Friday, 15 April 2016

Folklore Tapes: Occultural Creatures Vol.1 - Black Dog Traditions of England

The latest offering from the Folklore Tapes folk (Ian Humberstone and David Chatton Barker in this instance) is a treasure box filled with exquisite objects, a reliquary as the promotional copy casts it. The unholy contents are far from saintly, however. These relics are collected reports and rumours, historical remnants in the form of oral tales and myths in set down in ballad form. Here are dark terrors, tenebrous forms condensed from the night’s impenetrable blackness and given wild, bestial life. This is the opening release in a new Occultural Creatures series and the first supernatural manifestation to be sighted is the terrible, protean outline of the black dog.

At the heart of the project, its scholarly foundation and narrative bone structure, is Ian Humberstone’s investigative study of black dog traditions in England. It has academic heft and an authority anchored by extensive footnotes and bibliographic markers. Fervid poring over little consulted texts are supported by field expeditions and first hand explorations and interviews, mining local knowledge and gaining a feel for the geography of myth, the spirit of folkloric place. Where it succeeds over more dusty tomes is in its ability to bring the stories alive, to create a rich sense of atmosphere, conjuring time, space and mood and making the sense of dread and uncanny mystery palpable. These are accounts made to be read aloud, as indeed a number of them have been in a handful of compelling performances. The ‘prowling and ill-omened animation of the witching hour’ has been brought to life as a stark woodcut silhouette thrown onto a white screen of ghostly cloth by an overhead projector, backdrops shifted in the blink of an eye by a prestidigitator’s hand whipping away photographic transparencies. ‘Listen close and I will tell you all I know’, Ian begins. It’s as if we are gathered around the warm, hypnotically flickering radiance of a fire, the shadows cast to the periphery of vision by the beguiling coil and sway of its transient flames.

The prose has a bewitching cadence, an enchanting use of the language of romance which lends it a bardic quality. Read it in your head in measured metre with a soft Scottish brogue to hear it in its optimum form. Ian Humberstone traces the development of the ubiquitous black dogs of legend and folklore from demonic beasts, embodiments of hellish power, to the less corporeal though no less terrifying outlines of spectre-hounds, haunters of dark lanes and wild moors or guardians of magical hoards. He gathers together the linguistic branches of the black dog family, the regional vernacular which produces barguests, shocks and hooters, gytrash, padfeet and skrikers. They are manifold but tend to share common characteristics; uncommonly large black hounds with eyes as big as saucers. Occasionally they swell in size, expanding to take on an aspect of cosmic horror, becoming indistinguishable from the terror of the night’s dark abyss.

Ian travels the length of the land to gather tales of these dread beasts, tracking their footprints to Devon, Herefordshire and Norfolk, Yorkshire, Somerset and even to the dark, stinking heart of old London town. Photographs, soft with film stock grain, add eyeflash instants, impressions of landscape and the particularity of place. Tudor ruins with their long-cold fireplaces; the graveyards of flinty East-Anglian churches; stygian fern and ash-leaf veiled cave-mouths; and the imprint of the black dog on weather vanes, pub and road signs. Our fearless and intrepid explorers, messrs. Humberstone and Chatton Barker, are glimpsed as figures in these landscapes, picking their way through the tumbled limestone trail of Troller’s Gill, measuring out the distances of the high moorland or soaking up the sun outside the Black Dog Inn.

There are also stills from the celluloid strips of David Chatton Barker’s 16mm film, also included in the box. The stock is deliberately corroded, subjected to weathering and bio-chemical erosion by elements taken from different black dog sites. The patterns thus produced lend an air of antiquity to the film (an antiquity already inbuilt, in these our accelerated times, by the physicality of the medium, the care and labour required for its development). These are strips of film steeped in long time, partaking of the slow geological transformations of the world. They also reflect the transformations of the tales marking the brief moment of human presence in the landscape. Tales whose articulation of a forbidding wildness, an essential otherness, express a subconscious awareness of the tenuous provisionality of this habitation. The blotched and cracked surfaces of the filmstrips are like relief charts for some hidden territory, Ordinance Survey maps for the otherworld or route maps for the inner landscape. The black dogs traverse these celluloid terrains like mental emanations, suggestive silhouettes etched onto the retina via inky Rorschach smears. ‘So what do you see in this one?’ ‘The spectre-hound of hell’. ‘Ah, most interesting….’

The treasure box also houses a 12” LP, which summons up sonic atmospheres to bring the book’s manifestations to life. It is best heard with the lights down low. It begins with the comforting flutter and weave of birdsong, allowing a moment of calm before the black dog is summoned. A dull, metallic clang, a bell with no ecclesiastical resonance, no hint of heavenly overtones, sounds like a huge feeding bowl being struck with a giant’s wooden spoon. ‘Here boy, fresh bones’.

The moaning of a nocturnal wind sets the scene for the Barguest of Dob Park Lodge, the discomforting accompaniment to the night journey of the treasure hunter who ventured into the underworld beneath the old, deserted Tudor mansion. It’s a wind gusting in from elsewhere, a chill otherworld. As Ian Humberstone puts it, ‘here we leave the known world behind and step ovesr the threshold into myth’. Deep, echoing booms sound out the cavernous spaces, hinting at far-off activity, hammering, pounding labours or the earth-shuddering thuds of giant footsteps. There are small chittering sounds closer at hand, dry scuttling and stridulation in the impenetrable shadows. The rustily rotating wheels and gears of some clanking, ratcheting machinery can be heard in the muffled distance, gradually becoming clearer and more defined in the aural spectrum, growing steadily nearer; the clockwork mechanics of fate winding through its inexorable motions.

