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Lives of the Monster Dogs
Kirsten Bakis
Warner Books, 291 pages

Lives of the Monster Dogs
Kirsten Bakis
Kirsten Bakis won the 1997 Bram Stoker Award for best first novel for Lives of the Monster Dogs.

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A review by Georges T. Dodds

Canine cyborgs with human-level intelligence are created by a mad scientist and his minions. These "monster dogs," equipped with voice boxes and prosthetic hands, revolt and slaughter their masters in a remote sub-arctic village before making their splashy arrival in New York. A young NYU student writes an article about them and is hired as the PR voice of the dogs. Not all is well in monster-dogdom, however, as individuals are increasingly reverting to their genetic origins and the community of monster dogs is doomed.

Bakis' first novel has been praised primarily for its imagination and denigrated for its somewhat uninspired writing style. While a handful of writers like Edgar Allen Poe (1809-49), M.R. James (1862-1936), Robert Aickman (1914-81) and more lately Thomas Ligotti have managed to excel in both imagination and writing quality, numerous other imaginative literature authors, from Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) to David Lindsay (1876-1945) -- and some would say H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) -- have made up for plain or badly stilted writing by their soaring vision. William Hope Hodgson's (1877-1918) The Night Land (1912), written in pseudo-Elizabethan English, is difficult at best to read but the stunning scope of Hodgson's view of the haunted surface of a dying Earth makes the book a classic. So, does Bakis' imagination and story supersede her text? Well, two questions pose themselves: first, is the story meaningful and are the characterizations well done, and second, is the work original?

I recently read Jack London's (1876-1916) turn-of-the-century novel White Fang, about the brutal life of a wolf-dog halfbreed. In it, London shows a lot of insight into the mind-set of a dog, which is something that is lacking in a literal reading of Bakis' work. Onemmight argue that the monster dogs are sufficiently humanized to lack the typical motivations of a dog, but even when they revert to type, their portrayal is somewhat unconvincing. Furthermore, these canine cyborgs were originally designed to be expendable semi-intelligent killing machines to serve as cannon-fodder in a ground war; they rebelled against their masters and pitilessly slaughtered hundreds of humans; yet the majority of those we meet are fairly passive intellectuals. While the dog characters are interesting, whatever drives them to do what they do is rather sketchy. One can perhaps argue more convincingly that the monster dogs are not to be taken literally, but simply as a symbol of individuals shunned or ignored by society for their visible or assumed differences. Thus, in spite of the lacunae in their characterization, the deeper message of their interaction with our society is what makes the novel so strong.

Comparisons have been made between Mary Shelley's (1797-1851) Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) and The Lives of the Monster Dogs. Certainly both have important elements of social commentary, mad scientists, and doomed and misunderstood monster(s), but Mary Shelley's work is certainly the one that make the definitive statements in these regards. While the message of Frankenstein is certainly important in The Lives of the Monster Dogs, the similarities end there.

After Dr. Frankenstein, the mad scientist in Fritz Lang's Metropolis and the Nazi "doctors" like Mengele, another German psycho-doctor is perhaps a bit cliché, but makes it quite clear what sort of creator the dogs have. Augustus Rank is the driving force behind the rise and fall of the monster dogs: it is his spirit that inspires his offspring to murder, to self-examination or to a quest for power. Similarly to its literary predecessors, little is stated about how his disciples create the monsters. However, in this day of complex genetic manipulation and increasingly daring transplants, a purely 19th-century methodology, however improved, seems a bit weak. H.G. Wells' (1866-1946) vivisectionist Dr. Moreau (The Island of Dr. Moreau, 1896; and recent movie version) has been suggested as the inspiration for Dr. Rank. However, with his integration of mechanical voice boxes and artificial hands, Rank much more closely resembles Maurice Renard's (1875-1939) Dr. Lerne (Docteur Lerne, Sous-Dieu, 1908), a man obsessed with combining the mechanical with the living. Even the rise and pathos of the ultimate degeneration of intelligence in the dogs is prefigured by the Hugo-winning "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes, about a simpleton made brilliant by brain surgery who slowly reverts back to his former self. One might even suggest that the final scenes of the self-destructing dogs in their burning replica German castle are reminiscent of Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." However, Bakis' dogs are certainly distinctly different from previous intelligent canines in such works as Clifford Simak's (1904-1988) City (1952) or Dean Koontz's Watchers, and being human-like, they cannot even be compared to the endless litany of Lassie, Rin-Tin-Tin and Old Yeller variants.

If you read this book to pick out the technical inaccuracies and omissions, you will certainly find some; something not altogether surprising in a first novel. Similarly, if you are looking for lexical pyrotechnics, this book is not for you. So, given all these criticisms, possible sources of inspiration, and questions about its technique, what makes Lives of the Monster Dogs so compelling? This is a book to be read for its mood and its many subliminal messages, or even as a excellent modern Gothic novel. While Bakis has not created a work whose themes are wholly original, she has combined many elements, some of them bordering on clichés, in a truly original and interesting manner. She has created a novel which is not merely a narrative of strange events, but also a commentary on current society's relationship with outsiders. For a first-time author like Bakis, it may indeed have been easier to put her brand of social commentary in the words and actions of non-humans characters living amongst us, than within a strictly realistic milieu. It is nice to see that the committee members of the Bram Stoker awards have had the good taste to choose this interesting, if rather unusual, horror work over the more standard themes of today.

Copyright © 1998 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.

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