Books to Bark About

Well it’s National Dog Day, and as a reader I have always been pulled in by stories that featured canine characters, whether good or bad. The Call of the Wild has already featured on this blog as one of my favourite books of all time, so some of you will already know I’m a little barking about this kind of thing. So much so, that now I’m a writer, you’ll always be able to find a dog in my own stories. So in order to truly bring these two things together, let’s look at some of the literary canines that leap off my bookshelf.

Call of the WildThe Call of the Wild is my comfort book. The one I turn to when I need to feel warm and cosy on the inside, especially if it’s the opposite outside. This book is basically apple pie to me. Well, at least when there’s no apple pie.

The main character in Call of the Wild is Buck, a cross between a St Bernard and a sheepdog. I’ve always imagined him as looking something a little like a modern-day leonberger.

Buck is kidnapped from his comfortable home and sold to a trader, finding himself in the barren and unforgiving landscape of the North during the gold rush. He finds adversaries in dogs and people alike, with his trials eventually awakening something primal in his spirit, but not before he bonds with a man who shows him true love. Torn between instinct and loyalty, Buck moonlights between two worlds until tragedy intervenes and makes the choice for him.

Thor

Thor. And I don’t mean the guy with the hammer. I mean a German Shepherd, a loyal family dog at the centre of Wayne Smith’s novel of the same name.

Thor is very protective of his family, and in the past it has landed him and them in trouble. But when something supernatural and savage enters their world, it is first only Thor who can see it. Although his human pack are unaware of his taste for wild rabbit, it soon becomes clear that he is not the only blood thirsty predator in their midst. As the threat draws closer, Thor sets out to protect them at all costs.

Eventually made into the film ‘Bad Moon’, which was also pretty good!

Plague Dogs

No list of anphropomorphic tales would be complete without at least one Richard Adams novel, so enter the Plague Dogs. The story of Rowf and Snitter, an old black labrador and a fox terrier who escape from a research laboratory, is something really quite special.

Adams’s unique story telling style forces us to see the dogs in the story as people and the humans as animals, something made abundantly clear when we discover what Rowf and Snitter have been exposed to.

Not exactly a feel good story, but still somehow a beautiful one.

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Fang and Fluffy. Two of the best misnamed dogs in all literature. Fang is a coward, who runs away at the first sign of danger despite being a Neapolitan Mastiff, whilst Fluffy is a three-headed, ferocious cerberus of gigantic size! And both are encountered within the pages of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Both are also owned by Hagrid, the half-giant grounds keeper with a penchant for dangerous animals.

Hagrid is my kind of guy!

CujoAnd of course, not all doggy characters are good guys. In Cujo, the master of horror himself Stephen King takes the breed of dog known for saving lives and outstanding loyalty, the St Bernard, and turns it into 200lbs of terror.

When Cujo is bitten by a rabid bat, he too soon falls victim to the disease with no cure. As his senses and sanity are ravaged by the deadly virus, so Cujo turns on the inhabitants of a sleepy, backwater town with similarly savage results.

Arguably the most famous canine villain of all time though can be found within theHound pages of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. The large and deadly dog is never fully identified beyond being of ‘mastiff’ type, but that doesn’t stop it killing two people during the course of the story.

The tale was in fact based on legends Sir Arthur heard whilst staying on Dartmoor, centred around a phantom squire and his pack of hellhounds, said to be heard baying when the moon was full and the night was clear.

Sherlock Holmes and a creature feature. What’s not to like!

I could of course mention many more. From the rough collie of Lassie Come Home, Pongo and Missus of 101 Dalmatians, Montmorency of Three Men In a Boat, Toto of Wizard of Oz, or even the haphazard Afghan pup what-a-mess, dogs are a firm favourite when it comes to books, and certainly in my library at least.

So it shouldn’t really be a surprise to find not one, but several dogs in my own book, Shadow Beast. The first and most prominent is Meg, a three-legged Border Collie who lives with Thomas Walker, my protagonist. Like most dogs, Meg has probably helped her owner stay sane and been there for him in moments of loneliness. She also saves his life later on in the story. You’ll also find a team of fearsome hunting dogs, and a pack of hounds to boot. But don’t be alarmed if you’re not a dog person, there’s also a cat in it too 😉 And it’s a big one.

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Fearlaith Mor – The Big Grey Man

Sorry ladies, there’s a man out there called Grey who’s even bigger and badder than that Christian fella. He’s definitely tall, dark, and probably the strong silent type at a guess and he seems to also have a bit of a mean streak, but that’s probably where the analogies end. Unfortunately, you also won’t find him in a Manhattan penthouse or driving sports cars. In fact there’s only one place in the world you may encounter him, and that’s on the lonely and desolate landscape surrounding the mountain of Ben Macdhui, in the Cairngorms of Scotland.

