J.E. Anckorn / October 24, 2019
“It might be that the biggest division in the world isn’t men and women but folks who like cats and folks who like dogs.”
– “L.T.’s Theory of Pets,” Stephen King (1997)
In 1999, Stephen King was struck by a van as he took a walk to the store to buy candy bars. The van’s driver claimed to have been distracted by his Rottweiler Bullet’s attempts to steal meat from a cooler, swerving into King and throwing him fourteen feet into the woods. King remarked at the time that it was very nearly like being killed by one of his own characters: horror and tragedy unspooling from a mundane and almost blackly comedic event. There’s certainly no shortage of dogs like Bullet in King’s stories, whether they’re generating the horror or falling victim to it. King’s most effective work often plays with the contrast between the world we know (or think we know) and the rapid spiral into the otherworldly or horrific, so it’s not really surprising that dogs—man’s best friend, protector and beloved companion—should be such a rich wellspring of material.
Cujo And Other Bad Dogs
When we venture into Uncle Steve’s haunted dog house, where else could we possibly start but with the St. Bernard who became a byword for killer canines the world over? Stephen King claims not to remember writing Cujo (1981), but that bleak ending is hard to forget. My own 30-lb. menace has been called “Cujo” by strangers when he’s taken exception to some threat to our continued existence (his particular nemesis being a smiling fiberglass lion on a spring in a local children’s playground.) “Cujo” has entered the cultural consciousness as a by-word for bad dogs, but Cujo himself is a victim initially, a good dog afflicted by some bad luck, as those who find themselves swept up in a tragedy often are.
“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.”
–—Cujo, Stephen King (1981)
When we first meet Cujo, he’s nothing more sinister than the faithful companion of Brett Camber. Brett is a kid sorely in need of some comfort and stability in a home where he and his mother are terrorized by his abusive father, mechanic Joe Camber. Cujo does his best to be a faithful dog, with the whole family trying to negotiate the bad weather of Joe’s explosive temper, keeping the madness and violence contained as best they can. It’s only when Cujo is bitten by a rabid bat and the Camber family leave town that the faithful family pet transforms into a monster, trapping Donna Trenton and her toddler son in their car to slowly roast to death. Both the Trenton and Camber families are fractured and at odds, broken apart by infidelity and toxic masculinity just as Cujo is shattered by his madness. It’s a tense, deeply unpleasant book (in a good way), with some really interesting incidental segments—the lengthy tribulations of a breakfast cereal manufacturer and their advertising agency’s attempt to handle a public relations fiasco shouldn’t be one of the highlights of a rabid dog monster book, but somehow is.
Prince, the stray dog in Gerald’s Game (1992), follows a similar trajectory to Cujo. He too starts life as a good dog, but has since run feral in the woods, abandoned by his humans and starving. The dog is another of the mundane objects—along with a bed, a glass of water, and a pair of handcuffs—that form the horror of the narrative when the context changes. A shadowy maybe-real killer who appears after dark to terrorize Jessie is almost incidental (and is used to far greater effect in 1999’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon). A hungry dog and a dead husband on the floor are all King really needs to conjure up some solid dread and despair. (The counter narrative of Jessie’s memories of her abusive father are a whole other level of disturbing.) As Prince slowly consumes Gerald’s corpse, both we and Donna begin to understand that she will be next unless she finds a way to free herself. A human being can be reduced to meat, just as a loving pet can be reduced to a carnivorous predator under the right (or wrong) circumstances. Donna is both under threat from Prince, and joined in a kind of kinship with him: a tame creature driven by desperation to perform the macabre acts necessary for survival.
Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton) learns his “first lesson in the vast difference between myth and reality” meeting Chopper in 1986’s Stand By Me, the film adaptation of King’s The Body
“Chopper was—at least until Joe Camber’s dog Cujo went rabid twenty years later—the most feared and least seen dog in Castle Rock. He was the meanest dog for forty miles around (or so we heard), and ugly enough to stop a striking clock. The kids whispered legends about Chopper’s meanness. Some said he was half German shepherd, some said he was mostly boxer, and a kid from Castle View with the unfortunate name of Harry Horr claimed that Chopper was a Doberman pinscher whose vocal cords had been surgically removed so you couldn’t hear him when he was on the attack. There were other kids who claimed Chopper was a maniacal Irish wolfhound and Milo Pressman fed him a special mixture of Gaines Meal and chicken blood. These same kids claimed that Milo didn’t dare take Chopper out of his shack unless the dog was hooded like a hunting falcon.”
—The Body, Stephen King (1982)
The dreaded Chopper (“Chopper! Sic balls!”) in The Body (1982) is also nothing more than a scrawny junkyard dog at heart, despite the local kids’ perception of him as a monster of legend.
