"Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread."The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1798
I love a good ghost story and a ghost DOG story is even better! One of my favorite Welsh folktales provided inspiration for my latest release, A Leap of Knowing. The gwyllgi or barghest is a legendary canine with many names: The Black Dog, the Dog of Darkness, Dog of the Twilight and Black Hound of Destiny. It’s said to resemble a giant mastiff, larger than any living dog, and its eyes are often red and glowing.
The story is an old one, dating back to Celtic times in Wales. The Black Dog is the herald of Death itself, and those who see the animal are usually destined to die very soon. The dog appears without warning, follows and sometimes even chases people – yet vanishes without a trace. Electrical storms are often associated with the dog’s appearance (and yup, there’s a thunderstorm in the first chapter of A Leap of Knowing.)
This otherworldly beast has counterparts in many parts of the British Isles. For centuries, black dogs have haunted particular towns, roads and forests in Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales. Sometimes a ghostly canine has haunted specific families! Such a situation helped inspire the 1901 classic, The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Big black dogs continue to pop up in popular fiction. Remember "the Grim" in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling? TV series such as Supernatural, Reaper and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have all featured monstrous and malevolent hounds. The legend of the black dog is also alive and well in many video games. The Lord of the Rings online computer game features just such an animal.
Did you know there are sightings of ghostly canines right here in the United States? Black dogs are said to haunt Macon County, Tennessee and foretell death and calamity. US Highway 491 is also said to be haunted by dogs of darkness – which perhaps is not surprising when you find out that the highway was originally named Route 666! Motorists report braking for giant black dogs – only to have them vanish at the moment of impact! Even Long Island, New York has a black dog legend. Just like its Welsh counterpart, seeing the creature is said to be followed by death within a month. The supernatural canine that roams the hills of Connecticut is a little more forgiving – you have to see that particular black dog three times before writing out your will.
Think you’re safe if you stay home at night? Maybe not. There are also many stories out there of seeing the gwyllgi in a nightmare. As if the bad dream wasn’t enough, it’s said to be followed by dire events and even death. People have also reported the giant black dog appearing inside their home, complete with glowing eyes, only to have it vanish when the light was turned on. The apparition was often followed by a death in the family or other catastrophe.
Negative associations with dark dogs seem to be part of our collective human consciousness. It’s a frightening archetype throughout myth and legend, from Cerberus, the hideous canine that guards the entrance to the Underworld, to the black Hounds of the Norse god, Odin, to the Hellhounds that follow the Faery Hunt. Plus, a common pseudonym for depression is The Black Dog. (Although anyone who’s ever played with a Labrador Retriever might object to that.)
In its defense, however, the Dog of Darkness hasn’t always been threatening, at least, not to the innocent. In some tales, the animal is an instrument of justice, hunting down escaped murderers. A few stories recount incidents where the great beast protected children or guarded lone travelers. This made me wonder – what if the ghostly creature had a conscience, a sense of right and wrong? What if the gwyllgi or barghest didn’t mindlessly follow its mission? In that moment, A Leap of Knowing was conceived.
Your turn – have you ever seen the black dog or known someone who has? (And does anybody have any idea how to pronounce gwyllgi? I wish my Welsh gramma was still with us.)