The legend of the Big Grey Man, or Fearlaith Mor as the entity is referred to locally, has been known in the area for centuries, but entered popular folklore when a Professor Norman Collie told a blood-chilling tale in 1889 of his experience on the mountain. Although a professional scientist and chemist, his true vocation was mountaineering and climbing. He climbed the Canadian Rockies, naming 30 of their peaks in the process and was involved in an ill-fated Himalayan expedition to break the yet unclaimed 8,000 metre high Nanga Parbat. With a keen analytical mind, a thirst for adventure and being a pipe smoker and confirmed bachelor, it isn’t surprising that it has been suggested that Collie was the likely inspiration behind Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. The point of all this is simply to say Collie was an experienced climber and not prone to superstition or ghost stories. Which makes his tale all the stranger.

“I was taking a short rest on a familiar path, safe and secure in the knowledge that I would soon be back to my comfortable lodgings and in front of a roaring fire, when I thought I heard something else, distant and away in the mist. It caused me no undue concern, and having caught my breath I began to move on.

I was returning from a cairn on the summit in a mist when I began to again think I heard something else than merely the noise of my own footsteps. Every few steps I took would be followed by a crunch of snow from behind, as if someone was walking behind me, but taking steps three or four times the size of my own. 

I told myself this was nonsense, and stopped several times to peer behind me into the mist but saw nothing. As I walked on, the eerie crunch would sound again soon after. At the third occurrence I was seized with terror and took to my heels, staggering blindly for four or five miles nearly down to Rothiemurchus Forest. Whatever you make of it I do not know, but there is something very queer about that place, and I will not go back there again by myself.

Ever since, there have been reports and tales of strange occurrences in the area. Most witnesses describe being gripped with a sense of sheer terror, or of being chased and followed by something with evil intent. Another key component to encounters is the sound of unseen thudding footsteps coming up from behind. One writer fled from the aforementioned Rothiemurchus Forest, chased not only by her perplexed husband, but also by something she could only sense as evil and intent on doing her harm. She describes crossing some kind of invisible boundary within the forest and knowing she was safe, whereas seconds before she knew she had been in considerable danger. The Corrour Bothy, a remote hut that offers shelter to climbers and hikers is another place where the slamming of doors and a sense of dread and terror has sent many an occupier back out into the weather.

The Big Grey Man though is rarely, if ever seen. There are many reports of a shadowy figure obscured by the mist or fog, but very few come face to face with it. That said, one group of climbers described getting a glimpse of an immense humanoid that had sent an entire deer herd and other denizens of the mountain running down a slope at them in terror, a hint at which they were only too happy to take up on. Another described a horrible, giant face grinning at him from the cover of some rocks. He fled in terror as seems the precedent, but when he eventually returned to the place and measured the outcrop, he realised the figure must have been standing behind a particular rock, making it nearly 10 metres tall, which had been his original estimate!

Many have suggested that the Big Grey Man is actually a rare atmospheric phenomena known as a broken spectre. This is where the low winter sun can distort your own shadow through gaps in the clouds, projecting it onto layers of mist below, and there are a few places within the Big Grey Man’s territory that this strange spectacle can be seen, most notably Lurcher’s Crag. The effect is often accompanied by a ‘glorie’, or rainbow halo. The only issue with this explanation is that it occurs below you, not above as seems to be the case for most encounters of Fearlaith Mor.

Broken Spectre with Glorie

It seems that given the sense of dread, the need to flee from a place in terror and the unseen presence of the entity, the Big Grey Man is more likely something supernatural than a physical beast. A powerful and malevolent guardian spirit of the land, in this case the mountain of Ben Macdhui.

What the Big Grey Man most certainly isn’t though, is Britain’s version of Bigfoot, despite what the show Finding Bigfoot tried to suggest in it’s recent UK special. We do seem to have genuine sightings of hairy hominids, with intriguing recent cases in North Yorkshire for instance, but they have nothing to do with this seemingly tulpa-like entity. Please take note, as I have come across far too many blogs and articles suggesting otherwise! After all, it sounds like the last thing we need to do is piss this thing off further!

I have always been drawn to the legend of Fearlaith Mor, and do one day plan to scale Ben Macdhui to investigate the place for myself. I could be one of the many who encounter nothing but breathtaking Scottish scenery and a beautiful natural wilderness. Or maybe, just maybe, I’ll find a spiritual sentry of unnatural wildness…

Cover image produced with kind permission from Monstrum Athenaeum. http://monstrumathenaeum.org/

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