Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Black Shuck is the hell-hound legend that won’t lie down
PUBLISHED: 12:43 09 June 2014
They may have found the remains of Black Shuck at Leiston Abbey; so ran a tongue-in-cheek headline in this newspaper recently. The subject of East Anglia’s ghostly hell-hound is one of abiding interest to me. I first read about Shuck in an old collection of ghost stories, as a child. I never forgot it.
Eventually, at the end of the 1990s, the artist James Dodds and I began looking at the possibilities of Shuck as the subject of a book; an illustrated rhyming ballad based on an ancient local legend.
Fourteen years later, sales of the slim tome continue ticking over. The story just won’t lie down like a good dog. That’s because Black Shuck is anything but a good dog. Described as being about the size of a calf, with eyes like blazing coals and a thick unkempt coat, a sighting of the hound was widely considered in our region to presage death.
The Shuck legend belongs to East Anglia, although black dog stories are to be found all up the east coast from Maldon to Whitby and beyond. Whitby, in Bram Stoker’s story was where Dracula, in the guise of a black dog, was seen coming ashore after a shipwreck. Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles was also thought to have been inspired by Shuck.
The legend has its origins in Norse myth and Shuck, said to be Odin’s hunting dog, arrived on our coast with the Viking invasions. The range of sightings, which mostly hug that land near to the North Sea, corresponds roughly with that of the Danelaw, the area of land taken over in the 9th Century by the Vikings.
The odd thing is that people today still claim sightings of Black Dog. While researching my own project, I was surprised at how seriously the story was taken, especially in the north of the region. “Ah, you’re writing about that now, are you?” a Norfolk shopkeeper asked me. “Well, be careful.”
One local woman told me that she’d seen Black Shuck early one summer morning in the 1950s, near Cromer, when returning from a dance. A Suffolk man said he’d seen the dog one evening on the marshes near Felixstowe. I later read an old newspaper story of an encounter in Essex. The account was given of a midwife who had been cycling home after a delivery during the 1930s. One winter’s night, she claimed, she was followed by the creature through the lanes near Tolleshunt Darcy. She added that the dog was huge and no matter how fast she pedalled it seemed to effortlessly keep up with her. The apparition, which remained silent throughout, then suddenly vanished.
It occurred to me at one point that I could have simply continued compiling such accounts, thrown in a bit of myth and brought out a cosy little booklet for the tourist shops. But I realised that I wanted something more atmospheric, perhaps a long psychic poem in order to capture the dark essence of the thing.
Why was the idea of Black Shuck so enduring? It seemed almost as if many of us actually wanted there to be a big hairy harbinger of death prowling around the lanes at night. Whether that is so or not, for now I’d like to try to bust some common myths surrounding it.
Those huge bones which the archaeologists at the Leiston Abbey site recently turned up, are not Black Shuck’s. They might well be the bones of a large canine: maybe even an extinct breed of hunting dog – a deerhound of some kind – but they’re not Shuck’s.
One of the more famous Shuck associations is to be found at Blythburgh church. Here, you’ll see the hellhound’s “clawmarks” on the inside of a side door of the church. Well, here’s my spin. During the English Civil War, puritan troops, with scant respect for the fripperies of Royalist churches, stabled their horses in there. The author Ronald Blythe once showed me the cracked flagstones at the back of the church, which he said had been damaged by their horses’ hooves. Now, I thought, supposing there’d been some improvised blacksmithery performed there too? As I examined the marks on the church door, it occurred to me that although they didn’t particularly resemble clawmarks, they do look as if they might have been scorched on by say, a bored young Cromwellian farrier mucking about with a hot poker.
Farther north at Bungay, popular legend has it that during a fearsome late summer thunderstorm one afternoon in August 1577, the skies went black, a large savage dog ran into the church and there, amidst scenes of terror and mayhem the skins of two men shrivelled like parchment. Supposing, that the packed church had taken a direct lightning strike, that the two men had been electrocuted and burned? Then, at that same time, a maddened, terrified farm dog had run into the place biting and snapping at everything in his way?
Filter the story, by word of mouth through centuries of misty time, add a drop of ale and you’ll have brewed yourself a fine East Anglian legend. There are black dog legends all over the British Isles, but, without making too many “bones” about it, the eerie marshlands of our own coast are definitely the most credible backdrop for such a creature. Let’s be careful out there...