Histories and Mysteries: Beyond the Hound of the Baskervilles, Pt 2

Mark Norman
Mark Norman

In the last part of this serialised Histories and Mysteries investigation into the legends behind The Hound of the Baskervilles, we noted that people have recorded stories of phantom dogs for many hundreds of years.

We also explored some of the history of the  physical dog and saw that it has been domesticated since early prehistoric times. It is little wonder that the archetype of the actual dog is such a strong one, and also therefore that the archetype as a folk memory (or part of our collective unconscious as psychologist Carl Jung would have put it) is equally so.

We have already seen that stories of spectral dogs are not uniquely British. Dog ghosts appear to have been seen all over the world. The types of experiences which are recorded are broadly similar in different countries. What does differ, however, is the meaning of them to different cultures.
How an experience is interpreted, or inscribed meaning will vary from place to place based on the cultural and religious views of that particular community. Some peoples think of dogs as an unclean animal. Others see them very much as part of the family, or even revere them.

Phantom dogs are common in Europe and so where natural or enforced patterns of migration led people to other countries, they would have taken their stories with them, where they subsequently became absorbed into the existing legends of that place. So, for example, when slaves were taken from West Africa to the Americas, their stories of ghostly dogs went with them. We find now that in Texas, for example, dog ghosts are not reported as black, but usually as white (or sometimes yellow). They also tend to be seen there as protective spirits, which was an aspect that would have come from West Africa.

The white colouring of the dogs in Texas stories might relate to the fact that they tend to appear by forming into shape from a cloud of white smoke. In many cases, the stories are more akin to folk tales than to actual eyewitness sightings. For example, there is a story of a five-year-old boy who lost his mother and was raised by an old lady. Despite her trying many different foods, the boy would not eat and began to starve. One night, smoke entered his bedroom through the window and turned into a white dog.

This animal proceeded to cough-up teacakes which the boy gathered up. He ate some of these and put the rest into a sack. He would continue to eat these cakes from the sack when he was hungry, and yet the sack always remained full. The teacakes were said to be the same as those made by his late mother.

In Protestant Germany and Scandinavia, the ghost dog is nearly always diabolic – more like the figure of the hound as it appears in Conan Doyle’s story.  In the former case the devil is said to appear in the form of a black dog.

In Britain, there are two types of creature: Firstly, there is the Black Dog, which is usually just like any ordinary large dog to look at; and secondly there is the Barguest type. The Barguest appears in various shapes, but generally that of a dog. It is dangerous and ominous to meet it, especially head on. Sometimes it lacks a head; sometimes it has only one eye in the middle of its forehead. Despite the fact that the Barguest occurs in wide areas of East Anglia and in the North of England, from Cumberland down to the Peak District, this is the model of spectral hound which Conan Doyle employed. So maybe it was the case that he did not draw his inspiration from Dartmoor and the surrounding area at all, but looked further afield. We shall consider whether this was the case later in this serialisation.

The popular superstitious conception of the Black Dog is that it is an omen of death such as the Baskerville hound, but collating the reports and traditions actually shows that at least half the dogs are harmless. They are frequently protectors of lonely women and timid men walking along sinister roads – a common folklore trope.

There are two distinct areas that these protective dogs seem to favour: the North part of Lincolnshire and Tyneside – although this is not to say that people experiencing a meeting with a Black Dog in other areas do not report these traits.

There are six main categories which are frequently reported on in sightings of spectral dogs, and all of these would have been looked at by Doyle when he created his creature. Three of these, by way of example are:

Size: There is often something unusual about the size of the animal in stories. Usually it is that it appears uncommonly large. This was certainly true of the Baskerville hound. Colour: The dogs are usually reported as being black, which is why the term ‘Black Dog’ has become ascribed to the accounts over time, but they do appear as other colours and hence the term ‘ghost dog’ would be more appropriate.

The Baskerville example is of course black, but also appears to glow. Although there is an eventual rational explanation for this, it draws on the idea of glowing eyes which is frequently reported.

Physical details: Phantom dogs are often described as being one extreme or another, such as having coats which are either especially smooth or very rough and shaggy. The latter matches the Baskerville dog. Reports also often cite details about the head, odd behaviours of the creature and note what the overall function of the animal is.

In the next column in this series, we will look at how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle probably first discovered the legend of the Black Dog and where he might have drawn inspiration from.

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