Reading a book in childhood is like visiting an island. You land, you explore, you sail away. That’s when the island starts to sink. Sometimes it sinks quickly, vanishing beneath the sea, swallowed into the subconscious. I’ve completely forgotten a lot of books I read in my childhood. But sometimes a literary island sinks slowly and incompletely, leaving reefs and outcrops. A powerful story can stay with you for life.
The Plague Dogs was like that for me. It’s a long time since I last read it, but parts of it had stayed with me, never sinking into the subconscious. Things that never sank included the sounds and smells of experimental pigeons in a darkened laboratory and old Tyson’s “R.N.K. theory” about the origins of their homing instinct: “Reckon nobody knaws” (pg. 28). Other parts weren’t far underwater and I remembered them as I read, like the monkey kept isolated in a tank until it becomes catatonic. But some of it had sunk beyond recall, like the fox who meets Rowf and Snitter, the dogs of the title who have escaped from a research laboratory in the Lake District. Why did I remember the pigeons and forget the fox, when the pigeons are gone in a couple of pages and the fox – “the tod” – is there chapter after chapter, behaving and talking in a highly memorable way?
“Noo give ower,” said the creature in the dark. “Gan canny. Lez wez aall be marrers, ne need fer barneys. Stick wi’ me and we’ll aall be champion. Else ye’ll be deed seun, like Ah towld yez.” (Fit III, pg. 95)
Tod smells memorable too, particularly to a dog: Snitter and Rowf think that he has a “wild” and “exciting” smell, “a sharp, killing smell, a furtive smell, trotting, preying, slinking through the darkness” (pg. 92). Like Adams’ much more famous Watership Down (1972), this book is good at invoking the sensory world of animals and making you experience the world through their eyes, nose and ears. But Watership Down is much more famous partly because it’s a much better book. It also has an uplifting theme, not a upsetting one. It’s about animals finding new lives, not animals being tortured in the name of science.
And for me the island of Watership Down never sank beneath the waves, because I’ve never stopped re-reading it. It’s a strange, haunting and beautiful book, with more seasons and fewer humans in it than The Plague Dogs. It has more landscapes too. The Plague Dogs takes place from Friday 15th October to Saturday 27th November in the bleak landscape of the Lake District: hills, stones, tarns and occasional trees, as described by Adams and drawn by Alfred Wainwright. The drawings are usually better than the text, because they aren’t experimental or extravagant. Adams has one big experiment in Watership Down and it works: the invention of Lapine, the rabbit-language. Like Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and R’lyeh, Adams’ Thayli and Hlao-roo are anti-anthropocentric, loosening the mind’s hold on the familiar, making us think from a new perspective.
He doesn’t invent a new language for this book, but Snitter the fox-terrier is like Fiver the under-sized rabbit in Watership Down. They’re both visionaries, but Snitter’s visions are wilder and less believable, because he’s had brain-surgery at the laboratory from which he and Rowf have escaped. The laboratory, a “former fell farm on the east side of Coniston Water”, is called “Animal Research, Scientific and Experimental”, or “A.R.S.E”, for short. That kind of crude satire doesn’t go well with high-flown passages like this one, describing the food fed in individual packages to the dogs being experimented on at the laboratory:
It were, as Sir Thomas Browne says, an excellent quaere to consider, privatim et seriatim, what drugs, what charms, what conjuration and what mighty magic these packages contained. They were indeed miracles of rare device. One included, infused with the liver and offal, stimulants able to banish sleep, or to cause the consumer to perform, on the morrow, prodigies of endurance – to fight, to fast, to tear himself, to drink up eisel [vinegar], eat a crocodile. Others contained paralytics which suspended colour perception, hearing, taste, smell; analgesics destroying the ability to feel pain, so that the subject stood wagging his tail while a hot iron was drawn along his ribs; hallucinogens able to fill the eye of the beholder with more devils than vast hell can contain, to transform the strong to weaklings, the resolute to cowards, to plunge the intelligent and alert head over ears into idiocy. (“Fit I”, pg. 17)
Passages like that remind me of what Housman says about Swinburne’s attitude to literature: “he dragged this subject into the midst of all other subjects, and covered earth and sky and man with the dust of the library”. Adams knows a lot about literature, but doesn’t always know how to wear his knowledge lightly. He tries to imitate Dickens too: he crowds the book with characters, many of them supposed to be grotesque, like Digby Driver, an amoral crusading journalist, and Bernard Bugwash, the M.P. for Lakeland Central. But few of them come to life: he doesn’t have Dickens’ vivificative powers.
One human who does come partly to life – Geoffrey Westcott, a bank-clerk from Windermere – ends up being eaten by Rowf and Snitter. That’s something else I’d forgotten. Perhaps it wasn’t memorable because Rowf and Snitter don’t truly come to life themselves. Not for me, at least, but then I didn’t like dogs much when I was young and like them even less now. That’s part of why it’s taken me so long to re-read this book. It’s powerful in patches, despite the occasional silliness and longueurs, and although in some ways it made me think less of Adams as an author, in another way it made me think more. Watership Down was the first book I read by him and I got the impression there that he didn’t think much of dogs. This is from a story about how El-ahrairah, the rabbits’ legendary prince of thieves, tricks a dog called Rowsby Woof:
“I am the Fairy Wogdog, messenger of the great dog-spirit of the East, Queen Dripslobber. Far, far in the East her palace lies. Ah, Rowsby Woof, if only you could see her mighty state, the wonders of her kingdom! The carrion that lies far and wide upon the sands! The manure, Rowsby Woof! The open sewers! Oh, how you would jump for joy and run nosing about!” […]
“Oh, Fairy Wogdog!” cried Rowsby Woof. “What joy it will be to grovel and abase myself before the Queen! How humbly I shall roll upon the ground! How utterly I shall make myself her slave! What menial cringing will be mine! I will show myself a true dog!” (ch. 41, “The Story of Rowsby Woof and the Fairy Wogdog”)
Rowsby Woof is “the most objectionable, malicious, disgusting brute that ever licked a man’s hand”, and he’s rightly deceived by El-ahrairah’s lies about Queen Dripslobber and her two “noble attendants, the fairies Postwiddle and Sniffbottom”. But Adams isn’t expressing his own disdain for dogs: he’s expressing the disdain of rabbits in the story. I realized that when I read The Plague Dogs. It doesn’t satirize dogs, it sympathizes with them. Unfortunately, I’m still with the rabbits. I don’t like dogs and I don’t think this book is half as good as Watership Down. But its flaws make it interesting and it captures something of the Lake District and something of England in a vanished era, the 1970s. And if you like dogs, you’ll probably like it more than me, because there is a happy ending.