One of the pleasures of Monster Dogs, then, is that it strives to exist perpetually in a place between discomfort and resolution: a transitional space that contains on the one side established ritual and an adherence to acceptable social mores, and on the other madness, violence, and disturbing imagery. The brilliance of the approach, and its bravery, is that Bakis wants to show you not just what happened on her version of the island of Dr. Moreau, so to speak, but the aftermath. Where did the animals end up? How were they haunted? How, then, is the reader haunted?
At its heart, the novel requires a certain, though not entirely complete, suspension of reader disbelief. On one level, the novel wants you to believe in uplifted dogs who display a humanlike intelligence. On another level, it knows you cannot really believe in this scenario as presented, and thus the reader must sometimes struggle, in the way good art often requires, to find other contexts in which to place these characters and events. In other words, the novel makes you think even as it traps you in its surreal, fictive dream.
In the best possible way, these contradictions are inconvenient and rude on the part of the author—to not ground the reader in either the reality or the allegory. Rather, Bakis works in the middle distance, in which the dog characters—Ludwig von Sacher, Klaue Lutz, and, of course, Mops Hacker, the leader of the dog revolution—are both sympathetic and complex. The reader is uncomfortable and simultaneously entertained.
The novel’s moments of Dr. Moreau–like immediacy offer up commentary on not just the idea of the mad scientist but science more broadly, especially in the scenes documenting the surgical experiments of Augustus Rank, the creator of the monster dogs. “This is the night, tonight, when I will finally [make a major breakthrough], and I feel as if I could just fly,” Rank writes in his journal, and it is with a kind of horror that the reader recognizes the enthusiasm and delight accompanying his exploration of the grotesque. Yet beyond the horror, the true insight is that intense curiosity about the world is amoral. After all, Alexander von Humboldt is the godfather of environmentalism, and yet he killed more than four thousand frogs trying to figure out how their limbs moved, and herded horses into marshes writhing with electric eels to see what would happen. In fact, a fair number of his experiments occurred under the patronage of the same royal family that, in Monster Dogs, funds Rank’s.
You could call such experimentation the cost of scientific inquiry or you could call it cruel. You could say, similarly, that the monster dogs are the end result of a single-minded obsession that becomes its own reward for their selfish creator, or you could say that scientists have always been known to reclassify the unethical as acceptable if it is expedient to a successful outcome. “The pressures on me are unbearable,” Rank writes, a remark that suggests that even if he were not a mad scientist, he would become one, deformed by the will of the institutions he serves.