Dogs have appeared in a number of supernatural sightings, and many authors have been unable to resist incorporating them into their own eerie tales, says Karen Bush.
1. The legendary demonic Black Dog of Kettleness provided Bram Stoker with the perfect way to get his equally legendary creation — Dracula — onto British soil.
On arriving at Whitby, he vampire leaps ashore from his ship in the form of a ferocious black hound. There has been some speculation as to whether Stoker might actually have glimpsed the fabled hound himself, rather than merely being aware of the local tales.
2. One of Bram Stoker’s friends, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was both a dog owner and a believer in the paranormal, and combined the two interests in probably the most famous of his stories, featuring super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes. He borrowed the underlying legend of the ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’ from the tale of Sir Richard Cabell, who is said to ride out across Dartmoor with his phantom hounds on every anniversary of his death. It’s claimed that if you walk around his tomb seven times, then stick a finger through the railings surrounding it, either Squire Cabell, or one of his hounds, will bite your fingers!
3. The Moddey Dhoo was Sir Walter Scott’s choice of spectral canine muse. Said to haunt Peel Castle on the Isle of Man, legend has it anyone who sees it will die soon after. It makes a cameo appearance in Scott’s poem ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel’: “For he was speechless, ghastly, wan, Like him of whom the story ran, Who spoke the spectre hound in Man.”
4. As well as being a consummate dog lover, who shared his home with Camp, Nimrod, Spice, Triton, Ginger, and his special favourite, Maida, Sir Walter Scott evidently had a fondness for the Moddey Dhoo legend as it pops up in his novel ‘Peveril of the Peak’. He does employ a bit of artistic licence, however, scaling it up to appear as a large, fearsome, shaggy black mastiff, whereas a local historian writing in 1731 describes it as looking more like a black spaniel with curly fur.
5. Werewolves are another old favourite of story tellers. One of the earliest was King Lycaon in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’, transformed into a wolf as a punishment for his horrible deeds. Werewolf stories became increasingly popular during the Middle Ages, even making an appearance in Malory’s epic ‘King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table’. In more modern times they are right back in fashion, featuring in Stephenie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ series and in a more light-hearted tone in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. A werewolf was also responsible for actor Oliver Reed getting his first big break, when he starred in the 1960s Hammer film ‘The Curse of the Werewolf’.
6. Many writers have drawn on traditional Black Dog folklore. These fearsome, supernatural creatures, usually huge in size with glowing eyes, are known throughout the length and breadth of the British Isles.
One of the most memorable plays a key part in the best-selling Harry Potter books, written by J.K. Rowling (owner of Jack Russell Butch, rescue Greyhound Sapphire, and Westie Bronte). At one point Harry is stalked by a spectral black dog, interpreted at first as a bad omen. It turns out to be his godfather Sirius Black, nicknamed Padfoot, one of the many regional names for Black Dogs.
7. British rock band The Darkness, from Suffolk, needed only to look a few miles down the road for inspiration when composing the song ‘Black Shuck’, on their debut album. It tells of how the spectral black dog appeared at a church in Bungay in 1577, bursting open the doors with a great clap of thunder, killing two people, and destroying the steeple. The trail of death and destruction continued at another local church at Blytheburgh, taking the lives of three more and leaving scorched claw marks on the door, which can still be seen to this day.
8. ‘My little old dog: A heartbeat at my feet’ — most dog lovers will know this epigram written by Edith Wharton, a passionate dog lover from the age of four, when she was given a spitz. Novelist, poet, and the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, she also produced a collection of ghost stories including ‘Kerfol’, about a house haunted by canine spectres. In a neat example of life imitating art, her former home The Mount, in Massachusetts, is reputed to be haunted by the ghosts of her adored dogs, six of whom are buried in the grounds — although none were the victims of, or involved in, murder!
9. In Goethes’ tragedy ‘Faust’, the Devil first appears to the scholar while he is out on a walk. Presumably to avoid drawing attention to himself, he takes the form of a stray black Poodle while following him home — where he then reveals his true nature.
10. Many stories about the Wild Hunt have been handed down through the generations; the demonic hounds have been heard, and sometimes seen, on wild and stormy nights, pursuing damned souls to their place of torment. These legends have also provided rich pickings for authors, with fantasy classics such as Alan Garner’s ‘The Moon of Gomrath’ and Susan Cooper’s ‘The Dark is Rising’, featuring spectacular and triumphant appearances by the Wild Hunt chasing and scattering the forces of evil. They have been immortalised in verse too, by poet laureate William Wordsworth (whose favourite dog, Pepper, was a gift from Sir Walter Scott), probably best known to most for his vision of dancing daffodils. Inspired by the spectral pack of hounds said to hunt the skies over Devon, he penned the following lines:
“He … oftentimes will start, For overhead are sweeping Gabriel’s Hounds, Doomed, with their impious lord, the flying hart, To chase for e’er through aerial grounds.”