For most of recorded history, man’s best friend has also been one of his most feared enemies. As much as mankind has relied upon the dog for protection, companionship, and its usefulness during the hunt, the masses of humanity have always eyed their four-legged friends with suspicion, never knowing if and when their pets may turn against them. But thanks to Louis Pasteur and his creation of a rabies vaccine, that fear has largely disappeared. The master no longer has to be afraid of his dog’s bite.

In Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy examine the often-strained relationship between man and dog — and cat and bat and fox and wolf and skunk — and explore how this terrible disease has shaped human consciousness, infecting art, public policy, science, and even religion. Packed with terrifyingly curious facts — for example, some male rabies victims have been known to ejaculate up to 30 times in a single day — and historical tidbits — it is now believed that Edgar Allan Poe died of rabies and not alcoholism — Wasik and Murphy’s work is a fast-paced read that should satisfy the most ravenous of readers and pop-culture aficionados.

The authors also discuss pre-Pasteur treatments for the disease — cauterizing the wound immediately after a bite was occasionally effective — and the many failed cures — putting a hair from the rabid dog that bit you into the wound accomplished nothing except creating a time-honored idiom. Unfortunately, even today, there is technically no cure for rabies. Pasteur’s vaccine only prevents the disease from developing. But once rabies takes hold of a person, the disease is almost 100 percent fatal. Scientists may have found a cure, but, as Wasik and Murphy discuss, the effectiveness of that cure — a costly and labor-intensive treatment called the Milwaukee Protocol in which the afflicted is put into a drug-induced coma while the body develops rabies anti-bodies — is heavily disputed.

Wasik and Murphy also examine how this diabolical virus has impacted popular culture, leading to the rise of vampires and werewolves in the 19th century and flesh-eating zombies in the 20th.

At heart, Rabid is a breezy meditation on one of mankind’s most primal fears, that of becoming a uncontrollable beast that preys upon those he loves most.