Thursday, September 08, 2016

The Sudden Transformation of a Friendly Pet

"It would perhaps not be amiss to point out that he had always tried to be a good dog. He had tried to do all the things his MAN and his WOMAN, and most of all his BOY, had asked or expected of him. He would have died for them, if that had been required. 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."

Stephen King, Cujo (1981)

When I was a child, I grew up in the country on a manmade lake surrounded by hills that may have existed before the lake did but if they did, they were certainly enhanced by the lake's creation.

Homes were scattered in lots along the hillside and for me to visit my friends — usually by bike because it took too long to walk — I had to pass by a house where dwelled a Doberman pinscher. You had to move slowly when you went past that house because if you didn't and that dog happened to be loose on the property, it would come barreling down the hill barking viciously.

I found myself in that position one day. I thought the dog was going to kill me, and I screamed. Fortunately for me the dog's owner came outside and called the dog back, but the experience left its mark on me. I still remembered it years later when I read Stephen King's novel "Cujo," which was published on this day in 1981.

And it sent a chill down my spine.

"Cujo," you see, was about an amiable St. Bernard named Cujo who was bitten by a rabid bat when he was chasing a rabbit one day and, in due course, went mad, attacking and killing people whenever they happened to cross his path. King's descriptions of what Cujo was feeling as the disease gnawed at his brain were incredibly insightful, much like James Michener's descriptions of the thoughts of the dinosaurs and wildlife that lived in the area of Colorado of which he wrote in "Centennial" a few years earlier. Really fascinating stuff that cries out to be told on the big screen.

But, as it has been with so many of King's masterfully written books, it proved extremely challenging to put that on film.

That didn't keep an attempt from being made a couple of years later. Technology has never really been adequate to tell one of King's scary stories in movie form, but a story like "Cujo" — which has no supernatural element at all — requires a director with a cutting–edge vision. The director of that movie didn't possess such a vision, and while the movie was a modest success at the box office, it received mixed reviews from critics.

Actually, it isn't exactly true that there was no supernatural element in the story (I guess it wouldn't be a Stephen King novel without at least a whisper of the supernatural). There was one, but it was implied and indirect. It was strongly suggested early in the book that what happened to Cujo was due to some supernatural force that made an appearance in that small Maine town every few years or so, but from a broader perspective, animals — and humans — can get rabies in many — frequently unexpected — ways. That's what made the story so scary — the sense that this could easily happen.

And, as King observed, free will would not be a factor.

Most of us realize the chances of the kind of stuff that usually takes place in a Stephen King novel occurring in real life are virtually nil — but "Cujo" was about the kind of thing that really could happen. Many of my friends have dogs. I had one at one time. We always had dogs around our house when I was growing up — and, as I say, I grew up in the country. We allowed our dogs to run loose there all the time.

In hindsight, they could have been bitten by a rabid creature at any time. Or some other unfortunate incident could have occurred.

Most of the dogs in my life have been friendly, but how quickly they could have been changed by a chance encounter with a diseased animal.

Isn't that what makes a story truly scary — the belief that it really could happen to you — and without warning? The truly great writers, and I believe King is one of the great writers of this or any era, can make it seem as if something like the topic of a story could happen in real life — even if the topic was as unlikely as they come — but if it is a plausible story to the reader, that makes all the difference.

I liked the book, and apparently so did King, who confessed he could hardly remember writing it, having done so during a time when he was drinking heavily.

Like many of King's stories, this one took place in Maine and centered on two families, one a longtime resident of the town, the other a newcomer. The family with the local roots was the one that owned Cujo. The newcomers frequented the home auto repair business run by the first family. The mother and child from the newcomers were trapped in their car when they took it in for some work, not knowing that a now–mad Cujo had killed the man of the house and was all alone on the property.

A novel can be made more dramatic by the introduction of angles that might not be present in a real–life scenario like the one I have described, and so it was with "Cujo." There were several examples of unsavory adult behavior that certainly exacerbated the conditions.

But the fact remained that being trapped by a rabid dog — or rabid animal of any kind — would be a terrifying experience — and hardly one that anybody, regardless of behavior, deserved.