Cujo's Unexpected Lesson About Parenting and Art

The comedian and writer John Hodgman explains what Stephen King’s 1981 horror novel taught him about risking mistakes in storytelling—and fatherhood.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Colum McCann, George Saunders, Emma Donoghue, Michael Chabon, and more.

Doug McLean

There is a moment in Vacationland­—a new book by the writer, actor, and comedian John Hodgman—when the author fears he’s screwed his 8-year-old son up for life. It’s a subtle and profound exchange, one that unfolds with humor and quiet horror: The author drops a choice expletive in an attempt to seem approachable, which seriously disturbs his kid. Things go terribly awry, and Hodgman is forced to reckon with the uncomfortable fact that even decent, well-meaning parents will find ways to warp their children permanently.

In this, Hodgman takes unlikely comfort from Stephen King’s novel Cujo—and not just because the book features a haunting, astoundingly insightful passage about the way parents imprint children with their flaws. In a conversation for this series, Hodgman explained what the book’s masterful characterization and radical formal decisions taught him about parenting and art: that doing something well requires risking terrible mistakes. Accept it, and loosen up.

Hodgman developed Vacationland using a risky, trial-by-fire approach that required putting this philosophy into practice. When he hit a creative impasse a few years ago, he booked a bunch of standup dates at a small venue with no idea what he’d perform. A set of preoccupations emerged out of those early shows, material about being in one’s 40s, that unbearable threshold between youth and decrepitude. The exercise became a traveling one-man show called Vacationland, now expanded into a strange and very funny book—one that makes comedy out of the anxieties and indignities of middle age.

John Hodgman is the host of the podcast Judge John Hodgman and the author of three books of fake facts, The Areas of My Expertise, More Information Than You Require, and That Is All. He’s been a regular contributor to The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and public radio’s This American Life, and his writing appears in venues like The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and The Believer. He spoke to me by phone.

John Hodgman: Right now you are reaching me in the state of Maine, which is a relatively new state. It used to be part of Massachusetts until 1820, when the U.S. government needed to add a new state in order to balance out Missouri, which was being admitted as a slave state. The U.S. government was calling around to all the states saying, “Hey, do you have any junk land you don’t want?” Massachusetts was like, “Oh, we sure do. We have this whole hump of half-Canada that no one is using,” and that’s how Maine started. Sometime after that, I began coming here with my wife, who was a high-school teacher, for increasingly large parts of the summer.

At the time, I had not really read Stephen King—who, as you know, is a native and resident of Maine. When I did finally read him, it was largely because of my feelings of fear of fraudulence being in Maine without having read any Stephen King. Over the years, I started educating myself, bringing one of his books with me every summer, and came to appreciate what much of the world appreciates. Stephen King is a remarkable writer, someone who is obviously entertaining and an incredible plotter, but line by line one of the best American writers working.

At the same time, he’s someone who understands character in a very deep and intuitive way that gives his books, even the weirdest ones, a real literary gravity. And yet I admire him also because he is on some level writing without any consideration toward literary gravity. He’s writing to lift you out of your seat in terror, and anticipation, and in thought. It just happens to be high-quality literature by accident, which is so much better than that stuff that’s trying to be high-quality literature on purpose.

I worked through all the Stephen Kings I thought we all agreed were good: Carrie, The Shining, Salem’s Lot. Then, a couple summers ago, I found I’d run out of what I stupidly considered the good ones—because I’d worked through the ’70s and had reached the ’80s, basically, when even King, in his memoir On Writing, acknowledges that he went off the rails into addiction. And so I had it in my mind that this was going to be the beginning of the end of my summer flings with King. Because when I went to the Big Chicken Barn—an antiques and used bookshop housed in a former chicken barn in Ellsworth, Maine, where I’d pick up my Kings—they only had one left, and it was Cujo.

I remembered Cujo only from the ’80s movie, which I didn’t see, but which people didn’t seem to like very much. But as I read I was surprised to learn it is in fact my absolutely favorite Stephen King book—not only that, but one of my favorite novels, period.

It’s the story of a dog, which I expected going into the thing. I thought I was just going to read about a dog that goes crazy and eats a lot of people. We get a fair amount of that, but what I didn’t know is that it’s also a story of two families. This middle-class family from “away,” as they say in Maine—a husband and wife with an only child, a son—and then a local Maine family, a mirror of them, the Cambers. They’re generations-born Mainers who are subsistence-living on the auto-mechanic operation the father, Joe Camber, is running out of his home farm.