Allowing pet dogs to roam free is less common than it once was, and perhaps today’s kids no longer know the menace of the legendary Mean Neighborhood Dog. We certainly had our share of them in 1980s New Zealand. I remember in particular a pair of pig hunting dogs who were kept chained up in the back of our neighbor’s Ute where they’d growl and rumble from the darkness in a way that was worse than straight-up lunging and barking. I fully believed I’d be pulled in and stripped to the bone in seconds should I be foolish enough to walk close enough to catch, and seeing the truck empty—not knowing whether the dogs were running loose as they did from time to time—always gave me a shiver of genuine terror.
Like Chopper, these dogs were more victims than they were monsters—chained up in a truck 24/7 amidst their own slowly baking turds—but it’s not until you grow older that you realize your childhood legends rest on flimsy foundations. In losing his fear of Chopper and his owner, Milo, Gordie Lachance also loses something of his innocence. There’s something delicious about being truly scared—witness King’s sales figures—and finding out that your own fascinating and dreadful monsters were nothing more than Feejee Mermaids in a rigged sideshow is perhaps the true horror.
In fact, one of the few dogs in King’s works that is wholly evil isn’t truly a dog at all. The Sun Dog (from 1990’s anthology Four Past Midnight) is one of King’s most enjoyable novellas, hitting every square on the Kingian bingo card. We’re in Castle Rock. There’s a wily old Yankee rooking his social superiors. A tow-headed kid learns that the adult world isn’t quite so stable as it seems. Underpinning the story is one of King’s trademark MacGuffins—a Polaroid camera that takes sequential pictures of an unidentified dog standing in front of a white picket fence—used to maximum effect with some black humor (a gaggle of eccentric collectors of paranormal paraphernalia who find a genuine manifestation of the paranormal too boring or tasteless to pay for) thrown in along the way. The Sun Dog starts off as a dog (albeit a mean dog), but, as the story continues—and Pop Merrill’s compulsion to keep taking pictures, thus advancing the approach of the Sun Dog—we begin to see that the creature is not a dog at all, but a dragon-like demon, snorting smoke from its nostrils, intent on eating not just the camera’s owner but the whole world.
Everyone remembers Cujo, but on the whole the dogs of the King multiverse are more sinned against than sinning. Cell (2006), Insomnia (1994), and Desperation (1996) all feature grisly doggy demises to demonstrate the fates of our human protagonists should they fail.
Dog deaths in King narratives are difficult to read largely because King breaks out all his writing chops to paint the dogs involved as the most innocent of victims, often showing friendliness to those that mean them harm, which is then betrayed. Fragile Nettie Cobb is pushed over the edge into a murderous rampage when demonic shop owner Leland Gaunt manipulates Hugh Priest into killing her beloved dog, Raider, in Needful Things (1991). Raider happily greets his screwdriver-wielding murderer with a wagging tail, and we feel the horror of it as fully as Nettie does.
It (1986) is King’s ultimate treatise on the canine victim, as well as his masterpiece. As with Nettie Cobb, Loser’s Club member Mike Hanlon finally makes his stand against bully Henry Bowers when he finds out Henry has befriended and then poisoned his dog, Mr. Chips. Most people well remember the scene with school age sociopath Patrick Hocksetter and his refrigerator full of tortured animals. It is one of the King books I’ve read many times over the decades, and I must admit I usually skip that section even though I’m apparently fine (in a being too scared to use the bathroom sink kind of way) with the multiple human murders. As with Raider and Mr. Chips, the puppy Patrick traps in the rusted refrigerator licks his hand as it perishes, still hoping that he’s there to save it. Trust betrayed is another of the many losses of innocence in the book. We can almost cheer when Patrick meets his grisly death-by-flying-leeches at the hands of Pennywise, and it’s a clever mechanic. If we lived in Derry, would we be among the crowd butchering the Bradley Gang? Does someone like Patrick deserve to be sacrificed?
Patrick’s proclivities also serve to add another layer of menace to the book’s true villain: no one is safe from Pennywise, good or evil. The shapeshifter is a devourer from the space between worlds. To a creature like that, humans are animals to be slaughtered. When Pennywise takes Patrick, we are shown that there’s no bargaining with it, no true alliances. Importantly, the inclusion of dogs adds another strata of victims to the narrative. One of the central and most interesting themes in It is the divide between the worlds of adulthood and childhood. The section of the story set in the 1950s takes place in a world of children. In fact, we’re told that the chief hurdle the adult Losers Club faces in fighting Pennywise in the present day is that they no longer think or dream like children. Villain Henry Bowers and his gang are teenagers, but they’re young teenagers, still firmly rooted in the world of children. In fact both Henry’s own friends and the Losers realize that Henry has become dangerously unhinged when he breaks the divide and threatens an adult who tries to stop him attacking Beverly.
