I may or may not be working my way through Wikipedia’s list of Black Dogs in popular culture. Regardless, I read this book recently.
The Kettle Chronicles: the Black Dog by I. S. Morgan has a hideous cover, which it proceeds to defy by not only not sucking, but also being quite a charming little book.
This is a historical story (I hesitate to call it a novel, it’s so short) set around a spooky event in the Suffolk town of Bungay in 1577, popularised at the time by Abraham Flemyng’s pamphlet entitled “A Straunge and Terrible Wunder”. (This pamphlet is real. I own a modern copy.)
Flemyng, let’s be clear, was a churchman with a Christian axe to grind. Though he was not present in Bungay on the Sunday in question, when loud thunder accompanied the deaths of two of the congregation, nevertheless he wasted no time in reporting the attendance of a diabolical black dog and dressing the whole thing up as an expression of God’s wrath. Of course. This sort of thing always happens in out-of-the-way places that Flemyng’s London-based target readership have probably never visited.
However, the pamphlet also makes its way back to Bungay itself and is duly read out with great relish by pub landlords all over town, and soon half the congregation is claiming that they did remember seeing a black dog…
The book follows Captain Richard Brightwell as he investigates the affair on the orders of the area’s bishop. The book itself was supposedly compiled with the aid of notes made by Captain Brightwell’s attendant scribe, John Kettle (the titular Kettle Chroniclist, and another character based on a real historical figure). Also present are a manservant, Humphrey, whom one could reasonably accuse of slyness – all in a good cause, of course – and a gentle seven-foot-tall mute monk named Augustyn, sent along to act as bodyguard and general human shield.
The Kettle Chronicles: The Black Dog is a short book with a lot packed into it. The writing style is eccentric and works rather well, I think, but Your Mileage May Vary. The historical references are both slyly applied and explained by endnotes (the automatic numbering of which seemed to have undergone some form of MS Word fail in my edition).
Of course the central mystery is concerned with the supposed Black Dog, whom the locals know from legend as a “shilly-shally” named Black Shuck, and who is usually more likely to accost people on lonely roads and give them a scare than to burst into churches and wring the necks of two town feoffees.
The storyline takes in both mundane and supernatural events. The tale, including its frequent humour, is focused on the human characters’ interactions with the denizens of the town.
There is a romantic subplot. This manages to be portrayed slyly and not boring, and does not dominate proceedings. It’s not really necessary either, other than a bit of human interest.
A short, obscure book, but one that definitely belongs in my tiny collection of Black Dog and ghost dog literature.