Kirsten Bakis’ debut novel, Lives of the Monster Dogs (Warner Books, 1997), is a fable laced with strong echoes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and H.G.Well’s Dr. Moreau.
When the Monster Dogs arrive, 150 strong, in modern-day New York, they’re like refugees from a steampunk universe. They are large canines — Dobermans, German Shepherds, Malamutes, Samoyeds, Great Danes — surgically altered, with human-level intelligence, antique prosthetic hands and mechanical voice boxes. Walking upright, they are dressed in Prussian-era long coats, top hat and tails, monocles and pince-nez, bustle skirts and fancy hats.
The creatures, we learn, were first designed in the late 1800s by scientist named Augustus Rank whose mad plan, financed by Kaiser Wilhelm, was to create an army of fierce dog soldiers. The process of animal transformation proves to be difficult and slow and, after fifteen years, his patron disillusioned, Rank picks up and flees halfway ‘round the world with embezzled funds and his coterie of quasi-religious followers, settling in a remote area of Western Canada. They establish a secret laboratory town, Rankstadt, a place so isolated that time fairly stands still and they live there as they had in nineteenth century Germany. Even after Rank’s death, the work continues, breeding Monster Dogs to serve as slaves to new generations of Rank’s disciples.
In time, the inevitable happens and the Monster Dogs revolt. The last of the masters are killed and the Dogs take over their homes, dressing in their clothes, mimicking the Victorian lives of their oppressors even as the town deteriorates and crumbles around them until, one day, the remaining animals decide to establish contact with the outside world.
The story of the Monster Dogs is told by a young New York journalist, Cleo, who has befriended Ludwig von Sacher, a canine historian. She learns their story and comes to understand their plight. Unable to reproduce, no longer being bred and manufactured, the Monster Dogs are doomed. Soon, a strange illness sweeps through their ranks, their civility gradually overtaken by long subsumed animal characteristics.
The Dogs use their wealth of gold once hoarded by Rank’s disciples to build themselves a fortress-like residence in New York where, as if desperate to have their culture and their fleeting existence recorded, they put on an elaborate opera about Mops Hacker, the leader of their revolution. Ludwig, the scholar, devotes himself to writing a chronicle of Rank’s life and the history of the Monster Dogs, but time runs out, his mind begins to go and tragedy looms.
Lives of the Monster Dogs is admirably written, often gripping, and filled with memorable characters. Augustus Rank is an exquisitely mad scientist whose cruel and bizarre ideas are tracked back to his early childhood. Ludwig, the Dog historian, is a perfectly realized character, an otherwise dignified scholar who sometimes sniffs, hound-like, at old diaries and photographs, as if trying to glean extra information from the fading documents. His quest to understand his origins, his kind, is the quest to understand what it means to be human.
This rich fable, sizzling with ideas, streaked with metaphor, is ultimately a sad story. The Frankensteinian theme at work here is not so much the dangerous, amoral experiments of its scientist as it is the disconsolate longings and ultimate despair of its monsters.
Prefacing the book, author Kirsten Bakis, in character as Cleo, writes, “I knew the monster dogs and I loved them, and I hope that, in my own way, I have done a good job of telling their story. I mean to.”
To which I say: Accomplished.
Lives of the Monster Dogs won the Bram Stoker Award for “Best First Novel”, in 1997. It was a New York Times “Notable Book” and listed among the “Best Books of the Year” by The Village Voice. The book has been adapted to the stage and now a film version is being planned as a first live-action feature for director Chris Wedge, of animated Ice Age fame.
Lives of the Monster Dogs, by Kirsten Bakis.