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An amazing one-hit-wonder – Lives of the Monster Dogs, by Kirsten Bakis

Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr’s famous epigram reads; “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – “the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing”, usually translated as “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” (Les Guêpes Journal, January 1849). I bet that, like me, you didn’t know where that expression comes from, but you recognized it immediately. So it is with some novels – time passes, things change, they may be published again – but they stay the same; fantastic, famous and unforgettable. These novels are more memorable than the authors who created them, so much so that some of the authors never wrote another novel. Many writers have had a one-hit-wonder with one memorable novel, often a debut work, and then…nothing. Or they may have continued working in another genre, just not fiction.

Just one book – but what a book!

These authors only ever wrote one novel in their lives, but it was a huge success:

  • Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (Go Set a Watchman was published after her death.)
  • Emily Brontë – Wuthering Heights
  • Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray (He wrote plays, but no other novels.)
  • Margaret Mitchell – Gone with the Wind (Apparently the film made the book so famous it put her off writing for the rest of her life.)
  • Boris Pasternak – Dr. Zhivago
  • JD Salinger – Catcher in the Rye

One of the best one-hit wonders of the 90s – Lives of the Monster Dogs

Lives of the Monster Dogs, by Kristen Bakis (Publisher: Sceptre; new edition January 15, 1998; paperback;  291 pages)

There is a long list of these authors, including one relatively obscure name: Kirsten Bakis, who wrote Lives of the Monster Dogs, and stopped there.

Lives of the Monster Dogs was first  published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1997, and was a very big hit, getting rapturous critical acclaim. It won Bakis the Bram Stoker Award for best first novel, and was named a New York Times Notable Book of the year in 1997. On her website now is just that one book – and nothing else. I have the original edition, and even after more than twenty years, I have to admit, it is still astonishingly good. The themes are still relevant, the concept is still fresh and very well depicted. It reads as if it had been published just last week – a social commentary on our times.

Shockingly imaginative

The story is about a population of monster dogs, dogs that have been bred and surgically altered by a “Dr. Frankenstein”-type 19th century Prussian surgeon, “Augustus Rank”, to think, talk, use artificial hands, walk on their hind legs, and generally behave like humans. Once their creator had finished “amending” them at a hidden location in Canada, and then died, the dogs rebel, kill the humans in town, set the town on fire, and flee with a lot of money to the United States and modern-day New York. There, their arrival fascinates and repulses the New Yorkers. (Of course, people like to anthropomorphize animals, and dress them in human clothes and make them do human things. But if they were really turned into humans – if only partly – would we still love them? I doubt it.)

“The photo showed a dog, standing on its hind legs, being helped from a helicopter by a serious-looking man in a down vest. The dog seemed to stand about the same height as the man, and looked like a Malamute. The strange thing about it, besides its larger-than-average size, was the fact that it was wearing a dark-coloured long jacket which looked like part of an old-fashioned military uniform, with a pair of spectacles, and that it appeared to have hands instead of front paws. In one of these gloved hands it held a cane, which was pointed at an awkward angle, probably because of the way the man was holding on to that foreleg just above the elbow. The other hand gripped the side of the helicopter doorway. The expression on the animal’s face was one of terror. Its lips were slightly parted, its ears were pointing straight backward, and its eyes were wide.” (pp. 21-22)

My fan art developed from the dog image on the cover of the April 1998 paperback edition by Grand Central Publishing.

Some think the dogs are a gimmick – others that they are fakes. The dogs wear 19th century clothes and live in grand, old-fashioned apartments which is what they are used to. One dog wants to tell the world their true story, and enlists the help of a sympathetic young woman, “Cleo Pira”. The novel takes the form of her diary entries, notes from and about the dogs, and the diary of “Ludwig von Sacher”, the dog who contracts her to write about them.

The lives of the monster dogs, particularly those dogs that realize that they are failed experiments, are endangered, lonely and despairing. The novel raises the question: What the difference is between animals and people, and if the difference is sentience, then what happens to someone if they lose it?

“Ludwig von Sacher” (“von sache” means “of the thing” in German) is an old, philosophical dog, the group’s historian and scientist,  who experiences more and more uncontrollable episodes where he becomes fully canine again – peeing in the corners, chewing up the furniture, howling mindlessly and running around on all fours. Reading this reminds one of a person in an old-age home having a bad episode of dementia.

Fan fiction illustration, by Evan Cagle, of Lives of the Monster Dogs. It shows Ludwig von Sacher talking to Cleo in his study.

The fantastical aspects of the novel (exactly how the dogs and their puppies became human-like) are not as good as the depiction of society’s expectations of animals, and their reactions to alien elements that move in (often, NIMBY). The dogs may be rich, and own impressive properties, and go to the opera, but they are still strange, and they are still dogs, apt to regress to barking and sniffing meat and blood at inopportune moments. “Souls are not bound by time in the same way that living bodies are,” Ludwig writes while he is contemplating the end of not only his sanity, but the existence of his “pack”. Which raises the questions, What then, are souls? How can you demonstrate that you have a soul? How do you keep souls alive?

The dogs have enough wealth to build themselves a massive, ornate apartment block that they call “Neuhundstein” (meaning “new castle-of-dogs” in German), a play on the name  Neuschwanstein, the 19th-century Romanesque Revival and Rococo-style palace in southwest Bavaria, Germany, built by (mad) Ludwig II of Bavaria. The project is the brainchild of one of the leaders of the dogs, “Klaue Lutz” (“Klaue means “claws” in German), and is intended to showcase the dogs’ superior intelligence, sophistication and wealth, protect them from the people of the city, and offer them privacy for their undeniable physical suffering. It is part prison, part palace. Says Klaue to Cleo – his human facial expression clearly slipping:

“Don’t you think it is lovely, Cleo? My Neuhundstein? His tongue protruded again, and remained stuck between his front teeth, its tip showing…” (p. 261)

Lives of the Monster Dogs, by Kirsten Bakis – 2017 reprint (Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 05/09/2017; 320 pages; foreword by Jeff VanderMeer)

After all these years, the novel is still powerful, still very enjoyable to read, and still very poignant. I hope Bakis produces another novel, but the chances that it will be as ground-breaking as this one, are slim.

A film version of Lives of the Monster Dogs, based on the book, has been in production since August 23, 2010. Adam Kline and Chris Wedge are named as writers of the screenplay, and Chris Wedge as producer. It is likely that the film is stuck in development hell and nothing will come of it. In the meantime, I suggest you read the reprinted 2017 edition, with the foreword by Science Fiction and New Weird author, Jeff VanderMeer.

About the author

Kirsten Bakis on Twitter (@kirstenbakis)

Kirsten Bakis was born in 1967 in Switzerland. She now lives in the USA. Lives of the Monster Dogs is her first and only novel, thus far. Bakis has received numerous awards and grants for writing, and has taught creative writing at institutions like the University of Iowa, and Hampshire and Skidmore Colleges. Since 2012 she has been a resident faculty member at the Yale Summer Writers’ Conference. She also teaches at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center.Her story The Thief appeared in in the Fall 2015 issue of Tin House magazine. The debate and discussions around Lives of the Monster Dogs have not stopped since it got published – and this is now her main claim to fame. Desperate fans have come up with fan fiction sequels to the book, including “Return of the Monster Dogs”.

Fan fiction: “Return of the Monster Dogs”
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