This past summer, I quit my job in Australia to work at a rustic summer camp in Vermont, spending my days floating on the pond and reading on the grass. The camp’s cook had a little dog called Frankie, short for Frankenstein; we affectionately called Frankie “the rat,” which the cook hated. Frankie had a permanent snarl of crooked teeth and scruffy white fur, and she walked with a slight waddle. Sometimes when she was sleeping I thought maybe she’d died, but then she’d open her glassy eyes and I’d breathe a small sigh of relief.
That same summer I bought the twentieth-anniversary reissue of Kirsten Bakis’s 1997 novel Lives of the Monster Dogs. I thought a lot about Frankie and camp and Vermont while I was reading it, as well as about my own dog Stephie, who is lying beside me now, limbs twitching in her sleep.
Lives of the Monster Dogs is a Frankensteinian story about dogs, humans, and the need to know and be known. Written as a biography, it charts the story of a pack of monster dogs from their conception to their extinction. It’s a wild and fantastical tale with all the hallmarks of a gothic classic: there’s a mad Prussian scientist, a secretive village, an existential crisis, a pondering of what it truly means to be human.
Created by a mad scientist’s devotees in a remote village, a race of intelligent dogs bred to be super-soldiers turn on their masters and escape to New York City, where they become celebrities. It’s in New York where their eventual biographer, Cleo Pira, meets them and witnesses their fame and demise.
Despite the farfetchedness of it all, Lives of the Monster Dogs feels achingly real. Bakis grounds the monster dogs in reality with newspaper clippings, magazine articles, diary entries, and narration. The monster dogs in this book stand upright, with prosthetic hands and artificial voice boxes, wearing nineteenth-century Prussian clothing—equal parts tragically noble and ridiculous, objects of pity and ridicule. Even in-book, the people of New York are not quite convinced of their realness. “We enjoyed playing along—which was not exactly the same thing as believing,” Cleo writes. But Cleo comes to believe in the dogs, not just in a physical sense, but deep down in her soul.
The reader of Lives of the Monster Dogs must also suspend their disbelief, if only a little. After all, humans have molded and bred dogs to be hunters, guards, friends. So mad scientist Augustus Rank’s grand ambitions to rule with an army of superdogs is only a small stretch. “He demanded obedience from his human followers, but it could never be perfect…But we could. No human loyalty can equal the fanatic devotion of a dog,” writes Ludwig, one of the dogs, in the prologue. I understand the mad scientist’s reasoning; when I returned home to Australia, I felt adrift. Stephie kept me sane.
While they remain aloof from humanity, most of the dogs live comfortably in New York, having signed book deals and granted interview requests. Unlike his fellow creatures, Ludwig knows that this is not the same as belonging. “They know that they are monsters, but I believe they do not really understand what that means to humans,” he writes. The other dogs placate themselves with the trappings of humanity, but they’ll never be accepted: “There is no place for monsters in this world.”
Ludwig, the dogs’ self-appointed historian, grapples with the grim realities of their existence by way of commentary on Rank’s diary entries; his scattered notes on the monster dogs’ history; and, eventually, manic letters to his friend and confidante, Cleo. Rank is long gone, having committed suicide in the belief that his soul would be reborn to lead the monster dogs. “What is our purpose?” Ludwig writes. “If we no longer serve the followers of Rank, what are we here for?”
As the historian struggles to understand his creator—thinking that maybe if he can do so, he might be able to understand himself and his race—Cleo tries to understand the monster dogs. A naïve history major when the monster dogs come to New York, Cleo is drawn into the world of the monster dogs, and grows close to several of them, particularly Ludwig.
The dogs commission Cleo to write magazine articles about them in an attempt to become more accessible, more relatable, to the humans. Her articles are in the book, but more compelling is her narration: so very human, a lifeline to grasp onto in this book of unbelievable beings. In the first chapter, she is adrift after a breakup, trying not to cry. Her loneliness is palpable. Then she sees the helicopter holding the first monster dogs.
At this point, it would be a cliché to note that the monster dogs are just as human as the humans in the story. One tragic passage in the book details the first “successful” monster dog, imbued with human intelligence as a grown dog: “He said later to a friend that it had been like waking up from a pleasant dream to find himself enslaved…It is a terrible thing to be a dog and know it; and I suppose it was worse for him, because he could remember a time when he did not.”
We think of dogs as essentially happy, free of worry or care. What a sobering thought, then, to know contentment and then to be gifted all the existential fear that comes along with being human. The monster dogs feel this fear keenly, and are rendered more human for it. After all, what is being human but feeling anxiety and fear, loneliness and confusion, while understanding you will someday die?
The book is infused with a sense of mortality and impending doom. The dogs slowly succumb to a mysterious illness that causes them to episodically revert to their unrestrained dog instincts. The dizzying, surreal final chapters of the book take place in the dogs’ fantastical New York castle, where they throw a huge, decadent party, including an opera based on their history (the libretto is excerpted).
Cleo comes as close as anyone can to understanding the monster dogs, but with that understanding comes loss. “The raw pain of having joints and muscles and organs, the uncushioned feeling of living, without hope or love, my throbbing heart, it all hurt so much. I just didn’t want to be in the world without them,” she writes, near the end.
As the dogs die one by one, surrounded by the luxurious trappings of humanity, Cleo begins to experience their affliction. For her it isn’t an unraveling, but a “gathering.” She begins to glimpse small moments in other people’s lives, feel the “little, faint signals that people are sending out from all over the world, all the time.” Throughout the book, she has dreams that feel like more than dreams, but this is different. “I know they really are there. I mean, I know that people really are having feelings, everywhere, at every moment. Whether the idea that they reached me is wishful thinking on my part or not, I don’t know,” she writes.
Out of all the fantastical elements of Lives of the Monster Dogs, this requires the most suspension of disbelief. In the introduction, Jeff Vandermeer writes that the visions—coming to her in the half-state between dreaming and waking—show that Cleo is not immune to “irrationality.”
But I choose to be irrational too. I choose to believe that this “gathering” isn’t imagined. I look at Stephie dreaming beside me and wonder what she’s thinking about. I think about my friends from camp, now scattered around the world, and how we were all together for three months, and how we will probably never be all together again.
I choose to be irrational and believe in the monster dogs, and souls, and empathy, and hope, and the togetherness of all things. We are all connected in Cleo’s dreams.