The Atlantic

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.
Source: Doug McLean

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.


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 and the author of three,, and . He’s been a regular contributor to and public radio’s , and his writing appears in venues like

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