Joe Camber is an abusive husband, and he’s an abusive father. Not physically, so much. There is that, but he’s emotionally withholding and hard. Brett, his son, who’s I think 8 or 9 years old, wants out, because on some level he knows that his father hurts his mom and him, both inadvertently and advertently.

One passage in particular opened up to me what a talented, almost necromancer King is about getting into the minds of his characters—not only people from different worlds and of different genders, but of different ages. It’s a scene where the mom finally convinces Joe Camber to let her take Brett, the son, to Portland, Maine’s largest city, to visit her sister. There’s a lot of emotional manipulation where the father, Joe Camber, is almost not going to allow it to happen out of sheer spite. But then he does, and as he’s saying goodbye, there’s a surprising moment where Joe Camber asks his son for a kiss:

“Probably you ain’t got a kiss to give your old man.”

“I guess I do, Daddy,” Brett said. He hugged his father tight and kissed his stubbly cheek, smelling sour sweat and a phantom of last night’s vodka. He was surprised and overwhelmed by his love for his father, a feeling that sometimes still came, always when it was least expected (but less and less often over the last two or three years, something his mother did not know and would not have believed if told). It was a love that had nothing to do with Joe Camber’s day-to-day behavior toward him or his mother; it was a brute, biological thing that he would never be free of, a phenomenon with many illusory referents of the sort which haunt for a lifetime: the smell of cigarette smoke, the look of a double-edged razor reflected in a mirror, pants hung over a chair, certain curse words.

I remember bursting into tears as I read this. It’s almost the only moment of actual affection that he shows for his son, and it’s also a demand for affection. And when he says, I don’t suppose you have a kiss for your old man, it’s a very quiet admission that he knows he doesn’t deserve it. But the passage makes this amazing pivot: At the same time we see Camber’s love for Brett for the first time, we also come to understand that in this moment Brett no longer loves his father. Any feeling of connection he does have is a “brute, biological thing,” tied up in the things he most associates with this dad, the cursing and cigarette smoke that will serve as haunting reminders forever.

Look, I’m not going to lie to you. I’ll spoil it. This dude gets eaten by a dog. You saw this coming. He’s a bad guy. There’s nothing unexpected about a villain being eaten by a dog, but there is nothing more horrible than seeing this guy get eaten by a dog right after, more or less, the moment you come to realize that he’s a real human being. It really struck me hard when I read that passage—the sheer gut punch of seeing that incredibly subtle turning moment from hate to love on Joe Camber’s part, and from love to hate on Brett Camber’s part. It just blew me away.

But King’s command of character doesn’t just extend to the humans in Cujo. The fact that he narrates sections of the book from the point of view of this rabid, slowly deranging St. Bernard, is itself incredible. Would I have had the guts to try to write part of the book from that point of view? No. I would have said, “That’s dumb,” and not done it. But that’s something I love about Stephen King: If he has an idea, he’ll throw it out there. I’m sure there’s a ton of going back, and cutting, and rewording, and everything else—but if it’s in his mind to write from the point of view of a dog, he’s just gonna do it. He’ll inhabit that dog’s point of view completely. And somehow the sincerity of the effort makes the section work.

In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King talks about how alcoholism and other addictions led him to produce what he considers to be lesser works in the ’80s. He mentions Cujo specifically as book that he does not remember writing due to intoxication. I do not wish to promote the myth that substance abuse makes for better art—it doesn’t. It makes for horrible, horrible sadness among families. But it did remind me that if Stephen King is telling the truth and he doesn’t remember writing Cujo, that there is artistic merit in not trying too hard. No matter what your plot device is—whatever rabid dog you’re sending out into the story—if you don’t plan and scheme too hard, and let the characters and ideas gently introduce themselves to you, you will find storylines that you didn’t expect. You’ll find symmetries and quiet moments that will be so much better than anything you could ever plan.

I’m glad that Stephen King is better now, and he clearly knows how to do it without booze and drugs, but there is value in not pushing too hard. The ideal is to have the kind of creative experience where, when you’re done, you don’t remember writing it. Somehow it just happened.

