Welcome to the third post in a brief series exploring the supernatural/mythological themes that have helped to inspire my work-in-progress novel, BLACK DOG.
Black Dog sightings are one of the oldest and most widely reported spectral phenomena in the world. In the UK sightings have been reported in every county of England (with the bare exceptions of Middlesex and Rutland) and have been recorded as far back in history that they pre-date even the Viking invasions. As research by Dr Simon Sherwood of Northampton University has uncovered, a written account of a black dog sighting was inscribed in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 1127. The (translated) Chronicle says:
” Let no-one be surprised at the truth of what we are about to relate, for it was common knowledge throughout the whole country that immediately after his arrival [Abbot Henry of Poitou at Abbey of Peterborough] – it was the Sunday when they sing Exurge Quare – many men both saw and heard a great number of huntsmen hunting. The huntsmen were black, huge and hideous, and rode on black horses and on black he-goats and their hounds were jet black with eyes like saucers and horrible. This was seen in the very deer park of the town of Peterborough and in all the woods that stretch from that same town to Stamford, and in the night the monks heard them sounding their horns. Reliable witnesses who kept watch in the night declared that there might well have been as many as twenty or thirty of them sounding their horns. This was seen and heard from the time of his arrival all through Lent and right up to Easter.”
Not only does the UK hold the record for being one of the oldest locations for black dog sightings but it also has some of the highest number of incidences on record. Across England there are regional variations in the legends told about the ‘black dogs’. In some cases the dogs are utterly malevolent – even deadly. In others the dogs are benign – protectors and helpers. However, some common denominators cross almost all boundaries – the dogs are nearly always significantly out-sized (frequently described as the size of a calf or small horse) and have large, saucer-like glowing eyes (nearly always red – very occasionally yellow and sometimes a single Cyclops-like red eye). The dogs’ coats are always black – sometimes shaggy.
Sightings have also been reported throughout Scotland and Wales. In Europe, Oude Rode Ogen (‘Old Red Eyes’ or ‘The Beast of Flanders’) was a ghostly dog reported in Belgium in the 18th century whilst in medieval Germany it was widely believed the devil would sometimes appear in the shape of a large black dog. Black dogs with fiery eyes are also regularly reported throughout Latin America – especially in Argentina, Mexico and Paraguay.
Black dog sightings are often associated with electrical storms (such as Black Shuck’s appearance in 1577) or with crossroads, places of execution, ancient pathways, ley lines and graveyards. Many such places were associated with local superstitions. The phenomenon has been quite extensively investigated over a long period by a succession of assorted folklorists, paranormal investigators, psychologists and actual scientists. These investigations (based on the cataloguing and examination of numerous sightings from around the world) have resulted in the identification of three different types of paranormal ‘black dog’:
1. Shape-shifting ‘demon dogs’
2. Ghosts of humans appearing in the form of a dog
3. Ghosts of actual dogs
Mythical black dogs have featured prominently in popular culture – Led Zeppelin wrote a song called Black Dog and The Darkness wrote Black Shuck in direct tribute to the Hell Hound of East Anglia. In the film world, Hell Hounds are usually portrayed by Great Danes or Mastiffs. Certainly these breeds are often featured as The Hound Of The Baskervilles. The fact that films of The Baskervilles’ story have been made and remade ever since 1914 – i.e. almost since movies began – demonstrates the extent of the long-held and powerful grip that black dog mythology exerts on the popular psyche.
Hell Hounds have also featured in classic literature – as mentioned, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventure ‘Hound Of The Baskervilles’ was directly inspired by black dog mythology. Similarly, Bram Stoker’s Dracula sees the Count transform into a giant black dog when the wreck of The Demeter docks at Whitby. Dracula, in the shape of a black dog, then ascends the steps to Whitby Abbey to seek refuge in an unhallowed grave in the graveyard. It can be no coincidence that Stoker, the Master of Gothic Horror, chose to employ this transformation on the part of the Count. (Vampire folklore also contains the belief that vampires can transform themselves into Hell Hounds as well as bats).
‘Black Dog’ is also a well-known metaphor for depression – a metaphor invented by the English writer Samuel Johnson in the1780s and subsequently popularised by none other than Sir Winston Churchill. I now plan to add to the canon of mythical black dog-related literature in my own forthcoming novel – cunningly titled….er….BLACK DOG! Better get writing, I guess!