Guest post from Jess Macdonald
From a very early age, I’ve always loved ghosts and ghouls, and long-legged-beasties and things that go bump in the night. Folklore, myths, the supernatural. I’ve never believed any of it, but it’s always exerted a hold on me. I’d plead for ghost stories at bedtime, despite my parents misgivings (on the rarer occasions that my siblings were on bedtime reading duties, they delighted in making up the most gruesome and horrifying tales imaginable, hoping to torment their irritating little sister. To no avail). One of the stories I loved most was that of Black Shuck, the spectral hound that haunts the cliffs of North Norfolk.
Not the demon hound of Bungay and Blythburgh, the fearsome beast with flaming eyes and killer claws, although we’ll come to him. Not the soul stealing lone wolf of Fenland either. No, a different, sadder, lonelier haunting.
As with all folklore there are variations, interpretations, different understandings. The Shuck I knew had been the loyal canine companion to a wealthy local merchant. Somehow separated one night – some say by a shipwreck, others by a sudden sea mist peculiar to the area – the man died, or was killed – possibly drowned, possibly murdered for his wealth – and Black Shuck – which could originate from ‘demon’, or simply ‘shaggy’ – was compelled to roam the cliff tops and empty beaches of the coast from twilight until dawn, seeking a beloved master who would never return.
This Shuck was not something to be feared, at least not as an immediate threat. But to see him was a warning, a portent of loss. Again, details vary. Maybe a harbinger of the observers own death. Most often the loss of a loved one. Some versions relate that if you saw Shuck, but told no one in the following twelve months, you and those close to you would survive unscathed, possibly even prosper.
The story changed, depending on who was telling it, the time of year, what mood they were in, even from night to night as details were recalled. But the theme was always the same. A lost dog, hiding in the shadows and mist. Shuck, my Shuck, was to be pitied, not feared.
The things I did fear were slightly less obvious. Like Spiderman. I’m putting in some filler text here so that you can all break off and laugh yourselves sick. Yeah, Spiderman, laugh it up. Except that blindingly obviously Spiderman is fucking terrifying. He can swing from building to building with his freaky web cuffs and clearly this means that every night he was outside my bedroom window, waiting for my vigilance to cease so that he can swoop in, wrap me in a cocoon of evil Spiderman webbiness and actually suffocate me to actual death (insight into the mind of my three year old self there).
But my mother is a genius. And for my third birthday, she presented me with a Spiderman suit. I wore it all day every day until it fell apart about eighteen months later. By wearing the suit I became the thing I feared. I was vaccinated against death by cobweb because I wore the cobweb. Sounds counterintuitive, I know. But my mother and I weren’t the first to think that way.
Think about it. It does make a kind of sense. Introduce a version or depiction of the thing you fear, that which could damage or destroy you, and because you created it, you can control it, potentially destroy it. Edward Jenner worked that out with Smallpox vaccination in the 17th Century. But people had already used the idea in other, less scientific ways. From lightning bolts carved into the walls of Norwich Cathedral, to demons pinned to the walls of churches, people had been depicting that which they feared for centuries, hoping that the controlling act of creation of their fear would avert evil and afford protection.
In more worldly matters, if you were hoping to avoid a domestic fire, then perhaps making a deliberate scorch mark with a candle above the hearth in your home would somehow inoculate the wood from being burnt again. And to carry that forward… If you have a tall building with a high tower, susceptible to lightning strike, then why not use oak for the church doors, oak being believed to be impervious to fire? And to grant additional protection, add several judiciously placed burn marks to the wood of the door, paying careful attention to the North door of your church, known also as the ‘Devil’s Door’, often left open during certain services, so that evil spirits could flee. A sacred building, with protection upon protection. Surely now there is nothing to be feared from storms, the people of Blythburgh must think?
Until the storm arrives. And the terrified parishioners hasten to their place of worship, that tall building with a high tower, bedraggled, sodden villagers praying for deliverance from the thunderclaps and cracks of lightning…
Fear isn’t just a human emotion. Many domestic animals experience it too. And lacking rationale for the tumultuous tempest around them, a dog caught in the midst of such a powerful storm would experience terror enough to push it beyond the bounds of normal canine obedience, would cause it surely to seek out safety, perhaps even his master. A lost dog, a black dog, sees an open door and hurls itself inside, just as the lightning strikes, then bolts again into the storm as the people around it scream and cower in terror, no one truly witnessing what is happening around them.
And after the storm, the calm. The undisputed facts. A storm, a dog, deaths in the church. Whom can they blame for this? Did their prayers fail? Were their protections merely superstitions? Or is it easier to assign blame to an animal? A big dog did it and ran away. Perhaps a wolf, or even a hound sent by the devil himself to wreak havoc and catastrophe in the midst of the storm. Demonise that single dog and avoid the unwelcome and unworthy thought that your vaccination against fire didn’t work.
That’s the famous Black Shuck, not my Black Shuck, superficially sharing nothing other than a name. But with more in common than I thought. Lost, lonely dogs, both condemned in different ways. One to forever roam, seeking his master. The other, in my version of his tale, maligned, misunderstood, mistold. But that’s only my version. And there are many more.
Guest post with thanks to Edna Daniel & Jess.
Image adapted from photo by Christian Hänsel