Friday, 1 October 2010

Black Dog [Banned Book Review: Cujo]

Stephen King occasionally writes about large-scale horror, for example in Cell where he imagines a zombie pandemic spreading through the mobile phone system. Most of his writing takes place on a smaller scale with individuals, families or small towns isolated and under siege. Cujo is one of King's most minimalist novels, the tale of a large but friendly and faithful dog who becomes rabid. There's a small cast and less than a handful of gory deaths. Just a tiny hint of a supernatural element - Cujo might be possessed by the soul of a serial killer, but cleverly this remains speculative so adds colour to the story while the horror remains grounded in reality. Out of these basic ingredients King bakes a perfect two-act horror novel with a build up of suspense followed by Cujo's killing spree.

The author is on record as being a dog lover and perhaps for some readers the real horror is the unthinkable: man's "best friend" turning to bite the hand that feeds. For those of the cat persuasion there's a different payoff - schadenfreude.
This book has been banned from a number of school libraries across the U.S. apparently due to profanity and strong sexual content although I suspect the pro-dog lobby may have had a hand in it too:

'In April 1998, Stephen King's novel Cujo was thrown in the trash can by the principal of Crook County High School in Prineville, Oregon, after a parent requested that the book be removed. Principal Chris Yeager said, "It's not what most parents would want their child to read." In a written complaint to the school district, Sue Baca cited profanity, violence, and sexual content in Cujo as justification for its removal. She also asked that all of King's books, as well as any other horror novels, be removed from the county's middle and high schools. "I object to any book by Stephen King as he writes horror fiction, which has no value," said Baca.' - Banned in the USA: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Libraries, Herbert N. Foerstal.

It's easy to criticise Baca's attitude but does horror fiction have value? Some ideas:
  • Firstly, entertainment and escapist value is perfectly legitimate. I am not alone in getting a great deal of enjoyment from Stephen King's novels.

  • Secondly, think about artistic value which I often think of in terms of emotional response. Well written horror does exactly that - in addition, horror that originates in the everyday has the power to stop you taking the world around you for granted and instead see it from a different angle.

  • Thirdly, consider artisan value. Stephen King is sometimes portrayed as a writer of trashy fiction - usually by those who haven't taken the time to do any more than skim-read his novels. Being generous I think the confusion stems from his highly accessible writing style - short paragraphs, straight-into-the-action. However this "hides" a skillful writer who controls the reader's emotions as both composer and conductor of a symphony. The writing is also full of literary and cultural allusion and there is often a philosophical undertone: writing as Richard Bachman King went futher and wrote The Long Walk and several other novels with strong allegorical themes.

  • Fourthly, the way to fight real fears and phobias is confrontation. Books that help us learn to face fears and master them contribute to personal development. This sense of mastery might be the reason why children grow up loving fairy stories, which until recent decades were traditionally the most horrific of all fiction.

  • Finally, let's consider economic value. King sells! So by definition his work is valued by some - this also means he is contributing to the income not only of himself, but of printers, cover artists, bookshop assistants, and so on - plus Cujo was made into a film too.
The next Stephen King is out there somewhere, ignoring her teacher and daydreaming new and terrifying plots in the back row of her classroom. When she emerges as a fully fledged novelist she will no doubt be valued, feted, criticised harshly and loved just as intensely, and I look forward to being scared silly by her priceless writing. Thanks to Sue Baca she probably won't turn out to be an alumnus of the Crook County High School in Prineville, Oregon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

this book should not be banned because it sucks dick..... If anyone actually reads this they are more retarded than Ryan Collette. Thank you for your time!