An eerie weather vane depicting a dog riding a bolt of lightning still stands atop the Suffolk church where, in 1577, an electrical storm propelled the specter of a black canine down into the holy sanctum. The apparition killed two praying supplicants and badly burned another before sublimating back into the amethyst sky and the roar of thunder.
From Hades’ babysitter Cerberus to the hound of the Baskervilles, dark canines have loyally heeled alongside European folklore and literature for centuries; the British Isles are uniquely overstocked with tales of sinister black dogs. Direct instruments of death, omens of misfortune and sentinels of the netherworld are among the most common vocations foist upon these ubiquitous ebon heck puppies (also called Hell Hounds or Grims), which are most often encountered during electrical storms or at places of transition – a dark silhouette at a crossroads, a black, starlit ghost in a cemetery or a pacing shadow, immune to moonlight, circling a hanging tree.
Dogs are natural scavengers with a heightened olfactory sense. Even in the wake of domestication, they are drawn to the blood and the meat of dead or dying animals, and pursue odors far too subtle for the human nose to detect. That this natural predilection toward, and ability to sense, the smell of the wounded and deceased – the very scent of death – could neither be trained nor bred out of them partially explains why they’ve historically been linked to supposed crossover spaces where the world of the living and the world of the dead bleed into each other like the soft-edged tendrils of colliding fog banks.
The idea of domestication itself, when paired with the already fevered imaginings of pre-enlightenment, Satan-phobic Western society, could have easily catalyzed tales devil dogs. When a blindly obedient animal can be taught to hone, focus and direct its strength, cunning and ferocity, it becomes an extension of its owner’s will. As man has always charged the devil and his minions with using man’s own free will, intellect and cunning against him, it’s no surprise that creatures like Cerberus and black dogs were imagined. After all, what’s more malevolent than co-opting the loyalty of man’s best friend and siccing the beast upon him?
The Britons’ nightmare of a loveable-mutt-turned-Beelzebub’s-PA proved indelible enough to survive the tumbling trek across the mighty Atlantic…
Wednesday: Black dogs and the American South