their taxes and telephone bills" (King 211-212). This statement alone allows the reader to understand Kemp's desperate need for power and youth. As Donna states, "he's a roadrunner, dreaming he's still in college and protesting the war in Vietnam" (King 95-96). King's development of Steve Kemp's character allows the reader to become involved with the novel at a level not usually found in the horror genre.
Vic Trenton, Donna's husband, also finds himself dealing with problems that are fairly common in contemporary society. He is forced to come to terms with the fact that he is struggling with the issues of success, family, and the ideal of the American Dream. Vic tries to cling to his family and fleeting success, while the American Dream crumbles around him; he discovers his wife is having an affair and his business is failing.
However, it is Donna, the protagonist of Cujo, who is the most highly developed character and given the most problems to deal with. Donna's role in the novel exemplifies another aspect of mainstream fiction that appears in Cujo but for the most part not in the horror genre in general is the topic of feminism and focusing on women. As critic Carol A. Senf states, "by far the strongest of King's heroines is Donna Trenton in Cujo" (CLC113 355). By making Donna the heroine of the novel, King gives the reader a believable model of female strength. Donna, after moving from bustling New York City to the quieter, more subdued Castle Rock, Maine feels her life slipping from her. She cannot make herself take on the role of the typical housewife, saying she "didn't want to sell Tupperware and [she] didn't want to sell Amway and [she] didn't want to give Stanley parties?" (King 95). With this realization and need to act comes, for Donna, the choice to begin the extramarital affair with Steve Kemp. This is the first poor choice that Donna makes that she will have to rise from and succeed. The point when she realizes that she has made poor decisions and ends the affair with Kemp is the turning point of the novel. "[King] does not let us watch her sink; instead, we witness her rise through her decisions and reflections" (Schweitzer 134). By ending the affair, Donna begins to work through the difficulties in order to regain a normal life. Donna wastes no time in learning from her experiences. She senses her growing control of her family situation, "?not when she ends her affair, but when she openly accepts its lessons. She faces the reason for her poor choice" (Schweitzer 134).
However, just when she realizes her control returning, Donna and her son Tad become trapped by Cujo in the Ford Pinto. Alone with her son, "Donna becomes a new kind of heroine, a woman who takes control of her life rather than waiting for someone-the proverbial knight-to save her. In fact, Donna begins to realize during the ordeal that she is a new kind of woman?" (CLC 113 358). At this moment she suddenly understands that she has the potential to be "a better woman than her own mother?" (King 213). Finally in the moment that she is forced by external circumstances to take matters into her own hands, "Donna contrasts herself to the heroines of earlier literature, the traditional damsels in distress" (CLC 113 358). Donna's predicament and her solution are explored deeply over the second half of the novel. When the time comes for Donna to finally battle Cujo, she takes it upon herself to physically defeat the rabid dog. However, King has Donna's victory come too late to save Tad-he has already died from dehydration. With her son dead and the state of her marriage questionable, "Donna has lost all the things that supposedly provided meaning for traditional heroines" (CLC 113 358). Despite this fact, Donna's decision to challenge Cujo is a sound one-it gives her the realization that the ability to confront problems is all that matters. King pays especially close attention to his characterization of Donna Trenton, making her a new kind of heroine. King "?presents her as an ordinary human being, one troubled by the same kinds of problems that confront ordinary human beings, and he shows that such an ordinary human being can live with dignity and courage" (CLC 113 359).
By giving his characters problems that are often felt in contemporary society, and allowing the reader to witness the complete actions leading to the solving of them, King makes a strong move into the world of mainstream fiction. He uses aspects of the mainstream in order to make his horror novel more realistic and applicable to present-day readers. It is only the tragic death of five year-old Tad that signifies that this is indeed a horror novel. Although the name Stephen King will inevitably always be associated with the world of horror, what sets him apart from most other writers in the genre is his "optimistic view of humanity" (Schweitzer 140). In Cujo, King clearly expresses his desire for a better picture of humanity. Even with Tad's death, the novel ends with Donna and Vic being able to save their marriage as well as cementing a deeper understanding between the two. "King's view of humanity, his optimism, adds a new perspective to both the mainstream novel and the horror novel" (Schweitzer 140). The fact that many elements of contemporary mainstream fiction-high levels of character development, focusing on everyday people with everyday problems, and the involvement of women-were incorporated into Cujo provides a cause for its place on the bestseller lists.
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