By Ken Greenhall (Zebra Books; 1977)
One of my longtime “Holy Grails” has been found! You probably know of this extremely obscure paperback original, if at all, as the source for the French cult movie BAXTER. I’ve been searching for this book ever since my initial viewing of the film back in the early nineties, and had nearly concluded that HELL HOUND a). didn’t really exist, or b). was only published in France (where it appears to be readily available under the title DES TUEURS PAS COMME LES AUTRES) and the UK (where it was titled BAXTER and credited to “Jessica Hamilton”). It didn’t help matters that I wasn’t able to find a single review of the book or listing for it in any reference guide.
Now that I’ve finally managed to excavate a copy I can understand, at least partially, why HELL HOUND by Ken Greenhall (whose other books include the horror thrillers CHILDGRAVE and DEATH CHAIN, and the historical drama LENOIR) has been so widely ignored. The packaging is quite tacky, making it look like nothing so much as the aptly titled Alice Cooper flick MONSTER DOG, and no wonder: it was published by Zebra Books, a tawdry paperback outfit known in the trade as the publisher of last resort for manuscripts rejected by everyone else.
Quite simply put, Ken Greenhall’s HELL HOUND is an unsung classic of the bizarre that ranks with CRASH and THE WASP FACTORY (high praise indeed!). It is at once an Orwellian satire of pet ownership in the modern world–“Maybe that’s why we keep animals around us” one character muses, “to remind us of something we have lost, an innocence”, when in fact the eponymous canine is anything but innocent!–and a horror story about the wily nature of evil (which always seems to hide behind the most innocent of guises), as well as one of the most unflinchingly corrosive portraits of small-town America I’ve ever encountered.
The “Hell Hound” is Baxter, a white Bull Terrier who thinks like a human–correction: like a uniquely nasty, brutish human. His ugly thoughts are revealed via short first-person chapters in which Baxter invariably laments his present situation and ponders how to free himself from it. As the novel opens, Baxter finds himself in the care of a lonely old woman who nauseates him. He takes to spying on an attractive young couple next door, wishing he were in their care. In order to facilitate this, Baxter gives the old bag a deadly spill down the stairs and ends up with the young couple. Unfortunately, the wife is pregnant and Baxter definitely doesn’t take to the child once it’s born; he commits murder again, drowning the kid in a backyard pool, which facilitates yet another ownership change. Baxter winds up with Carl, a severely deranged, Hitler obsessed twelve-year-old who likes to hang out in a junkyard where he’s set up a bunker in honor of his idol’s place of death. It might seem like Baxter’s found his ideal mate, but in fact the boy and dog are a bit too much alike, leading to an inevitable showdown that only one will survive.
Orbiting this twisted drama are a rich and varied gallery of characters: Carl’s clueless parents, his sympathetic teacher, a young girl and her callous father, a nubile female mutt and a decrepit old man. Their presence gives this otherwise painfully insular narrative a complex, multi-faceted arc, yet Greenhall never loses focus. Nor does he ever sell out any of his cast members or plot strands, following each to its inevitable conclusion, regardless of how ugly that conclusion may be.
At the center of it all is Baxter, a true monster who seems intended to represent all that’s petty, selfish and vindictive in human nature. No reason is given for his unique ability to think like a human and carry out his murderous impulses (other than the fact that he has blue eyes, apparently a “genetic shadow” which “just appears from somewhere out of the past”). Perhaps his presence is intended as symbolic, as the specter of Vietnam unleashing itself on an unsuspecting small town; none of the characters, after all, ever seem to ever ponder much beyond their own immediate surroundings. That’s a bit of a stretch, I realize, but one tends to make such wild conjectures when confronted with a novel this unique. I guarantee you’ll have a difficult time finding another book remotely like it.