Black Shuck the Spectral Dog, Agent of Good?

The charming title of The Prettiest Book for Children, Being the History of the Enchanted Castle…Governed by the Giant Instruction (1770),  must have sent mixed messages to its readers, wrote Ida S. Simonson in a 1924 issue of Library Journal.  The narrator Don Stephano Bunyano, a “strange, outlandish fellow in a flowered gown and hairy cap, with a long blue beard and white wand,” might have fascinated children if he had not made this “irritating, mean confession: “As soon as I rise in the morning I wash my hands and face and comb my hair and my long blue beard.”

What didn’t catch Simonson’s attention was the aggressive behavior the big black dog Shocky, Bunyano’s faithful companion.  When he sniffs out a naughty boy, said Bunyano, “he seizes them fast either by the lappet of their coats or the tail of their gowns, growling and snarling all the while, as if he would tear them to pieces in an instant.  And so perhaps he would: but…I always make the best of my way to prevent any mischief.  If my little prisoner is then willing to own  his fault, and promise amendment, I give Shocky a gentle slap with my wand, and he quits his hold immediately: but if the boy or girl should prove so obstinate as to refuse to do either, or perhaps turn impudent or sulky, and give me ill language, then he will be sure to shake them to some purpose: nor can I make him let them go, before he hath heartily frightened them and punished them to his own liking, even though I should beat him to pieces.”

Bunyano admits that he cannot control the dog in all situations, the worst being when the animal gets it in his head to terrify recalcitrant children to punish them for bad acting    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Shocky acts like a lot like a bugbear, which the OED defines as “an imaginary evil spirit or creature said to devour naughty children” invoked by adults trying to terrify small children into good behavior. A bugbear can also be a historical figure like the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell or Napoleon.

It can’t be a coincidence that the name of Bunyano’s dog is  “Shocky,” which summons up the spectral dogs of English folklore which were known as Shuck, Black Shuck, Old Shuck, or old Shock and were believed to have roamed Norfolk, Suffolk, the Cambridgeshire fens, and Essex for centuries.  “Shock” was the name given to the Maltese breed of small dogs with shaggy coats, while “Shuck” comes from the Old English “scucca,” meaning “devil” or “fiend” according to the OED.  Don Bunyano’s dog looks less like a Maltese and more like his ghostly relatives.  Black Shuck is reputed to be a large (even huge) black dog with a shaggy coat, sometimes with the fiery red eyes of a supernatural creature, or only one in the middle of the forehead like a Cyclops.  The earliest known description of a devil dog was Abraham Fleming’s 1577 illustrated account of an appearance in Bungay.  The next known description appeared for another 180 years in Notes & Queries, the Victorian journal beloved of antiquarians, collectors, and folklorists eager to report any fascinating bits and pieces they had discovered.  Others were turn up compilations on the byways of regions with which these phantom dogs were long associated.  They supposedly to haunted deserted places like lanes or fields in the dead of night, their howls presaging the deaths of anyone unfortunate enough to meet them.

This eighteenth-century appearance of a sanitized Black Shuck in The Prettiest Book looks as if it is unknown to academic and amateur folklorists.  If Bunyano’s Shocky has been overlooked, one reason could be the author succeeded in removing him from his origins in credulity and superstition.  Reforming a well-known figure from popular culture for a more polite child readership was something of a hallmark of the Newbery brand.  Two other such characters are associated with Newbery children’s books: Woglog the great giant, who after being defeated by Tom Trip and his dog Jowler, terrified gamblers and drunkards into changing their ways; and Tom Thumb won the hand of a giant princess and taught her illiterate father the king how to read.

The British traditional lore about spectral dogs has not withered away, but stayed surprisingly robust.  Sightings of the devil dog are reported more often than you might suppose and in 2014 its skeletal remains were supposedly discovered.   Writers, musicians, artists, and videogame designers used the beast in their work.  Perhaps the first to do so was  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The Hound of the Baskervilles.   The Norfolk hell hound is clearly the model for  J. K. Rowling’s  Padfoot, the frightening, huge black dog,  into which antimage Sirius Black transforms when he must take cover.  Black Shuck has also been mentioned in songs by British rock bands The Darkness and Down I go, been the subject of Mark Allard-Wills’ graphic novel The Burning Black illustrated by Ryan Howe, and made a character in the 2020 video game Assassin Creed: Valhalla.  I strongly suspect that the author of The Prettiest Book would not have approved of all this nonsense at all…