Tales of a large black ghostly hound have been reported for centuries from all around the British Isles. However ‘Black Shuck’, also known as the ‘Spectre Hound’ or the ‘Hound of Hell’, the huge wild dog that portends disaster to anyone who sees it, is specific to parts of Norfolk and Suffolk, especially in coastal villages, where sightings have been reported for more than a thousand years. There’s even talk of links to the Vikings’ superstitions, suggesting that the hound was actually the god Odin’s ‘dog of war’. Black Shuck is said to be one of the oldest ‘phantoms’ of Great Britain, its name deriving from the Anglo Saxon word ‘Scucca’ meaning demon.
This unnerving experience happened to me a while ago now, and it still makes me shiver to remember it.
“He was the biggest dog I ever saw, more like a horse. Black, vicious eyes like saucers. I was terrified, so I was.”
“And you saw it last night? On the building site?” I asked Pat O’Reilly, who was sitting across the pub table from me with his two friends.
He crossed himself before replying. “As God’s my witness, so I did, sir. And I don’t mind telling you that I ran. I ran for my life! Sure that dog was massive, I’ve never seen anything like it. When I stopped running and turned round it had gone. Just vanished into thin air.”
“And it was floating around on a sea of mist?”
“Something like mist,” Pat blustered, half closing his eyes to remember. “Twas all swirling like a misty lake, you couldn’t see its legs properly.”
I waited for the almost twitching upper lip, the glint in someone’s eye, the incipient smirk of ridicule aching for release.
But Pat and his friends were obviously very good actors.
Phantom dogs with slavering lips and wild eyes, chasing him for his life? For goodness sake! Should I fall in with the joke, I wondered, or front them up?
Because I don’t like being ridiculed.
And I could easily see why this big unimaginative building worker was making fun of me, and why. The previous week the national newspapers had carried a story with the headline The architect who believes in ghosts!, proceeding to mock my latest investigation into a haunted manor house, making me out to be a naïve crank. I don’t ‘believe in ghosts’, it’s just that I’ve experienced some strange things in my career with old buildings, and I’ve always been keen to investigate them scientifically, but, frankly, I have an open mind.
I’d already taken a lot of stick from friends and acquaintances about the wretched article, but meeting ridicule from men I was employing on a job was another matter.
Apart from me, Pat O’Reilly and a couple of the other members of his gang of building workers, The Pheasants Game pub, in the village of Dunster, on the Norfolk coast was almost empty on that freezing cold winter’s night. The big house I’d been commissioned to design and supervise the build on the nearby clifftop was in its early stages, and I’d come up to see how far the excavation crew had come—their job was to dig the trenches to the various specified depths prior to the pouring of concrete foundations. I’d never met any of the Irish building workers before, but it seems they’d heard of me, and were obviously amused about my seemingly naïve interest in the supernatural.
“And its eyes, Mr Dark,” Pat was going on, “Sure they was as big as saucers! It’s terrified I was, I’ve never seen a dog that size running free, and it looked as if it was going to tear me to shreds. What in all that’s holy could it have been?”
“All right Pat, this had gone far enough.” I got up, stepping around the table. I grabbed him by the collar and dragged him to his feet, my face inches from his. “The world and his wife has heard about the ‘phantom hound of Norfolk’, and you thought I was stupid enough to fall for your story because you’ve read in the papers that I’m some patsy who believes in ghosts,” I snapped angrily. “You’ve had your joke, so now you can just bloody well shut up and remember that it’s me who’s paying your wages!”
As I released him to collapse back into his seat, I stormed out of the pub and marched down the road.
Upset and lonely, I reflected that it had been a humiliating end to a gruelling day: driving up from Kent, meeting this tough gang of Irish building workers before I’d even had a chance to snatch a meal, and then discovering that they were all laughing at me. Truth was, that even before Pat O’Reilly had tried to make a fool of me I was upset and worried about this job, which had been a hassle from the start.
I wanted to go straight to the hotel and to bed, but I was worried about the progress of the excavations, and if Pat and his gang of jokers were as stupid as they appeared to be, they were probably lying about their progress on site, and I knew I wouldn’t sleep until I’d taken a look for myself. I had a powerful flashlight, plus there was plenty of moonlight, so I took the opportunity to stroll back to the building site to take another look at the trenches that Pat and his boys were supposed to have dug.
It was easy to see why my client had wanted a house on this beautiful clifftop location. There was a panoramic view out to sea, and it was a delight to see the ‘footprint’ of what was going to be a four-bedroom house laid out on the ground, the six-foot-deep trenches following the lines of what would eventually be its outer walls.
Suddenly I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder.
Scared, I turned around, to see Pat, standing behind.
“Thought I might find you here, Mr Dark,” he began, moving to stand beside me.
I decided not to refer to my outburst in the pub. “I’ve been driving all day to get here, and this is the first chance I’ve had to see how it’s looking. I’ll have to make measurements in daylight, but it looks as if you’ve done well.”
Pat nodded, and I noticed how tall and Celtic he looked, with his clear blue eyes and silver hair and cool gaze—the kind of man you feel you could trust—making me realise that idiots come in all shapes and sizes.
“Listen, Mr Dark, I’m sorry for upsetting you. I can see how it must have sounded back there,” he said quietly.
“All right Pat, let’s just forget it. I can take a joke.”
“I don’t doubt it, sir.” He paused, looking serious. “But the fact is, Mr Dark, none us have read that newspaper article about you. Didn’t even know your name until our gaffer told us you were coming earlier today. And everyone in England might have heard about this ghost dog, Black Shuck, but I’ve lived on the Emerald Isle and the States for most of my life, and it’s all news to me.”
I looked at him, expecting to see the twinkle in his eye before he laughed, having tried to ridicule me for a second time.
That was when I noticed that my flashlight was still on, pointing out into the darkness. Without a word, we both at the same time were drawn to the twin reflections of something like red sparkling jewels, picked out in its lonely yellow beam that stretched out into the darkness.
“Switch it off, for Christ’s sake!” Pat yelled, knocking the flashlight out of my hand. “The light’s attracting it!”
A primeval terror took over. I swear I felt the earth underfoot tremble as the shape in the distance thundered closer. All around the thing there was a swirling mist.
And then we heard the wild howling sound, that set the hairs on the back of my neck pricking up.
Closer now. It was a huge vicious snapping dog, a killing machine on four flailing legs, running hell-for-leather towards us.
“Get down!” Pat snarled in terror, grabbing my coat and pulling me down after him into the trench.
Just before I sprawled down on my face in the mud at the bottom of the grave-like space I saw the huge beast running towards us, its teeth bared, wide saucer-like eyes.
They blazed bright red…