The Devil you say? Or: Do all demon dogs lead to Doyle?
(Another trifling monograph by MEW)
“A hound it was, an enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes have ever seen. Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smouldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined in flickering flame. Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish be conceived than that dark form and savage face which broke upon us out of the wall of fog.” – Dr. John Watson, from “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”
I’m sure we’re delighted that Sir Arthur had such a disordered brain.
Because from the time Dr. Mortimer left his walking stick – lovingly chewed by his not very devilish spaniel – in Holmes’ sitting room, the game was afoot in “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”
But at what point in his life did Doyle first have the “delirious dream” that inspired him (through Watson) to pen one of the most famous “tails” of all time?
Scholars debate that he got the idea from legends based in Norfolk, Suffolk, Devon or some other place but the fact is his “demon dog” could have been growling quietly at Doyle from the shadows since his infancy.
Students of folklore point out that tales of huge spectral hounds predate the Vikings and can be found in nearly every quarter of the British Isles.
And none of them bear the least resemblance to Dr. Mortimer’s gentle spaniel.
Author Bob Trubshaw, who has done extensive research on the subject, narrates: “The phantom black dog of British and Irish folklore, which often forewarns of death, is part of a world-wide belief that dogs are sensitive to spirits and the approach of death, and keep watch over the dead and dying.
“North European and Scandinavian myths dating back to the Iron Age depict dogs as corpse eaters and the guardians of the roads to Hell. Medieval folklore includes a variety of ‘devil dogs’ and spectral hounds.”
Also common throughout Europe are myths of hunters as rapacious as Sir Hugo Baskerville who ride black horses and have packs of hounds at their side.
Such packs of spectral hounds – with or without hunters – are generally known as Gabriel Hounds or Gabble Retchets in Britain; as the Wild Hunt in Germany and Woden’s Hunt in Scandinavia.
The appearance and intention of these preternatural pooches vary as widely as the imaginations of their viewers.
A few see them as benevolent; most see them as harbingers of doom who terrorize churches and farms or haunt gallows, lonely roads and wells. To see them inevitably means death to somebody.
Although they most often are black, they can also be white, yellow, gray and even green. They can be single-headed, two-headed or even headless. The eyes are often reported as ‘big as saucers.’ One-eyed versions are in the record too.
That’s why cryptozoologists get just as excited about “Black Shuck” as they do about Chupacabra or about “Padfoot” as Bigfoot.
Below is only a very partial list of the “devil dogs” that might have snuffled Holmes’ and Watson’s steps as they prowled the desolate moors and back roads of Britain.
Devon: “Yeath” (heath), “Wistman’s Wood” or “Wist” hounds. According to legend, one dark night a devilish pack of hounds accompanied by a ghoulish hunter passed a moorman in Wistman’s Wood. The farmer, on his way home from a fair, was the worse for drink. He demanded the hunter give him some game, so the hunter threw him a bundle. When the farmer got home, he and his wife found with horror the bundle contained the tattered body of their own baby.
Scotland: “Muckle Black Tyke” or in Gaelic “Choin Dubh.” As a native Scot, Doyle surely must have heard whispers of this demon. Perhaps his nanny also told him bedtime stories about “Cu Sith” a fairy dog that is usually green or white.
East Anglia: “Black Shuck/Shock,” “Old Shuck,” “Old Shock,” all from the Old English scucca, meaning demon. One of the most notable reports of Black Shuck is of his appearance at the churches of Bungay and Blythburgh in Suffolk. On 4 August 1577, at Blythburgh, Black Shuck is said to have burst in through the church doors. He ran up the nave, past a large congregation, killing a man and boy and causing the church tower to collapse through the roof. As the dog left, he left scorch marks on the north door which can be seen at the church to this day.
Leicestershire/Lancashire: Here the dog is called “Black Shag” (not to be confused with Holmes’ choice of tobacco)
Suffolk: “Scarfe,” “Gallytrot” or “Moddey Dhoe.” Galley Trots or Wulvers are a peculiar hybrid of canine and human associated mainly with old burial grounds and ancient buildings. Their presence was once thought to indicate that valuable items or money was hidden there. There was also the suspicion that to see a Galley Trot was an omen of approaching death.
Somerset: “Gurt (Great) Dog.” This black dog is huge, has shaggy black fur and glowing red eyes. It is usually seen by roads and footpaths at night, and walks either in front of the viewer or follows them. Some claim the Gurt is benevolent, keeping children safe or guiding lost travelers. In the 1960s there was a report of a black dog appearing to two people and they both died shortly afterward.
Cornwall: “Dando’s Dogs.” Dando was a dissolute old priest whose flock heard more of horn than of homily. At a “kill” one day, having drunk all that his followers could offer, he accepted the flask of a strange horseman. It was so delicious he swore he’d “gallop to hell for more.” The horseman whisked Dando on to his pommel and raced away, leaving Dando’s hounds behind. To this day, they are said to wander the countryside searching for their master.
Yorkshire: “Barghest,” “Skriker.” The Barguest is a name used relatively widely for a shape-shifting creature, which could also appear in the shape of a bear. The name Barguest may derive from the German for “bear ghost.” In common with many supernatural creatures, the Barguest could not cross running water, and as a black dog it was often seen as a death portent.
West Yorkshire/Lancashire: “Gytrash, Trash, Stryker.” In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, she makes distinct reference to this fiendish animal when she first confronts Mr. Rochester’s dog. She narrates: “I heard a rush under the hedge and close down by the hazel stems glided a great dog, whose black and white colour made him a distinct object against the trees. It was exactly one mask of Bessie’s Gytrash – a lion-like creature with long hair and a huge head: it passed me, however, quietly enough; not staying to look up, with strange, pretercanine eyes, in my face, as I half expected it would.”
Isle of Man: “Moody Dhoo,” which means “Black Dog” and is pronounced “Mauther Thoo” in Manx Gaelic.
Wales: “Gwyllgi” (dog of darkness).
Other variants include Lincolnshire (Hairy Jack); Jersey (Le Tchan de Bouôlé); Westmoreland (Cappel); Staffordshire (Padfoot); and Warwickshire/Midlands (Hooter).
So what would your response be if you met one of these accursed curs?
Would you scream and throw yourself on your face per Inspector Lestrade? Would you sit frozen in disbelief, per Dr. Watson? Or would you whip out your pistol and start blasting away, like Holmes?
For myself, I think I rather like the idea of living in a world where devil dogs run free.