Cujo published in 1981 was Stephen King’s tenth published novel and the first to deal almost entirely with realistic events rather than supernatural or science fiction elements. In the book, a lovable Saint Bernard named Cujo is infected with the rabies virus after being bitten by rabid bat. In addition to the actual effects of the rabies virus and the horrors that it can inflect it also takes upon a deeper metaphorical meaning when taken in tandem with the character of the novel.
Rabies is characterized as having three stages to its infection, a prodromal stage with minor behavioral and physical effects such malaise, photophobia, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, a furious stage known for frothing, agitation, hyperactivity, and delirium, and a final paralytic stage which consists of a coma leading to death symptoms are similar in both humans and animals such as dogs.
In Cujo, Cujo rapidly progresses from from the first stage after being bit and spends the bulk of the narrative in the second furious stage. While in the grip of madness induced by rabies Cujo goes on a rampage mauling his owner Joe Camber, a neighbor, and the local sheriff and trapping Donna Trenton and her young son Tad in a sweltering hot car. Ultimately, Cujo is put down when Donna impales him with a broken baseball bat saving herself but not in time to save her son from heat stroke and dehydration.
In the book rabies takes on a two fold nature, one of neglect and one of loss of control. The neglect comes from Cujo’s owner Joe Camber an abusive father, a parallel to King’s own absent father, who never even bothered to vaccinate the family pet. The neglect becomes an element of of mass destruction acting as a direct punishment Camber’s actions but at the same time such destruction is criticized as the innocents Donna and Tad are caught up by forces beyond their own control. In much the same way, rabies causes Cujo to act against his own self control, however in this case rabies acts as a standin for the alcoholism that was plaguing King as he wrote. In the grips of the illness free will ceases to be a factor and the sufferer becomes trapped in their own body and forced to harm those that they love. In the end, life goes on both the Camber and Trenton families as they begin to resume their lives in the face of tragedy and shortly after writing Cujo, King would would receive an intervention from friends and family which would lead him to quit his abuse of drugs and alcohol and has reminded sober ever since.