“I sprang to my feet, my inert hand grasping my pistol, my mind paralysed by the dreadful shape which had sprung out upon us from the shadows of the fog. 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.”
Many people will, of course, recognise these words as coming from arguably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous Sherlock Holmes story – The Hound of the Baskervilles.
The titular character from this tale drew heavily on some local aspects of Black Dog folklore, which were related to Doyle as he was driven around Dartmoor whilst visiting the area.
In this serialisation in the Histories and Mysteries column, which will alternate with Ben Fox’s usual column, I will unpick the background to the legends which informed Conan Doyle as he worked on the Baskerville story. Was the tale based purely on Dartmoor myth? Or was there more to it than that?
Many of you will be familiar with my writing of the Folkmoor column in The Moorlander. I am a folklore researcher and author, and the creator of The Folklore Podcast (www.thefolklorepodcast.com) – a free-to-listen show, which is enjoyed globally and explores many facets of tradition, custom and belief.
In 2016 my first book, Black Dog Folklore, was published by Troy Books. The result of over ten years of research and study, it remains the only full-length study on the subject of ghostly black dog apparitions by a single author.
I hold what is probably the UK’s largest archive of Black Dog sightings and traditions, which includes transcripts from the collection of the late folklorist Theo Brown, as well as the Black Dog archive of famous folklore author Janet Bord which she donated to me as part of my ongoing research.
Using this archive, extracts from my book and other documents we will travel the paths followed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the early part of the 20th Century, learning some of the history (and mystery) which brought into being The Hound of the Baskervilles.
In order to fully appreciate the stories which fed into the fictional Hound, we should first look at some of the background and history of the phenomenon of spectral dogs reported by many people over the years.
By painting a broader picture of the trope, we will later be able to see the aspects which were picked up and used by Doyle in creating
Holmes’ most famous case.
It is telling that Black Dogs have been sighted, felt, heard and experienced in an unnatural way by people for nearly a millennia now and yet people stumble across information about them by chance when attempting to provide themselves with an explanation for what has occurred. This is summed up neatly in an extract from a letter which I received in April 2014:
“I ran across your request for Black Dog sightings … and since the topic has been on my mind ever since learning, recently, that my experiences aren’t unique, I thought I would record mine for you.”
“Ever since learning recently that my experiences aren’t unique…” Finding out that they are not alone in what has happened to them is often surprising to the people concerned; they are relieved that others have had shared, or similar experiences and telling their story brings a sense of closure.
In this case, the writer ended by saying that she had wanted to share her experience for some time, but didn’t know how to. This is all despite nearly 1,000 years of experiences to draw on; the earliest example in my archive, which we will examine later, comes from the year 1154.
You may think that the idea of a ghostly dog appearing to people is one found just in this country. Our landscape is, after all, awash with ghost stories. There cannot be many towns and villages in the UK which do not boast the ‘most haunted public house in England’ claim!
The phenomena of the Black Dog ghost is, however, not a British one, nor indeed attached to any particular country, religion nor any other social group. What we can say though, is that in the United Kingdom we find the widest diversity of types of experience involving Black Dogs. Reports are way more numerous than in other countries.
In Britain, we can find Black Dogs that may be good, evil or portentous, attached to a road, a house or a family, protective, mythological, normal looking or really rather strange. And a number of these elements were
employed by Conan Doyle for his Baskerville legend.
The dog as an animal is unique in folklore terms. In our older past, all domesticated animals functioned as an extension of humans. Many, such as farm horses or guide dogs, still do to a lesser extent. In ancient times animals supplied hides for warmth or protection.
They gave food for strength and to prolong life. Bones were used as weapons or tools and horns provided a voice before humans could themselves speak.
In later development, cats killed the vermin which evaded human capture and horses lent speed and strength for journeys, or in times of war. But the dog is somewhat different.
The dog was certainly domesticated as far back as Mesolithic times and there is evidence which suggests that in fact they were kept as pets even in the Upper Palaeolithic.
This means that Kipling’s proposal of the dog as ‘Man’s First Friend’ may be literally true and that of all the creature companions, it is the canine that has associated itself with mankind from the earliest possible times.
The dog emerged from the primeval forest as a fellow hunter. It contributed speed and cunning to the chase, its bite to the battle and its bark to the lonely fireside. It is no wonder that it has always been seen as a companion animal.
In the next column in this series, we will move on to look at the historic interpretations of ghostly dogs around the world, before examining the key parts of their appearances in British folklore which interested Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
To buy your own copy of the book ‘Black Dog Folklore’ please visit www.thefolklorepodcast.com and select the Folklore Shop.
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