Saturday, February 10, 2018

What does your dog really think of you?

Hell Hound

Ken Greenhall

Valancourt Books

March 14, 2017

5 stars

Baxter is a bull terrier. He lives with in a precarious relationship with an elderly woman. Baxter sees the young couple next doors and wonder if that would be a better match for him as he tries to figure out these strange two legged creatures called humans. So one night, he places his body between the woman's legs and the long flight of stairs going down.

Baxter is a sociopath. He loves nothing yet has a curious obsession with humans and what they can teach him and what he can teach them. After a try with the young couple, that ends up for them no better than that of the old lady, he finds what may be a kinship with a young boy who is fascinated by Hitler and has as little capacity for love as Baxter. It is a match that will not bode well for anyone.

Hell Hound was written in 1977 by Ken Greenhall. If you never heard of him, you are not alone. We learn from the excellent introduction by Grady Hendrix that Greenhall wrote only six books before he passed away in 2014, not writing anything for 16 years before that. Hell Hound came out during the flood of horror paperbacks in the 70s and was undeservedly neglected. It is a minor masterpiece and certainly a horror novel ahead of its time. While other books of the 70s delighted in demon children, slashers and a bevy of visceral horrors, Hell Hound is deceptively quiet and vastly disturbing. Its sense of horror is directly related to Greenhall's subtle style. While murder and violence is present in the book, it is more unsettling to hear Baxter's own thoughts as he ponders over those who "own" him.

People have a great capacity for loyalty for those who seem to depend on them. I have benefited from that loyalty but I don't understand it. Urinate on their carpets, chew up one of the objects they endlessly accumulate. They sometimes punish but in their loyalty they always forgive. Does their loyalty have any limits? Some day I'll know. Soon, perhaps.

While most of the novel is in third person narration, there are interspersed passages that are from Baxter's first And therein lies the brilliance of this tale. We usually view dogs, as least the pet variety, as an extension of their person. Baxter's evilness does not come from nurturing. He is truly evil. In fact, we see that his later ward's control of him doesn't make him meaner or more violent than he already is. Baxter is actually rather philosophical about who he kills and insists on being the one who decides. His equally sociopathic ward focuses him and give an understanding of the evil existing beyond him. The kind he must learn from and conquer.

Despite the stylish subtlety that we don't usually see in a book like this, Hell Hound fits quite well among the horror novels of today. It has a cynical look on love and loyalty all the more disturbing since it is coming from man's best friend. It is certainly different from anything of its nature that I have read before . Comparing it to a contemporary canine of its time, Cujo was a sick doggie. Baxter is an intelligent bundle of terror. Of the two, Baxter is the one that will keep me up at night wondering what my pets really think of me.

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