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Off The Shelf: Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites

Evan Dorkin & Jill Thompson have crafted wonderful, spooky, funny and unsettling animal adventure tales.

Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites

Earlier this year saw the release of Beasts of Burden: Neighborhood Watch, which was the first I'd heard of these animal paranormal investigators from Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson, but I was far behind the curve. They've been appearing in Dark Horse horror anthology books over the last decade, and most of their stories are collected in the wonderful hardback Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites, released back in 2010. The week after I read Watch, I made sure to pick this collection up, and it's only recently that I've actually had time to crack open this tome and take it in.

This book is perfect. It is goddamned delightful.

Dorkin was commisioned to write a horror story, and this sprang from the idea of a haunted doghouse, and what's arisen from that hook is a beautifully rendered world of truly unnerving spook stories investigated by dogs and cats. Mostly dogs, but cats play a huge role. Dogs who are heroes, cowards, and agitators. Cats who are orphans, braggarts and witches. There's even  cameo from a dickish raccoon. There's an entire society for dogs unknown to humanity, including a council of Wise Dogs who know magic and are steeped in old knowledge, as well as the Black Dog who eventually comes for them all.

If you think cats and dogs means Disney-cute kiddie book, just don't. Sure, they pay homage to the classic boy detective novels of yore, but these are Dark Horse Comics horror stories. There are ravenous zombie dogs, ghosts of dead puppies, giant carnivorous frogs and savage rat hordes to contend with, and their interaction with humanity tends to be particularly gruesome. But these stories aren't lame gore-fests or cheap scares either – they are moving in their maturity, full of real emotional stakes, compelling characterization and truly unnerving subject matter.

I'm not generally a fan of horror, but Beasts of Burden strikes the perfect balance between dark, eerie creepiness and innocently adorable fun, and I found myself excited to turn each page, utterly engaged with each character's particulars, be it Ace's heroic dedication or Pugs' constant bitchin' and complainin'. Thompson's watercolor work is lush and gorgeous, creating a world full of cute and cuddly pets you want to jump into and be a part of, and yet she gets utterly disturbing when the story calls for it. I told you about the savage rat hordes, right? Still skeeved.

Not included in the Animal Rites collection but also very much of note would be the one-shot issue where Beasts of Burden crosses over with Hellboy in a story co-written with Mike Mignola called Sacrifice – also released in 2010. It's actually quite important, as the ever-unfolding mysteries of the first collection indicate some kind of mystical vortex of bad ju-ju coming to the neighborhood of Burden Hill, and Hellboy's investigation of a dumb undead creep leads him to their skeevy forest and their mysterious ritual-killing problem. It ties directly into the events in Animal Rites, picking up where it left off and building on the evil threats built therein. The character moments for Pugs alone are reason enough to pick this up, but the fact that it's also great should help.

Beasts of Burden is wonderful. I can find nothing wrong with it, and you shouldn't either. Just… maybe don't read these stories to your kids before they go to sleep.

10