Almost a vampire story, but with dogs

Thursday, February 14th, 2019

I recently listened to an audiobook version of Jack London’s White Fang and was surprised by how much the opening chapters resemble a horror story:

The pale light of the short sunless day was beginning to fade, when a faint far cry arose on the still air. It soared upward with a swift rush, till it reached its topmost note, where it persisted, palpitant and tense, and then slowly died away. It might have been a lost soul wailing, had it not been invested with a certain sad fierceness and hungry eagerness. The front man turned his head until his eyes met the eyes of the man behind. And then, across the narrow oblong box, each nodded to the other.

A second cry arose, piercing the silence with needle-like shrillness. Both men located the sound. It was to the rear, somewhere in the snow expanse they had just traversed. A third and answering cry arose, also to the rear and to the left of the second cry.

“They’re after us, Bill,” said the man at the front.

His voice sounded hoarse and unreal, and he had spoken with apparent effort.

“Meat is scarce,” answered his comrade. “I ain’t seen a rabbit sign for days.”

Thereafter they spoke no more, though their ears were keen for the hunting-cries that continued to rise behind them.

At the fall of darkness they swung the dogs into a cluster of spruce trees on the edge of the waterway and made a camp. The coffin, at the side of the fire, served for seat and table. The wolf-dogs, clustered on the far side of the fire, snarled and bickered among themselves, but evinced no inclination to stray off into the darkness.

“Seems to me, Henry, they’re stayin’ remarkable close to camp,” Bill commented.

Henry, squatting over the fire and settling the pot of coffee with a piece of ice, nodded. Nor did he speak till he had taken his seat on the coffin and begun to eat.

“They know where their hides is safe,” he said. “They’d sooner eat grub than be grub. They’re pretty wise, them dogs.”

Bill shook his head. “Oh, I don’t know.”

His comrade looked at him curiously. “First time I ever heard you say anything about their not bein’ wise.”

“Henry,” said the other, munching with deliberation the beans he was eating, “did you happen to notice the way them dogs kicked up when I was a-feedin’ ’em?”

“They did cut up more’n usual,” Henry acknowledged.

“How many dogs ’ve we got, Henry?”


“Well, Henry . . . ” Bill stopped for a moment, in order that his words might gain greater significance. “As I was sayin’, Henry, we’ve got six dogs. I took six fish out of the bag. I gave one fish to each dog, an’, Henry, I was one fish short.”

“You counted wrong.”

“We’ve got six dogs,” the other reiterated dispassionately. “I took out six fish. One Ear didn’t get no fish. I came back to the bag afterward an’ got ’m his fish.”

“We’ve only got six dogs,” Henry said.

“Henry,” Bill went on. “I won’t say they was all dogs, but there was seven of ’m that got fish.”

Henry stopped eating to glance across the fire and count the dogs.

“There’s only six now,” he said.

“I saw the other one run off across the snow,” Bill announced with cool positiveness. “I saw seven.”

Henry looked at him commiseratingly, and said, “I’ll be almighty glad when this trip’s over.”

Go ahead and read the first three chapters. They’re their own short story — almost a vampire story, but with dogs.


  1. Kirk says:

    I’ve always read the various vampire stories as being atavistic throwbacks to the days when we had to worry about the odd leopard dragging our young off into the trees for an al fresco dining experience.

    Most stories have a reason; if nothing else, they model behavior for the audience to follow when they encounter a like set of circumstances. If you follow that line of reasoning, you can see in “the story” a form of virtual reality for the audience, one that enables them to experience aspects of the world with which they’re unfamiliar, and which actually experiencing would be highly risky.

    Which is where I think the old “sit ’round the fire, boys, and let me tell you about…” thing actually comes from: It’s a mechanism by which we pass on knowledge and experience, and the narrative is actually a training tool by which we pass successful behaviors on to the next generation. Which is why bowldlerized fairy tales aren’t a good idea–There’s a reason those things are so bloody.

    And, too… The prevalent story-tropes in a culture tell you a lot about it. Consider the deal with Aladdin and his finding the lamp: It’s all about taking advantage of someone you found, helpless. The Genie of the lamp is a slave, pure and simple. What does Aladdin do, when he finds this poor purple bastard (yeah, I know… Disney.) trapped in a lamp? Does he give a thought to freeing that victim from his imprisonment…? No; he does not: He takes advantage of the situation, and keeps the genie as his slave, no thought giving to freeing him or whether or not the genie should have been imprisoned in the first place.

    Another culture would hold up a different exemplar; one where Aladdin, finding a cruelly imprisoned stranger, would give thought to freeing him and ask “Is there a reason this creature is imprisoned here? What do I risk, by freeing him… Should I?”. As well, the idea that the Genie would owe Aladdin service for doing what any decent sophont should, when encountering such a situation…?

    You can tell a lot about a culture, simply by observing what stories it tells its children, and what stories its adults find worth telling one another. Aladdin, along with most of the rest of Scheherazade’s oeuvre, does not say nice things about the Arab source culture–Especially when you look at the underlying cultural assumptions and biases.

  2. Isegoria says:

    I had always read that vampires were a metaphor for disease — first consumption (tuberculosis) and then rabies — but the nature of the metaphor is that these hard-to-understand diseases become easy-to-understand predators.

    Jordan Peterson makes this point about snakes or serpents as a metaphor for evil, and everyone’s favorite mythological monster, the dragon, is a composite of the carnivores who fed on human ancestors when they were tree-dwelling monkeys: the pythons, the big cats and the raptors.

    I recently read Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?, and it makes the point that Kirk just made, that people in primitive societies talk incessantly, in part to convey all that useful knowledge and experience about predators, prey, and other humans.

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