Everybody Loves the Sound of a Dog in the Distance

Quick, don’t think of a polar bear. And while you’re at it, good luck not stopping short at instances of barking dogs in the next 50 novels you read. In Slate, Rosecrans Baldwin points out what a widespread fictional convention the faraway dog bark is:

Novelists can’t resist including a dog barking in the distance. I’ve seen it happen across the spectrum—Jackie Collins, William Faulkner, and Chuck Palahniuk: “There was no more rain, just an eerie stillness, a deathly silence. Somewhere a dog barked mournfully.” (American Star) “She did not answer for a time. The fireflies drifted; somewhere a dog barked, mellow sad, faraway.” (Light in August) “This is such a fine neighborhood. I jump the fence to the next backyard and land on my head in somebody’s rose bush. Somewhere a dog’s barking.” (Choke)

Having heard the dog’s call, it seemed like I couldn’t find a book without one.

Baldwin wonders why, exactly, a dog as opposed to a train whistle, traffic, or a human voice? “Really,” he asks, “are there so many out-of-sight, noisy dogs in the world?” A quick, provincial survey (a walk in my neighborhood yesterday evening; another this morning) returns the following data: Yes, yes there are. Instead of being, as he suggests, a deliberate meme among writers, I’d venture that the barking dog is a bit of fictive Darwinism: It’s overused because it works. The sound of a truck rumbling requires streets nearby; birdsong eliminates the nighttime hours, unless coming from a Whip-Poor-Will or owl, which carry their own connotations; human voices necessarily involve words and tone, which automatically makes them signifiers of something else; an overhead airplane is a long sound, rather than punctuation. The dog can be urban, suburban or rural, American, Asian, European. The sound provides the equivalent of a musical rest, pulling the narrative focus briefly but firmly up and out.

And there’s something of a mystery to it as well. Baldwin points out that the dog usually doesn’t figure in the story, making it nothing more than aural shorthand. Which is true, but there’s also an undefinable otherness about it. I admit to being biased by an early love for Dodie Smith’s “twilight barking,” a crucial plot point in The Hundred and One Dalmatians and its weird and mostly overlooked sequel, The Starlight Barking (which also included the equally enchanting fact that dogs could glide without touching the ground when no one was looking). I completely bought the idea of a dog network communing over great distances, and 40 years later I still can’t hear a few dogs go off in sequence without believing, deep down, that they’re spreading some kind of important news.

Ironically, this spells the death of the trope’s effectiveness for anyone who’s seen Baldwin’s article. It no longer works as a quiet bit of punctuation when you stop reading to think, “Look! Another barking dog sighting!” On the other hand, maybe it will push writers to stretch and find new devices to accomplish the same effect, and that’s always a step in the right direction. You can’t tell me the Reviewerspeak Awards have been such a bad thing.

(For anyone who has an earworm from the post title, or for anyone who’d like one, I direct you here. You can only listen to it once, though.)

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7 Comments to Everybody Loves the Sound of a Dog in the Distance

  1. June 20, 2010 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Just to say that I may be a statistical abnormality, but I am pretty sure that in all five of my novels there is not one barking dog.

  2. June 21, 2010 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    *Of course* they’re spreading important news!

  3. Mike's Gravatar Mike
    June 23, 2010 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    @katharine weber:

    “Soames had barked and barked, not at the monkey but at the comically hysterical group of Japanese tourists.” (The Little Women, p. 59)

    “…sometimes this leads to a friendy chat with the farmer’s wife, who has been attracted by the unfamiliar sound of my voice—or by the barking dog.” (The Music Lesson p.79)

  4. June 23, 2010 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    So it turns out I am no authority on my own novels! Heh. May I say at least that these are specific dogs and not random “somewhere a dog barked” dogs?

  5. Anonymous's Gravatar Anonymous
    June 26, 2010 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    I can’t help thinking of S.J. Perelman’s classic hardboiled parody. “Somewhere a roscoe barked.”

  6. July 15, 2010 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    “I completely bought the idea of a dog network communing over great distances, and 40 years later I still can’t hear a few dogs go off in sequence without believing, deep down, that they’re spreading some kind of important news.”

    ^ I’m glad somebody else took this from The 101 Dalmatians – I live in the country where “twilight barking” is a regular occurence, and I’ve thought more than once that there is a line of communication going on here that is beyond human comprehension.

    Oh yeah, and here’s my dystopian own contribution to the distant-dog pile: “On a nearby street, an unknown dog – most likely abandoned in the chaos – let out a single mournful howl and was silent.” (Everybody But Lazarus)

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