The inquisitive hoot of an owl signals a change of scene as we head down south again to listen to the Devon landlord’s tale. The landlord of the Black Dog pub, naturally. Glinting clusters of zithery notes suggest raindrops shivering from the eaves outside, or sparks spitting from the hearth of the inn at Uplyme. Our host talks of ‘inheriting’ the legends along with the pub. It is the landlord’s duty to tell the tales which have been passed on to him, to perpetuate the local legends which tend to find their oral node in the convivial communal space of the pub. Marina Warner writes of the local folklore and memory encoded in pub names, citing the old Mother Redcap in London. For many years it commemorated a neighbourhood character, an old witch of great and dubious renown in the area. Novelty pub names of contrived eccentricity imposed by the large brewers erased this marker of history, character and custom. As she wrote in her 2006 article for the Guardian, ‘Pub names and signs are some of the oldest surviving traces of exchanges and folklore in a particular place. More and more names and phrases in the public arena are tied to adverts and commodities – global creep of meanings for everybody and no one’.

The Black Dog in Uplyme remains, however, and the dog who once took up a regular inglenook residence in the evening was a benevolent guardian, a spectral companion like the one which watches over Tarkovsky’s stalker as he lies down to rest in the Zone. The one encountered outside is far more to be feared, a shape torn from the fabric of the night, swelling to take on the dimension of a dark constellation.

The coming of the beast said to be a reincarnation of the restless spirit of Black Vaughan, the unloved lord of the manor of Hergest Court in Herefordshire whose malign influence seemed to persist beyond the grave, is foretold by dolorous doom chimes. These are soon overlaid by wintry minor key toy piano melancholy, the deadened notes falling like snowflakes. Menacing synth brood adds a final unsettling layer of ground mist to this lost John Carpenter theme. Something is padding towards us in the darkness, and there is nothing we can do to evade it. The legend of Black Vaughan, his fate and the curse of his black dog haunted ancestors, along with the theories that the origins of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, lie here on the Herefordshire borders rather than on the moors of Devon, form the basis of The Prayer of the Night Shepherd, one of Phil Rickman’s excellent novels featuring the diocesan deliverance consultant (or, to use the old parlance, exorcist) Merrily Watkins.

A brief interlude of light, a respite from night’s oppressive terrors. Birdsong pastoral sets the scene for a playfully piping synth gavotte (or somesuch renaissance caper), a reconstructed parade to Dog Village conducted according to the fanciful colourations of the modern imagination; pageantry with all the authentic antiquity of recollected horror films and pysch-folk albums. And none the worse for it.

The Eastern legends of Black Shuck are related by Malcolm Busby with an estuarine Essex matter of factness. He’s a natural storyteller, a conspiratorial narrator. We feel the beguiling magic of these oral histories, and are compelled to lean in a little closer to tell the tales as they were told to him. Spectral winds shiver and moan in the background, carrying with them the sharp, salty tang of the coastal marshes. This is another fireside gathering on a night you wouldn’t care to be abroad. To be out….there. At the end, after empty glasses a slammed onto the table with an air of determined finality (this one really is the last), yearning synth melodies and hazy chorales suggest our genuine need for such stories, for the presence of something other in the world, the persistence of mystery, of the wild unknown, even if it produces shudders of terror (shudders which are secretly to be relished).

We head north again to seek out the Barguest of Troller’s Gill. As we pick our way cautiously through the scree and boulder rubble littering the passage of this narrow valley scarring the limestone landscape we hear an eerie descending trill. Otherworldly bird calls with a coiled metallic sheen, made (we might imagine) by lamp-eyed, sharp-beaked creatures of the kind found perching in the blasted branches of the spook-infested woods surrounding the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West. The voices, which don’t sound like they come from any creature of flesh and blood, multiply, as if a sinister flock were gathering – deathbirds anticipating a carrion feast. A trickling stream and footsteps navigating rocky ground sound an aural map of the terrain. A folkish tune with plinking, bicycle wheel accompaniment suggestive of raindrop splashes develops into a haunting, gliding music box melody. A dance of fate, a death waltz.

An ominous drone heralds the London tour guide’s tale, a grim Newgate legend from the foul heart of the famine-blighted middle ages involving sorcery, cannibalism and a murderously vengeful hound. As if to emphasise that the shadows of the past are not easily exorcised, particularly when attached to places of such dark notoriety, he ends by pointing to the old site of Dead Man’s Walk (now Amen Court), the passageway leading from the cells to the gallows, where the shade of the black dog can still sometimes be seen flitting across the ill-lit wall. Naturally, such sightings do not bode well for the unfortunate observer.

Finally we ascend to the moorland heights of Somerset to encounter the Watchdogs of the Wambarrows. A metallic shimmer evokes the uncanny nature of the landscape, and swooning waves of blurry sound conjure up a delirious, hallucinatory atmosphere. Amorphous, transient forms wisp into being before dissipating and swirling away with the mists. A ghostly howling emerges from and is absorbed into the blustering perturbations of the chill air. Nothing is certain in this charged, uncanny topography.

This is a highly entertaining and imaginatively engaging survey of the black dog legends of England which wears its in-depth research lightly, making it accessible to all. Beautifully presented as ever, it is an exquisite work of art underpinned by genuine scholarship. This is a labour of love long in the birthing, and its been well worth the wait. So read the book as you listen to the record, and don’t be surprised if you hear the padding of phantom feet, the distant hint of wild, haunted howling. Wherever you are, the black dog is on your trail.