March 7, 2013

Using dogs as Villains in Horror: a guest post by Bryan W. Alaspa, author of "Vicious"

Bryan W. Alaspa is an author and a dog lover, but when you write a novel that depicts any kind of violence by or towards dogs, he realizes you are bound to get some hate mail. So, here's a guest post from Bryan explaining how to portray a vicious dog without resting on the misconceptions perpetuated by the media. There's no such thing as a bad breed of dog, folks. Those pitbulls you see on the six o'clock news, the ones that maul some passerby, aren't born that way. It's beaten into them, literally. But don't take my word for it. Here's Bryan ...

Using Dogs as Villains in a Horror Novel
by Bryan W. Alaspa

There is no denying that the villains in my horror novel VICIOUS are dogs.  You can kind of tell by looking at the cover, although I have had a couple of people ask me if the antagonists are werewolves.  No, I sometimes like to strive for realism in my novels and these are real dogs (well, within the context of the novel) and not anything supernatural, not shape changers and not robots or mutants.

Of course, this is not something entirely new.  Dracula loved his “children of the night” who howled like wolves.  Stephen King took a family’s Saint Bernard, gave him rabies, and then unleashed him on a mother and son.  I remember a movie on television when I was a kid that starred James Garner and was called “They Only Kill Their Masters” and it was a murder mystery where a dog (a doberman) was the prime suspect.  Damien used dogs to do his dirty work in the Omen movies.

At the same time, it was not an easy decision for me.  You see, I love dogs.  I had a dog when I was growing up.  When I became an adult, for 15 years my one constant and faithful companion was a shaggy dog named Shelby.  My wife and I had dogs before we were married and, these days, we have two rescue dogs that our like our children.  I love dogs and have been known to stand on the side of the road with protest signs, protesting a local puppy store that gets its dogs from a puppy mill.

Still, the use of dogs worked well within the story.  I had struggled for some time to come up with an appropriate antagonist for my novel.  As a horror writer, I had always wanted to do a “man against nature” story like Jaws, the first novel that had really grabbed me and made me want to explore my own dark imagination.  However, I also knew that Peter Benchley spent much of his later career worrying over the fact that people were so afraid of sharks after reading his novel that they killed them with impunity.  I also, however, wanted to do my own version of the “cabin in the woods” story, but I did not want my characters stalked by some masked maniac.  So, what was I going to use?

I went through a whole mental list when I was conjuring the story.  It kicked around in my head for a long time.  I could see the cabin.  I knew that my protagonists would be trapped inside, but what would trap them?  Bears?  Sasquatch?  Some mythical beast that I created just out of my own twisted imagination?  Maybe I should make it an Arctic expedition and make them polar bears? 

For me, the writing cannot begin until the story just clicks.  There have been a few novels that have taken years to percolate in my brain.  Then, suddenly, something will happen and I can see the entire story.  I know where I want to go and get a rough idea of how I want to get there.  That just wasn’t happening with this story.  So, I knew that it wasn’t right.

Then, one day, while at the library, I saw a book on a display shelf.  It was a true crime story about a woman who had been mauled to death by two dogs while in the hallway of her apartment building.  It turned out the dogs had been trained for dog fighting by two white supremacists.  The two had ended up going to jail, but gave their dogs to their lawyers.  What struck me was the brutality of the wounds the victim had suffered, and a photo of one of the dog’s teeth.  These dogs were Presa Canario dogs, or Canary Island dogs, a breed I had never heard of.  But one look at them told me that if two Canary Island dogs had been brutalized and trained to fight, they would be very hard to stop. 

So, I suddenly saw the story.  Two dogs who had been horribly abused and trained to fight, kill their tormentor and escape.  They end up under the porch of a seemingly abandoned cabin.  It turns out the cabin is the getaway of a successful writer and his wife, and the dogs picked the weekend that the writer, his wife and two of their friends have chosen to get away for the weekend.  Terror would ensue.

However, it was also my chance to get a message across.  I would make sure that everyone understood that the dogs were made into monsters.  I don’t believe that there are any “bad breeds.” I think humans take dogs and twist a dog’s inherent loyalty and desire to please their masters and turn them into something brutal and violent.  So, I attempted to convey that in the story.

I hope it comes through.  At the same time, I hope it’s a good ride.  I hope no one feels that a Canary Island dog is some kind of bad breed.  And, I hope, maybe, just maybe, at least one person is inspired to do something about dog fighting, puppy mills, or the brutal way humans tend to treat animals, because of my story.  That, for me, would truly mean that it was all worthwhile.

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