Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Black Dog

April 29, 2013Print This Post         


The Dog, J. Laurent, 1874. From Archivo Ruiz Vernacci, Fototeca del IPCE, Madrid.

by W. H. C. Pynchon

“And if a man shall meet the Black Dog once it shall be for joy; and if twice, it shall be for sorrow; and the third time he shall die.”

In a corner of our country not far removed from two of its great cities, there is a low range of mountains, the hoary evidences of ancient volcanic action. Countless years have elapsed since the great tide of molten lava rolled over the region. Years fewer, but still countless, have passed during which the shattered and tilted remnants of the lava sheets have watched over the land. Deep gorges divide the masses into separate mountains, lonely and desolate, and the most desolate and the most conspicuous of all is the West Peak.

The West Peak stands at an angle of the range. Though it is not very high by measurement, yet, by its wild and savage aspect, it makes a stronger impression on the traveler than many mountains of much greater altitude. On the northeast it presents a long, heavily wooded slope agreeing with the incline of the ancient lava sheet, but its southern and western faces and its eastern flank are topped with perpendicular cliffs, their feet buried in a vast mass of broken rock, the wreck of ages, which the frost has rent from the face of the mountain. When summer is on the land, the gray cliffs rising from the forest which covers the base of the mountain give an impression of hoary antiquity that is almost oppressive. But when the winter winds roar through the stunted cedars and whirl the snows from the summit, when the rocks stand out black through the drifts that pile up under the lee of the cliffs, then the West Peak has a look of menace hard to describe. So it is not strange that weird tales have sprung up concerning this mountain, tales that are told about the firesides in the few houses that stand on the lonely roads that traverse the region. There is one tale that is especially to be mentioned—the story of a black dog that is seen at times upon the Peak. Many have seen him once, a few twice—none have ever told of the third meeting. It is a short haired black dog of moderate size, with nothing particularly noticeable in its actual appearance. Yet there are two signs by which it is ever known:—men have seen it bark, but have heard no sound; and it leaves no footprint behind it on the dust of summer or the snow of winter. Yes, there is a third sign. It is told in different words by different people, but the meaning is always the same, and the words with which I have begun this narration are my own rendering of the common tradition. It may seem strange that a man of science should believe a thing of this kind—an idle tale for the ignorant and superstitious, you will say,—but I do believe it. And if you would know why, listen:

It was late in the spring of 18— that I visited West Peak for the first time. I was then a student at Harvard, and the work in geology that I had taken up made it desirable for me to visit the locality. At that time I had heard nothing of the legend. In the town of Meriden, which lies a few miles distant from the mountain, I hired a horse and wagon suitable for the trip and started out for the Peak in the best of spirits. From Meriden the road runs for about two miles in a generally northwest direction and then turns north into a deep valley lying between West Peak on the west and Notch Mountain, as it is called, on the east. At the farther end of this valley there is a seldom used road which turns toward the southwest again and winds up the easy slope at the back of the Peak. Guiding myself by the maps which I had brought with me, I reached this road and there got out of the wagon to examine the vescicular lava of which there was a good outcrop at that point. I had been on my knees pounding away for dear life in my endeavor to get off a good cabinet specimen and had just gotten up to straighten my back, when I noticed trotting up the road a dog. I suppose he might have been called black, but it was the same degree of blackness that you see in an old black hat that has been soaked in the rain a good many times. His lineage was evidently uncertain. I think that, like the young man mentioned by Tennyson, he was “too proud to care from whence he came.” But he seemed friendly, and when I drove on he insisted on following the wagon. So I let him go with me for the sake of his good company. Certainly that dog was a philosopher. In all that long day’s journey—for after we left the Peak we went many miles beyond to visit other fragments of the lava-sheet—he followed the wagon. But this did not interfere with his pursuing “original investigation.” There was not a brook on the route which that dog did not wade. He scoured every patch of woods, he poked his inquisitive nose into every hole and behind every stump. We made a jolly trio—the rough, strong old horse, the faded dog, and the man whose appearance was not one whit better than that of his companions. At the little village of Southington we stopped for dinner and then pushed on until, under the shadow of yet more western hills, I found the last point to be reached in the day’s march. Then we turned back and started for home, the dog running on ahead. I took a great liking to that dog. In the first place he was so quiet. Not once in all that day did I hear him bark, even when a calf beside the road tried to coax him into a fight. And he was so light of foot! Though the roads were very dry, yet I did not see a puff of dust rise from his feet as he trotted along ahead of the horse. On the return journey we traversed the same route that we had come in the morning instead of taking the direct road to Meriden, which passes south of West Peak. As we came toward the Peak, the last light of the setting sun was just touching the highest rocks, and by the time we had entered the valley of which I have spoken night had almost closed in. The dog still trotted on ahead until we came to the place where I had met him in the morning. Then he stopped, looked back at me a moment, and quietly vanished into the woods. I stopped and whistled and whistled again, but no dog appeared. So I drove on without much regret, as it is rather hard to tell what to do with a tramp dog even when he is a philosopher—particularly when he is a very homely dog. There is a chance that your friends will not appreciate his philosophical attainments as highly as you do.

