In my upcoming novel, Rogue, I reference one of my favourite books – The Hound of the Baskervilles. In my story, the protagonist’s father retires to the chair on his porch, to smoke a pipe and ponder the problem of a murderous animal on the loose. Famously, Holmes gauged the severity of his cases by how many pipes he smoked whilst considering their complexity. In ‘The ‘Red-Headed League’, we find the conundrum is a three-pipe problem – the most difficult. And in the 1959 film of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’, Holmes declares it to be a two-pipe problem.
As my character is also on the hunt for a bloodthirsty beast, I thought it fitting that they too, could find a solution within two smokes!
A Murderous Squire
But did you know that Holmes’ creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, also took inspiration for his story (and one of the characters), from a real-life historical account?
In the late 1600s, a squire by the name of Richard Cabell, became notorious for his exploits and reputation. Described as a “monstrously evil man”, he lived for hunting with his pack of hounds and the good life. Rumours of immorality, and even having sold his soul to the devil, were whispered throughout the small parish of Buckfastleigh in Devon, where he lived in a manor named Brook Hall. Locals gave him the moniker of “Dirty Dick”, hinting at how he spent some of his free time when not on the hunt for wild game.
A further rumour is that he murdered his wife. After accusing her of adultery (if ever there was a case of the pot calling the kettle black), she escaped and tried to flee across the moor. After tracking her down and recapturing her, it is said he murdered her with his hunting knife. However, in reality, Cabell’s wife, Elizabeth Fowell, is believed to have outlived her husband by 14 years, after he died in July of 1677.
Yet death did nothing to put the parish gossip – or indeed Cabell himself, to rest. On the night of his burial, a pack of black hounds were seen on the hunt across Dartmoor, baying and howling mournfully as they came close to his tomb. From that night on, it is said that Cabell and his phantom hounds have haunted and hunted the moor, especially on anniversary nights of his death.
“It came with the wind through the silence of the night, a long, deep mutter, then a rising howl, and then the sad moan in which it died away. Again and again it sounded, the whole air throbbing with it, strident, wild, and menacing.”
The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Yeth and other Black Dog Legends
You may be wondering what all this has to do with Doyle’s story. Well, in the book, the Baskerville curse is linked back to a Hugo Baskerville, a rogue squire who kidnapped a maiden, and then hunted her down on the moor when she escaped. It was there that he met his end, in the jaws of a huge, spectral hound. Sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it? And Doyle himself admitted he heard about Cabell’s legend from a friend, whilst staying at the The Royal Duchy Hotel in Cornwall.
Devon, like many parts of England, has a ‘black dog’ legend too – similar to the Black Shuck of East Anglia, the Barghest of Yorkshire, and the Moddey Doo from the Isle of Man. The Yeth or Whist Hounds, are said to be the servants of the devil and true denizens of the wild hunt. They also share banshee-like folklore, as to hear their cry means death within a week. These spirit dogs were thought to be the lost souls of unbaptised, unwanted children – and they hunted for those like themselves, so they too would join the eternal, hellish hunt. Your only hope was to have been born at midnight, which would have granted you power over the supernatural and the ability to hear the hounds without going to your doom.
And it would certainly appear that the people of Buckfastleigh took some of the legends seriously. The family tomb that holds Richard Cabell can still be seen today – and ‘hold’ is an appropriate word. The monument looks more jail cell than mortuary, complete with iron bars and thick walls. It would seem designed to keep something in, rather than anybody out. And it’s said the hounds can still be seen in and around the graveyard, as well as ghostly and unexplained sounds combing from the tomb itself.
So, just with Conan Doyle’s story, it seems unlikely that the legend will be forgotten any time soon!