Category: Belief and Worldview

Explore Phantom Black Dogs

Edited by Bob Trubshaw. 2005. Wymeswold: Explore Books. 152 + viii pages. ISBN: 1872883788 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Keagan LeJeune, McNeese State University

[Review length: 1112 words • Review posted on August 23, 2007]

A dog half the size of a horse, a looming dark and shaggy body, a pair of giant yellow eyes the size of saucers, the ominous padded footfalls following closely behind: this is the typical description of a phantom black dog. Explore Phantom Black Dogs offers many examples of this type of story and uses a collection of essays to explore the topic. The book exists as one part of Heart of Albion’s “Explore” series. (Other volumes in the series from Heart of Albion, a UK publisher, include Explore Folklore, Explore Mythology, Explore Green Men, and Explore Shamanism.) The aim of the series (also edited by Bob Trubshaw) is to provide accessible and wide-ranging introductions to a set of topics, including both broad and specific subjects. The work seems motivated by a desire to consider the various accounts holistically and to offer some direction for future scholarship.

The book traces the sightings of black dogs throughout England, at one point focusing specifically on the Norfolk black dog Shuck as one of the most definitive local variants. In addition, it examines various appearances of the black dog in academic and literary works and reviews possible critical approaches to the phenomenon. Especially towards its end as it considers black dogs in the New World, the book also attempts to gauge how lore of the black dog has shifted over time and space. The book’s final section offers a bibliography and a rather extensive survey of British sightings occurring from 1800 to the present, categorizing them by location, motif, and chronology.

A collection of essays, the book’s success lies in its ability to document varying accounts, studies, and approaches to the form and to present rather objectively a host of details and information regarding lore of the black dogs. Much of the text devotes itself to summative overviews of research in the field. One indication of this is the work’s inclusion of folkloristic, Fortean, and psychological studies of phantom black dogs. The work begins with “Black Dog Studies,” Jeremy Harte’s first contribution to the text (Harte also contributes the concluding bibliography and survey). In order to describe the formation of the “Black Dog” story type, its accompanying motifs, and its adaptations as it moves through time and space, the essay progresses from folklorists’ reports during the early 1800s to contemporary studies. Simon Sherwood’s contribution to the work is a review of psychological approaches to the black dog. Sherwood explains that apparition studies have tended to focus on human entities. Then the writer condenses potential theories beyond the folkloristic in an effort to explore these animal apparitions. The chapter explores a wide range of explanations, both normal and paranormal. It includes discussions of cultural source and experiential source hypotheses, brain-environment interaction, telepathy or psychokinesis, spirit hypothesis, and a few other viable approaches to the apparitions. However, the amount of space available to Sherwood no doubt limits the opportunity for including definitions, illustrative examples, or further analysis, which would all add to the lucidity and usefulness of the overview.

Following Sherwood’s essay, Alby Stone’s “Infernal Watchdogs, Soul Hunters, and Corpse Eaters” traces the dog in folklore and mythology, especially as a crossroads figure. In doing so, she connects the book’s discussion of Irish and English dog lore to ancient Egyptian and Indo-European examples (Anubis, Kerberos, etc.) and to Eurasian and North American examples. Stone’s discussions, perhaps the most lucid of the book, ground considerations of the phantom black dogs in a chronological analysis, which delineates the precedents of the phantom dog and emphasizes the entity’s depiction as a spiritual guide and gatekeeper. Jennifer Westwood contributes “Friend or Foe? Norfolk Traditions of Shuck,” which traces the development of the most popular British black dog apparition, Shuck. This portion of the work coalesces the various portrayals and analyses of Shuck and offers a tangible example of the prominence and function of recurring black dog stories, simultaneously considering Shuck’s connection to place. Westwood’s essay attempts to move Stone’s discussion one step closer to the particular.

Bob Trubshaw’s essay, “Black Dogs in the New World,” moves the discussion to America and contemporary accounts of phantom black dogs. For the most part, Trubshaw presents various emails he received from American residents about their encounters with black dog apparitions or their memories of hearing these types of stories. In doing so, he does offer a compelling argument for a direction of study and an interesting perspective on the lore of phantom black dogs.

The work ends with Jeremy Harte’s bibliography. It surveys black dog literature and recorded encounters with the apparitions. The first portion of the bibliography organizes accounts based on their location. For each location mentioned, Harte lists the accounts occurring in that locale, identifying each account’s source, date, and basic information. The second portion is a motif index, and the third is a chronological list of personal experiences that have been recorded. In this final list, each entry includes the date of the encounter, a summary of the narrative, the narrative’s specific location as it connects to the first list in the bibliography, and a parenthetical citation referencing the corresponding source in the book’s concluding bibliography.

Trubshaw’s collection is a testament to the pervasiveness of British Isles folklore concerning the black dog, which often forewarns of death or acts as a gatekeeper to another world. Also, the work offers substantial proof of this role extending beyond Britain. Trubshaw himself attempts to gauge the presence of the black dog stories in the New World, encourages its continued documentation as an academic direction, and even offers brief comments about which theoretical approaches might be most beneficial. This avenue for future study will no doubt be pursued. In fact, Simon Burchell has already begun the process by answering Trubshaw’s call. His Phantom Black Dogs in Latin America was published by Heart of Albion Press in 2007.

Unfortunately, Trubshaw’s collection does not offer clear discussions of the theoretical approaches to phantom black dogs, nor does it offer enough analysis of actual accounts, though perhaps these were not the goals of the collection. In any case, the book suffers from unevenness in the essays and the lack of a connective analytic framework directing the manuscript. As a result, even though the individual essays may be engaging, they don’t seem to create a text that is greater than the sum of its parts. The work does save the reader a great deal of time and energy that would be spent searching out these essays one by one, and that scholarly gift--along with the impressive detail, perceptiveness, theoretical overview, and encouraged academic direction offered in its individual essays--is valuable and makes seeking out the collection worthwhile.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.