The old horse knew that he was bound for home and he took the road at a very good gait. Soon the sharp summits of West Peak and Notch Mountain showed against the sky well behind us, and half an hour more brought us to Meriden again. After supper I sat before the open fire at the Winthrop—for the evenings were still cool enough to make a fire almost a necessity—and thought over the whole day’s trip. I am supposed to be a civilized individual, but there is a great deal of the tramp in me for all that, and for that reason I had enjoyed the day all the more. The change from close laboratories to the fresh air of the hills was alone enough to pay for all the trouble I had taken. That, no one could fail to enjoy. But the long drive through the beautiful mountain region, fresh with the beauty of spring, appealed particularly to the tramp in me. Many a time since then, when I have been weary and discouraged, I have gone back in memory to that long day’s drive through the sunny valleys and over the breezy hills, and have felt the old gray horse rub his nose against my arm, and have seen the tramp dog look up into my face with his knowing brown eyes. It is curious how often it is that the little things leave the greatest memories behind them.

And this is how I met the Black Dog the first time—for joy.

*    *    *   *   *

I don’t know just how we came to do it. I think it must have been that that spring visit to the West Peak gave me a desire to see how it would look when its flanks were wreathed in snow and when the winter winds were howling over the hills. At any rate, the evening of February 5th, in the third year after my first visit, found me and my friend, Herbert Marshall, sitting again before the fire at the hotel where I had stopped before. It was then that I heard for the first time the story of the Black Dog. Marshall had been all over the region thoroughly in his work for the United States Geological Survey and he had climbed West Peak many times and at all seasons of the year.

We talked till late that night, and, as the fire died down to a mass of glowing embers, he told me how he himself had twice seen a black dog upon the mountain, but he laughed at the legend, saying that he did not believe in omens unless they were lucky ones. So we turned in and forgot all about omens, good or bad, until long after sunrise the next morning.

The morning was clear and bright but very cold, and the light on the snow was dazzling. We started for West Peak at about nine o’clock. We both wore hip boots and had on leather jackets under our overcoats. We carried with us, beside our lunch and a coil of rope, a hand camera—for I had determined to get some views from the top if possible. We found it heavy walking, for the snow was light and fine and fully a foot deep.

We did not reach the Peak until about eleven o’clock, and then we found the woods on the back so choked with snow that it was impossible to make any considerable progress through them, so we determined to try to make the ascent on the southern face. This portion of the mountain is much steeper, but it is free from forest, and the mass of broken fragments of rock which runs up to the foot of the cliffs affords a fairly good foothold. The cliffs themselves are pierced by many clefts broad enough in many cases to admit a man, while in some instances the clefts have been broadened by erosion into actual gorges.

The sharp, bracing air put life into us and we went at the ascent with enthusiasm. It was hard work, for many of the fragments were insecure, and snow is always uncertain stuff under the best conditions, but in the course of an hour we were at the top of the “talus” and under the foot of the cliffs. Here we found one of the narrow ravines of which I have spoken, which gave a chance for further ascent, and then the fun began. But at last, by scrambling, crawling and wriggling, we got to the top and pulled the camera up after us with a rope, much to the detriment of the former. Our lunch we left at the foot of the ravine until we should come down. Arriving on the top of the cliff, we found that the wind had risen and was blowing fiercely from the northwest, whirling the snow in great clouds over the plain below us. Nevertheless, we determined to try for a few photographs, and here was where we made our fatal error. We had become very warm in climbing the Peak, but during that few minutes’ halt on the summit the bitter wind chilled us to the bone. Our gloves, which we had laid aside while taking pictures because they were soaked with melted snow, froze, and it was with aching hands and feet and with stiffened limbs that we began our descent into that little gorge through which we had come up, the gorge of which I never think, since that fearful day, save as the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