Recently, I had an experience where I had to learn to let go in that way. For years, I had written books of so-called Complete World Knowledge where I was purposefully lying about history, the present, and the future—all the while exaggerating myself in bizarre ways. It was an honest expression of my own derangement, one I hoped would honestly connect with people. Along the way, I discovered the pleasure of performing my own imitation of standup comedy, largely based on the stuff in the book—but by the time I’d finished the last one, I realized that I was out of material. I needed to fix that, if I wanted to keep doing live performance. So I did something that was suggested to me by the comedian and storyteller Mike Birbiglia: I booked a residency in a small performance space in Brooklyn called Union Hall, with absolutely no idea what I would say there.

For a dozen or more weeks starting the spring of 2013, I would go up on the little stage in the basement of Union Hall. There was an audience. There was a deadline. They’re waiting to hear what you have to say. It was a situation where whatever is going to come out of your brain is going to come out of your brain, and I just had to let it come out.

What I heard coming out very quickly was that I no longer had it in me to do what I’d done for so long: fake facts. Those weren’t the jokes I was telling anymore. I guess I had listed every fake hobo name that I could, and all my brain was really interested in talking about at that point was the mere and awful truth that I’m a middle-aged, white, male monster. A weird dad, stout and forever an only child, wandering through a bunch of different wildernesses.

Some of the wildernesses are literal, like the rural western Massachusetts of my youth. Or the painful beaches of coastal Maine, where I will accept my death. Others are more figurative: the haunted forest of middle age. It’s as honest as I’ve been, and people seemed to like it. So that grew into a one-man show—and not long after, I was reading Cujo in a tent in Maine, which inspired me to be even more open-minded and see if I could grow the material into a book. To go beyond this 90-minute show, which probably amounted to 10,000 words, and see what else I had to say. Very quickly, without trying too hard, and completely soberly, I should add, the book kind fell out of my head, and I barely remember writing it.

Part of what I ended up exploring is something that especially parents know: that life is made up of countless small decisions. It’s a major theme of Cujo, actually—that a series of completely reasonable small choices can add up to a horrible, horrible outcome, which is a terrifying idea. It even happens to the poor dog, who is introduced to us with this line: “Cujo knew he was too old to be chasing rabbits.” In other words, even the monster who stalks the book—this St. Bernard, sick with rabies—is just trying to do the right thing. He doesn’t mean any harm. He just happened to chase a rabbit into a cave full of rabid bats when he knew he shouldn’t, and one thing led to another.

Any one of our decisions can branch off into horrible tragedy. When you’re a parent, there are all kinds of dangers that you’re mindful of. But then something almost worse happens when you’re the older parent, as I am, and your kid transitions from real childhood into this tweeny twilight period where they demand and deserve increasing independence. Suddenly, they want to go to Portland.

As you start letting them out of your sight, you are suddenly extra aware of what could go wrong. Yet the only acceptable decision is that you have to let it go wrong. You have to allow situations where your child makes a decision, and things could go horribly wrong, knowing you can’t be there to help them.

But that’s only one part of the fear. There is also the fear of the harm you yourself will cause your kids, in spite of your best intentions. I think that’s partially what’s so moving about the scene where Joe Camber says goodbye to his son. He knows that his son wants to get away from him, and suddenly he seems starkly aware of the power he has to shape his son’s emotional reality forever. The question King seems to be wrestling with in that moment is not: “What will I do to mess up my kid?” but, “What have I done? What have I done already?”

I open Vacationland with a story about my childhood fear of the town dump, a fear of my father’s that—for reasons I explain in the book—he made real by transferring to me. It took me 20 years to realize that there was no rational reason I should have had this inordinate fear of the men at the town dump, the way my father did. But it made me wonder: What are the invisible things that I’ve already done to my own children? What have I said casually, what look has crossed my face meaning nothing to me, that will affect how my children remember me forever?

I tell a story in the book of a subtle and gentle and innocent moment in which I think I messed my son up forever. And you will mess your kids up forever, just like my dad messed me up forever. But I think it speaks to the basic truth that—whether it’s in art, or in parenting—you have to let things happen. You can’t control everything. And you have to let your precious things go—whether it’s a direction you think a story should go, or whether it’s your own kids. When I watch my kids walk around the coastline of an island and leave my sight, my anticipation is that they will immediately slip on some rockweed, and bash their heads open a rock. Or meet a nefarious stranger. Or get eaten by a rabid dog. No matter how old your kids are, you feel a certain stomach turn, when they’re not right in front of you.

But just like with stories, and other precious things, you have to let your kids out of your sight and let them do what they’re gonna do. You trust that they’ll come back. And they do.