The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"Dog or Demon?" (1889)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“Dog or Demon” was written by “Theo Gift” and first appeared in Not for the Night Time (1889). “Theo Gift” was the pseudonym of Theodora Havers Boulger (1847-1923), a British short story writer and novelist, best-known for her domestic drama Pretty Miss Bellew (1875). “Dog or Demon?” is one of those rare horror stories whose denouement is predictable but whose epilogue is frightening.

Captain Glennie is an officer of the Army who leaves service after marriage. But late in the pregnancy of his wife Lilly he accepts an invitation from his friend Lord Kilmoyle to go to Ireland and help Kilmoyle evict a particularly obstreperous tenant who has refused to pay rent for the past year, and only a modicum of rent the previous three years. The tenant won’t leave his cottage, no matter what Glennie and Kilmoyle say to him; the man just sits in the cottage, big brown dog at his feet, and points a gun at Glennie and Kilmoyle. The latter feel forced to seal the man inside the cottage and smoke him out by setting fire to the cottage. The man stumbles out, coughing and half suffocated, and so Glennie and Kilmoyle are triumphant—but the man’s dog is tied up in a pigsty near the house, and when the pigsty catches fire during the eviction the dog dies. The tenant is livid and calls down a curse on Glennie and Kilmoyle. As Glennie is returning home—he has received a letter from Lily, who is nervous because Glennie told her about the raid--they run over the carcass of the dog, and pass the tenant, sitting by the side of the road, wailing. Soon after Glennie arrives home, Lily gives birth, and the pair are happy. But then Lily starts hearing the soft pad of dog’s feet, and seeing a big black dog moving around the gardens of the house. Glennie decides to take Lily to the country—she has had a shock, and he feels she needs a change of location—and they hire an Irish nanny. But the nanny turns out to be the granddaughter of the tenant, and after she quits the dog ventures into the house. It ends badly, with the baby’s throat torn open, Lily driven insane with fear of the dog, and Glennie having shot himself after shooting Lily: “I have seen it! It was there! On her! Better this than a madhouse! There is no other escape.”1 

The Vengeful Pet premise of “Dog or Demon?” is a familiar one to readers with even a small experience of horror stories. So there is little mystery or suspense for modern readers in what happens to Glennie and Lily’s child; although, Boulger tells the story efficiently. But it is what happens after the baby is killed that makes the story worth reading. Before the baby’s death Boulger only provides hints about the dog and alludes to its haunting the family. After the baby’s death Lily begins describing the dog in detail and Glennie, who has been saying that it was all Lily’s delusion, begins seeing a shadow moving outside the house, and hearing “the sound of soft, unshod feet going pit, pat, pit, pat upon the stairs as they retreated downwards.”2 It is in this last section that Boulger’s descriptions become pleasantly scary. Lily and the child did not deserve to die, but the callous way in which Glennie and Kilmoyle evict the tenant (the callousness is historically accurate; British landlords were usually far from gentle in treating their Irish tenants) and treat the death of the tenant’s canine companion wins them the reader’s antipathy and makes the reader feel that they, at least, deserved their fates. The unjust deaths of Lily and the child are part of the savageness and moral imbalance of so much late-century British horror (see: “Man-Size in Marble”), when the conte cruel was a common form of horror story and the ghost story, which had gone through decades of mildness, became savage.

“Dog or Demon?” as mentioned, features the main characters treating their Irish tenant badly. In this the story is representative of English horror fiction featuring Irish characters and Ireland during the Victorian era, when Ireland became a “perfect repository for English unconscious desires and insecurities.”3 “Ireland…began to appear to English persons in the guise of their Unconscious."4 The Irish were seen both as quaint potato farmers only capable of producing mystical folklore, but at the same time as a race filled with “the irrationality, capriciousness and superstition that the supposedly rational British, with their visions of industrial mercantilism and ambitions and dreams of empire, denied in themselves.”5 Intriguingly, Gift creates a particularly stubborn and unyielding Irish peasant and then has her English characters pay for their cruelty to him—perhaps a statement on Gift’s part about the English involvement in Ireland.

Recommended Edition

Print: Theo Gift, Not for the Night Time. Neuilly-le-Vendin, FR: Sarob Press, 2000.


1 Theo Gift, “Dog or Demon?” Not for the Night-Time (Neuilly-le-Vendin, FR: Sarob Press, 2000), 51.

2 Gift, “Dog or Demon?” 49.

3 Silas Nease Glisson, “Cultural Nationalism and Colonialism in Nineteenth-Century Irish Horror Fiction” (PhD diss., University of South Africa, 2000), 42.

4 Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 15.

5 Glisson, “Cultural Nationalism,” 42.