Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: The Pet

Stitch? Stitch? Sorry, you have me confused with someone else.

By 1921, Winsor McCay had learned enough about self-promotion to bill himself, and justly, as “the inventor of animated drawing.” Sadly, he shortly lost interest in making any further films, working on other projects until his death in 1936. We’re lucky that he completed his animated Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend series first with The Pet, a disturbing little science fictional romp.

The Pet opens, naturally, with a couple retiring to bed. The husband remarks that he ate a delicious rarebit at his club that evening; the wife chides him, because everyone knows that eating the rich cheese dish before bedtime brings on nightmares. Hubby says he can’t help it; he loves rarebits so! And his doom is fixed…

A little animal creeps up the walk in the couple’s garden. Despite calling out MEOW in block capitals, it doesn’t look much like a kitten. Is it a puppy? A bear cub? Who cares? It’s cuuuuute, coos Mrs. Rarebit Fiend, scooping it up and taking it into the house.

The lady of the house bathes her new pet and ties a big bow around its neck, sending it out in the garden to frolic until Mr. Rarebit Fiend comes home from work. He isn’t exactly thrilled to see the little creature, complaining that his wife is “bugs” about pets. Bugs she may or may not be, but she’s clearly not psychic, or she’d be able to peek sixty-three years  into the future at Gremlins and realize that one should never, ever feed strange animals, no matter how adorable they might be. Kitty-Puppy-Cubby-whatever it is is given a nice saucer of cream and promptly grows, almost doubling in size.

This only mildly surprises Mrs. Rarebit Fiend, who tucks her new pet into a little crib of its very own and tells it to be good and go to sleep. After bouncing off the crib rails a few times, the pet jumps out and wanders into the Rarebit Fiends’ bedroom. There it spends a lengthy time exploring under the covers before settling down between Mr. and Mrs. Fiend, causing Mr. Fiend to jump up in disgust and go out to sleep on the sofa.

(Notice, by the way, how McCay’s background paintings have evolved from the simple running lines in Gertie the Dinosaurus. There’s a photorealistic quality that won’t show up again until the classic Fleischer cartoons.)

The pet rises early and begins to prowl through the house, experimentally tasting everything it encounters. With each mouthful it continues to grow in size, until—trotting out to the kitchen, where Mrs. Fiend is setting the table for breakfast—it eats the family cat and follows it with the breakfast, the breakfast dishes, and even the electric coffeepot, sucking down the appliance cord like a particularly rubbery strand of spaghetti. And, of course, it keeps growing. Mrs. Rarebit Fiend is distressed. Mr. Rarebit Fiend goes off to the nearest chemist for something to kill the pet. He returns with a barrel of something called “Rough on Rats” only to find the pet is now the size of a horse. And no wonder! It has eaten most of the furniture in the house, the family parrot, almost all the coal in the cellar, and a complete hosepipe complete with plumbing. Happily it wolfs down the entire barrelful of poison.

Creepy! The pet changes color, it trembles violently, and then its skin erupts in bubblelike blisters, covering it completely. But does it die? No. The blisters recede and the damn thing grows again. Now the size of an elephant, it bites its way through the garden wall and emerges into a quailing world.     

Mr. Rarebit Fiend hastens to the nearest police station to raise the alarm. Not a moment too soon, either, because the pet now, in a first for science fictional giant monsters, is roaming the city eating streetcars and whole buildings. Four years before dinosaurs invade London from the Lost World! Twelve years before King Kong rampages through Manhattan! Twenty-three years before Tex Avery thinks up a gag concerning a giant canary! And you have to wonder whether a young Robert Anson Heinlein didn’t catch The Pet at his local picture palace, storing some of its images away for The Star Beast a generation later. 

In other words, it’s an understatement to call The Pet a seminal work, especially in its catastrophic final scenes. The death-diving biplanes, the suddenly-not-cute-at-all feral thing with glowing eyes rearing against the skyline… is it an analogy expressing suppressed fears of parenthood? A parable about overconsumption? Or just a warning against eating so damn much rarebit?

Where can you view The Pet? On YouTube, though you’ll be obliged to hunt around a little. Both Image Entertainment and Sling Shot have put out nice Winsor McCay anthology DVDs containing a print of The Pet, and though they are no longer being manufactured, copies seem to be still available. Pop one in your DVD player and then just melt some cheese, add dry mustard, ale and minced onion, serve over a bit of toast, and sit down in front of the screen… Any nightmares you may have are guaranteed to be absolutely in the spirit of Winsor McCay.

Kage Baker is a writer of science fiction and fantasy as well as a regular blogger for She thinks a dish of rarebit would go pretty well right about now… mmm… over croutons maybe…


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