Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Fangs of Tsan-Lo: Man's Best Monster [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Jim Kjelgaard always had one theme that was closest to his heart: training dogs. It should be no surprise then that he made the big time with a book about that very theme: Big Red (1945). In the book, Danny Pickett is a poor country boy who gets the job of training Big Red for a wealthy neighbor, Mr. Haggin. The plot follows Danny's struggles with teaching Red to be a bird dog as well as a show winner. Red and Danny face off against a rogue grizzly, mean employees, and even the big city. The story is a tribute to simple living and an affection for animals. The novel did so well that it became part of the Library of Childhood, alongside Black Beauty, Beautiful Joe, and Bambi. Again, no surprise, when the Disney Company made the book into a film in 1962.

Kjelgaard did so well with Big Red that he made a regular business of writing dog books with two sequels, Irish Red (1951) and Outlaw Red (1953), as well as Snow Dog (1948), Kalak of the Ice (1949), Lion Hound (1955), Desert Dog (1956), Trading Jeff and His Dog (1956), Rescue Dog of the High Pass (1958), The Duck-Footed Hound (1960), and Dave and His Dog, Mulligan (1966), all of which look at that special relationship between a dog and his master.

But Kjelgaard didn't start there. Like most writers of the 1940s, he began in the pulps. Writing frontier stories for Argosy, Adventure, and even the occasional comic book story such as "Outpost Peril" in Calling All Boys #s 3 and 4 (April-May 1945), Kjelgaard learned how to write an exciting tale before launching his career as a dog book writer. It should be no surprise that this writer who sold to Western Story and Black Mask, also sold to Weird Tales. And it should be no shock either that he sold WT at least one dog story.

Kjelgaard appeared in 'the Unique Magazine' four times between September 1945 and July 1946. His second appearance was with a tale called "The Fangs of Tsan-Lo" (November 1945) and it begins with a familiar ring. Clint Roberts, a dog trainer, is about to meet his newest charge, the Chesapeake terrier, Tsan-Lo. Clint has a shine for the wealthy Sally Evers, introducing Kjelgaard's second familiar theme: poor versus rich. Tsan-Lo, who has been sent by a strange and mysterious customer, Dr. Ibellius Grut, turns out to be something different. The small dog radiates a feeling of hatred and repulsion. Clint, being a rational person, ignores these sensations. When the beast attacks him, going for his throat, Clint is forced to tame it with a baseball bat.

Sally finds a book by Dr. Grut and Clint learns of the crazy experiments the mad scientist may have performed on the small dog. He knows that dogs were once larger, more ferocious creatures before humans bred them for their own purposes. This becomes directly apparent when Tsan-Lo grows to the size of a Shetland pony and pulls Clint right out of his bed, stripping him of his pajamas. (This is the scene the Canadian artist chose to illustrate in the Toronto based version of the story seen here. I would love to know what Lee Brown Coye did with it for the American edition.)

Tsan-Lo with his meal in tow heads for the woods and then the lake. He only drops Clint when the monster spies Sally, whom he has had an instinctive hatred for. The dog heads for shore. Clint wants to save his love, but he is too beaten up. He only survives drowning because his faithful dog, Buck, pulls him from the lake. When he wakes, he finds Sally nursing him and declaring her love for him. She survived the monster's attack when the gigantic dog tried to cross a dugout filled with quicksand (Kjelgaard mentioned this earlier, a rather clumsy device and you know it will come into the story at some point.) Even the monstrous Tsan-Lo can't escape the sucking mud and its three thousand pound skeleton is dredged up later, fascinating scientists. Clint doesn't care. He has what he wants: dogs to train and the love of Sally Evers, and later a little Sally too.

"The Fangs of Tsan-Lo" is not a high water mark for Kjelgaard. In November 1945, he would have published Big Red already, so he may have seen this story as a way to promote the book. He may have simply written it with money in mind. Or, I like to think, he used it as a way of writing Big Red out of his system. It's classic Kjelgaard with the dog training, the rich-poor conflict, and the happy ending with a positive family in the making. What it is not is great horror fiction. The images are not convincing and the ideas too pulpy. Kjelgaard would write two more stories for Weird Tales, but it was a limited market for him. He was more comfortable with the American frontier or dog kennels and birch forests.

Kjelgaard wasn't quite done with prehistoric dogs though. One of my favorite books of his is called Fire-Hunter (1960). In it, he follows the innovations of a group of cavemen. One of those adaptations is the first raising of wolf pups that would lead to the future breeds we know so well. Kjelgaard really had a love for dogs and their breeding that filtered into most everything he wrote, even the goofy little horror tale that is "The Fangs of Tsan-Lo". It makes for an odd little footnote in a much better saga, the Big Red trilogy.

You can enjoy this story at Wikisource.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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