“He understood instinctively, as most kids did, that they lived below the sight-lines, and hence the thought-lines, of most adults. When a grownup was ditty-bopping down the street, thinking his grownup thoughts about work and appointments and buying cars and whatever else grownups thought about, he never noticed kids playing hopscotch or guns or kick-the-can or ring-a-levio or hide-and-go-seek. Bullies like Henry could get away with hurting other kids quite a lot if they were careful to stay below that sightline. At the very most, a passing adult was apt to say something like, “Why don’t you quit that?” and then just continue ditty-bopping along without waiting to see if the bully stopped or not. So the bully would wait until the grownup had turned the corner… and then go back to business as usual. It was like adults thought that real life only started when a person was five feet tall.”
—It, Stephen King (1986)
All children are ultimately victims of Pennywise, but in a story set in the world of kids (the world of less-than-five-feet-tall), dogs step up to fill the role that kids normally do in an adult narrative. They’re innocents, and their slaughter is used to demonstrate the extent of child villain’s evil. Mike Hanlon can almost understand and accept a racist bigot like Henry Bowers bullying him, but he can’t understand why Bowers would harm his innocent dog.
There are other dogs that fulfill a similar function in King’s work. Psychotic political hopeful Greg Stillson’s establishing scene in The Dead Zone (1979) involves him kicking a dog to death. Apt Pupil (1982) and The Tommyknockers (1987) also feature doggy innocents meeting their makers in unfortunate ways. Dogs make unambiguous victims—perfect for establishing the cruelty and inhumanity of the villains. Even in zombie murder pet extravaganza Pet Semetery (1983), Jud Crandall’s dog Spot returns from the dead not as a killer, but as a victim of the unnatural and of Jud’s moral failure in refusing to let him go to his rest. Sometimes dead is better.
Dog Companions on Epic Quests
Of course there are a few dogs in the works of Stephen King that are neither killed or killers (or at least serve a primary function beyond the two roles). It would have been very easy for adorable talking animal companion Oy from The Dark Tower books to have become a Snarf, but King manages to balance occasionally over-cutesy with actually likable. Okay, so technically Oy is a Billy-bumbler (see what I mean with the cutesy?), not a dog, but The Dark Tower series deals in archetypes. Jake Chambers is both the archetypal son and Huck Finn adventure boy rolled into one. Of course he needs a devoted canine companion. Oy’s animal instincts and tracking powers save Roland’s Ka-tet on many occasions, and it’s made clear as the series progresses that Oy is not just Jake’s pet, but a fully-fledged member of Roland’s posse. In fact (spoiler alert) he’s the last man standing other than the Gunslinger himself, sacrificing himself to save Roland’s life in grand old Western style after the rest of the Ka-tet have been killed or elected to hang up their shooting irons. When Susannah Dean decides that the quest for the Tower has taken enough from her, Oy’s doggy credentials are made crystal clear. Susannah walks out of Midworld into an alternate version of New York, where her dead husband Eddie and his (in this universe) kid brother Jake are waiting for her. They even have a dog, with Oy’s golden-ringed eyes and a bark that sometimes sounds eerily like speech.
Oy is not an aggressor or a victim; he’s a guide and a companion with an important role of his own to play, as is red setter Kojak in King’s masterly post-apocalyptic house brick of a book The Stand (1978). When a superflu called Captain Trips sweeps the United States, domesticated animals fall victim at the same rate as humans (the exception being cats). Horses, cattle, and of course dogs are all but wiped out. Kojak’s human companion Glen Bateman muses that it’s as though humanity’s allies have been scrubbed from the earth, literally throwing them to the wolves. Just as Uber Big Bad Randall Flagg controls the wolves, the crows, and the rats in the corn, his opponents have Kojak, who follows them across America and guides those destined to make their Stand on the final journey to Nevada. When Stu Redman breaks his leg, Kojak stays with him, gathering firewood, food, and medicine, and reuniting him with Tom Cullen. Together the three of them return to Boulder where they find that there is still hope for humanity’s existence when Fran’s baby doesn’t succumb to the superflu. Not only that, but another doggy survivor has been found: this one a female. Like humankind, dogkind too will live on to fight another day.
“Chiseled roughly on a piece of sandstone, was HANNAH THE BEST DOG THAT EVER LIVED 1929-1939. Although sandstone was relatively soft—as a result the inscription was now little more than a ghost—Louis found it hard to conceive of the hours some child must have spent impressing those nine words on the stone. The commitment of love and grief seemed to him staggering; this was something parents did not even do for their own parents or for their children if they died young.”
—Pet Sematary, Stephen King (1983)