So long as we were in the sunlight we went on with some courage, but when we passed into the shadow of those black cliffs, courage seemed to die in our hearts and we struggled on blindly through the drifted snow, hoping, it seemed sometimes, almost against hope. Marshall was in the lead, and I was following as best I could, when he suddenly stopped and without a word pointed to the top of the cliff. There, high on the rocks above us, stood a black dog like the one I had seen three years before, except that he looked jet black against the snow wreath above him. As we looked he raised his head and we saw his breath rise steaming from his jaws, but no sound came through the biting air. Once, and only once, he gazed down on us with gleaming eyes and then he bounded back out of sight. I looked at Marshall. His face was white and he steadied himself against a rock, but there was not a tremor in his voice as he said:

“I did not believe it before. I believe it now; and it is the third time.”

And then, even as he spoke, the fragment of rock on which he stood slipped. There was a cry, a rattle of other fragments falling—and I stood alone.

Later—I cannot tell how much later—there is no measure of hours and minutes at such a time—bruised, bleeding, almost frozen, I stood by all that was left of my friend. He was dead; his body was already stiff, and I knew that unless I would share this, his last sleep, I must hasten. So I bent over him in a hasty farewell and then staggered on.

What followed I cannot say. I only know that I came to a house and was taken in and cared for. Before long I was so far revived as to tell what had happened, and a party of men from the neighboring farms sought and brought back the body of poor Marshall. They found him where I left him, and by the body watched a black dog that as they approached fled swiftly back into the shadows and of the lonely ravine where the brave life had ended.

*    *    *   *   *

I believe the story of the Black Dog. Can you wonder that I do? Moreover, I know that some time I shall see it again—for the third and last time—and shall go even as my friend went. It may be years before my doom comes. The Survey cannot spare my services on the West Peak area. I must die some time. Why should I shirk my duty? Yet, when I am gone, this paper may be of interest to those who remain, for, in throwing light on the manner of my death, it will also throw light on the end of the many victims that the old volcanic hills have claimed.

*    *    *   *   *

[From the New York Herald, November 12th, 18—.]

“The body of F—— S—— of the U. S. Geological Survey was found on West Peak, near Meriden, Conn., yesterday. Mr. S——, who was at the head of the work on the West Peak area, disappeared on November 2nd, and all search for him has proved unavailing until yesterday, when his body was found at the foot of the southern cliff of the Peak. Apparently he had fallen from the top, a distance of some forty feet. It is a singular fact that the body was found on almost the identical spot where his friend, Herbert Marshall, met his death six years before. This makes the fifth man who has lost his life on the range within thirty years.”

Story transcribed by Albert Rolls.


Transcriber’s note:

William Harry Chichele Pynchon, the grandfather of the novelist Thomas Pynchon, published “The Black Dog,” a gothic tale that apparently represents his complete body of fiction, in the April–June 1898 issue of the Connecticut Quarterly. It has garnered little attention among literary critics but has become well-known among tellers of ghost stories, who began passing the piece off as “nonfiction” in a number of books in the latter part of the 20th century. The tale is now counted as an actual Connecticut legend, although it is possible that the books that describe it as such—the earliest one of which that I have been able to find is Sheila Anne Barry’s World’s Most Spine-Tingling “True” Ghost Stories (1993)—have served to raise its status.

While such elements of the story as the existence of a geologist named Herbert Marshall are simply assumed to be true by most recent commentators, the inclination to treat the tale as nonfiction may have originally derived from Pynchon’s status as a Harvard grad and his work as a geologist in the 1890s, a background shared by the story’s narrator. Pynchon, however, expected his tale to be read as fiction, something evidenced by the conventions of the table of contents in the Connecticut Quarterly, which published fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. The words “A Story,” which appear next the “The Black Dog,” always appear next to the fiction titles, but the titles of nonfiction pieces are never accompanied by a descriptor.

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