W. Bruce Cameron has, through the publication of a series of novels about dogs, built himself a nice little doggy empire. A Dog’s Purpose, A Dog’s Journey, A Dog’s Way Home, The Dogs of Christmas, The Dog Master, The Dogcatcher Always Rings Twice - these are but a few of the canine-centric books Cameron has published since 2010. Okay, I made up the last one - but the point stands!
With sales of his books fueled by the three film adaptations that have been released in the last two years, Cameron is riding high on his pooch empire. I can only imagine he has been able to pay off that private jet - and all through maudlin tales of hope and humanity as narrated by loveable pooches. Not a bad way to build a new reputation for yourself beyond being simply known as the guy who created 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.
Before we crown W. Bruce Cameron king of the doggo storytelling, though, let us not forget Hell Hound by Ken Greenhall - a book that I would like to humbly submit as the best dog novel of all time. W. Bruce Cameron, you can go fetch.
First published in 1977, Greenhall’s novel Hell Hound is essentially A Dog’s Purpose meets Dexter. At the center of the novel is Baxter, a sociopathic bull terrier discontented with his life. Given to an elderly woman as a gift by her daughter, Baxter despises his owner. Her weakness, her smell, the way she fears his grossly squat and muscular form. Baxter wants nothing more than to leave his current home and move in with the hip young couple that lives across the street. Surrounded by their youth and beauty, Baxter knows he will be happy and full of purpose. Left with no other choice, Baxter decides to murder his owner by pushing her down the stairs. Turns out - it’s a lot easier for your dog to kill you than you might think!
Baxter’s plan works and he is taken in by the owners of his dreams. Everything is copacetic until the couple has a child and their attention is taken away from the bull terrier and put on the new baby. Murder, once again, is on Baxter’s mind.
Hell Hound follows Baxter as he makes his way through a series of owners, in search of a human soul that will complement his own. Enter Carl - a teenage boy who spends his days roleplaying as Hitler in a bunker he’s constructed using leftover materials in a junkyard and spends his evenings masturbating to pictures of Eva Braun. It’s in Carl, a deeply disturbed neo-Nazi youth, that Baxter finds something akin to an equal. As you might guess, this novel does not have a happy ending.
Grady Hendrix, in his book Paperbacks from Hell, does an excellent job memorializing Hell Hound author Ken Greenhall. The author of six books (plus two books written under the pseudonym Jessica Hamilton), Greenhall’s past is shrouded in mystery. He was born in 1928 in Detroit, died sometime in 2014 and, in between, published some truly great novels that were more often than not published under covers that masked the poetic beauty of their content. From tales of witchcraft, racial injustice and, yes, killer canines, Greenhall’s novels are written with a wonderful voice, full of insight and anger. Check out this passage from Hell Hound, as Baxter shares his philosophy on humans:
People have a great capacity for loyalty to those who seem to depend on them. I have benefitted 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 that loyalty have any limits? Some day I’ll know. Soon, perhaps.
Through the voice of a dog, Geenhall offers sharp criticism of his fellow humans. From materialistic habits, gender politics, the processing of grief, or the innate weakness inherent in humanity’s desire to connect with each other, Greenhall dissects the human condition, leaving bare our flaws as only a dog could point out.
In 1989, Greenhall’s novel would be adapted in France under the name Baxter. Directed by Jérôme Boivin and featuring the voice of Maxime Leroux as Baxter, the film is a pretty faithful adaptation of the novel. It’s dark - but not nearly as dark as the book, which gave me a stomach ache while reading it.
While the movie embraces the voice of Baxter as he passes judgment on the humans in his periphery, the book does not go nearly as far as the book in its violence, pulling back from some of the truly horrible scenarios Greenhall dreamed up. But don’t go in expecting a W. Bruce Cameron joint - Baxter is just as glorious a frightening deconstruction of humanity’s morality.
It breaks my heart that there is not a Blu-ray release of Baxter out there in the world and that the only US DVD release seems to be out-of-print. More people should be able to see this film - it’s an incredible horror-dama from the perspective of a dog. We can’t let W. Bruce Cameron corner this market, even if he does have Josh Gad as his secret weapon.
Luckily, Ken Greenhall’s Hell Hound is readily available for those looking to experience some grade-A quality literature. Valancourt Books re-published the book in 2017 with a new introduction by Grady Hendrix. At 150 pages, there’s no excuse to not give this book a read.
It would make my day for Hell Hound and Baxter to find a new audience over forty years after the book’s release. Greenhall’s novel deserves a bigger audience - if only so it can be adapted into a new movie and Josh Gad can provide the voice of Baxter. In this arms race of talking dog movies, the future rests in whoever controls the Gad.