If you put me on the spot and ask me which author I find most aspirational, I’d tell you Lois McMaster Bujold. Douglas Adams was the first author who made me feel like sci-fi could be accessible to me as an writer. However, if I’m honest about who has most impacted the way I view endings, it’s Stephen King. I’m not the biggest Stephen King fan; I tend to like his work but stopped reading it regularly after eighth grade. It doesn’t stick with me, really.
Except for fucking Cujo.
Like I said up there, I was a Stephen King fan in middle school. I ran through his books in the voracious way that young fans have the time for. I’d seen the movie Carrie at a Halloween party and immediately identified with the bullied and angry lead. I loved the feeling of being simultaneously scared and intrigued. I was hooked, and followed that feeling to the Stephen King section of the library. Eventually, I made my way to Cujo.
I have a shit memory, but I distinctly remember finishing Cujo. I don’t remember the book itself. I read it, like, 15 to 17 years1 ago. In fact, the only thing I could tell you about the book is, “Well, a woman and her kid get trapped in a car by a rapid (perhaps evil, probably possessed???) dog. I think it’s hot outside, because HER FIVE-YEAR-OLD FUCKING DIES OF DEHYDRATION JUST WHEN IT LOOKS LIKE EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY.”
My heart beat in double-time when it happened. I reread it to be certain that Everything Was Very Much Not Okay. Jesus, that fucking book wrecked me deep on the inside. It was after midnight, so the entire house was asleep. I was on the bottom bunk of this rickety metal bed that I had shared with my sister for so long that it’d followed us to another country, each move leaving more dents and rusty scrapes in the bright blue paint.
I was not okay. Nothing was ever going to be okay again. My little brother was probably six, so of course this little dead kid has my baby brother’s face in my head, and the dog is dead how come the kid is dead too, everything is supposed to be okay!
So there I am, late in the night, book closed because I cannot even read the last ten pages of this book, this kid is dead, why has this happened? At a total loss, I did the only thing I could think to do to stave off this deep existential panic of Everything Not Being Okay: I rearranged my bedroom. In the middle of the night. While my little sister was asleep on the top bunk.2 I literally only picked up toys and books so that I could move everything in the middle of the night, in this tiny bedroom, because I had nothing else to do with the horrible, terrible way this ending had made me feel.
Then I finished reading the book.
Being older and a much better writer now than I was as a middle-schooler, I actually have a lot of appreciation for the sort of ending where things aren’t okay. Thing is, once I hit puberty I started reading dime-store romance novels, bodice rippers and stories where new women in town are bandaging up the broken male lead. The closest I got to tragedy was Lurlene McDaniel books, and even those were santitized tragedy, meaningful and clean. The sort of stuff I was getting from Stephen King was messy and ugly and just fucking happened. Going from being a romance novel reader to a horror reader was a shock to my poor teenaged brain. And don’t get me wrong — even being cynical and cold-hearted now, I still have such a soft spot for the happy ending.
I think the biggest takeaway I took from it was that endings are allowed to be ugly and hard, so long as they serve the story. I wasn’t ready at the time for the idea that a tragedy is the only satisifying ending for some stories. I’m willing to bet that there are a dozen adult readers who got to that ending and saw the only possible conclusion, hard as it was to read. And I can’t bring myself to reread it. Too real. Thinking you’re going to get out of a deadly situation, and then not having it all work out, is so ordinary. It could happen to anyone. You don’t have to stretch your imagination, you don’t have to suspect your disbelief, because that’s the kind of shit you could see trending on Facebook tomorrow.
That’s the thing that strikes me about Cujo. More than the dead kid, it’s the idea that stories don’t have to wrap up in bows. They can be their most impactful when they simply shine a light on the scariest things in the world around you.
1. I’m trying to remember based on fuzzy things. I remember we were in the bedroom by the bathroom, not across from it, so it was when I was in middle school. Where was the bed that night — against the windows, right. That’s where it was when I had sex with that one dude, which was in the autumn (probably) after I turned 13, so I must have been somewhere between 13 and 14.
2. I also had sex for the first time while my sister was asleep on the top bunk. What you should be getting from this story is that I am a really terrible roommate.