Friday, 10 March 2017
Black Dog, by Neil Gaiman and Daniel Egnéus (Headline) | review by Rafe McGregor
The novella opens with a play on words: the first chapter is titled “The Bar Guest” and the barghest is the name of the Yorkshire incarnation of the black dog. Gaiman very quickly provides a series of reflections on and allusions to many of the linguistic and conceptual associations with dogs that are such a prominent part of English culture: the love of dogs as pets, the eternal conflict between cats and dogs and consequent division of human beings into “cat-people” and “dog-people”, “black dog” as a description of depression (made famous by Winston Churchill), “black dog” as a favoured name for brands of ale, and the curiosity of a ghost dog that portends or causes death without possessing any corporeality. As the tale develops, he adds the conceptions of prehistoric dire wolves, Odin’s wolves (although Odin’s nemesis Fenrir seems more appropriate), and the myth of the Wild Hunt. There are also explicit references to Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and, in my opinion, implicit references to Stephen Booth’s Cooper and Fry crime series, which is set in the Peak District and was initiated with the novel Black Dog (2001). The combination of these references also serves as a clue that this is as much a mystery as it is a work of speculative fiction. When compared to The Monarch of the Glen, Daniel Egnéus’ artwork reflects both the change in emphasis from fantasy to mystery and the more hospitable countryside in which Shadow finds himself, where an evening on a hilltop is an experience to be enjoyed rather than a death sentence – or should be. Egnéus’ drawings are much less visceral than those in The Monarch of the Glen and with a few exceptions evoke wonder rather than fear while nonetheless retaining a haunting quality. Like the dog itself, they are shady, shapeshifting, and surreal.
The story starts with Shadow in a public house, where there is much spooky talk of big black dogs and cats walled up in buildings. The village has no accommodation available and a local couple, Ollie and Moira, offer him a room for the night. As the three of them walk home, Ollie thinks he sees Black Shuck and falls into a narcoleptic state. This introduces the natural dimension of Gaiman’s take on the black dog, as a manifestation of depression, which grounds the narrative in reality: depressed people recognise their own despair, exemplified by the ghost dog, and either try to kill themselves or simply lose the will to live. Following this motif, Ollie self-harms as soon as he emerges from his semi-consciousness, setting the scene for Shadow remaining in the village for a few days to help Moira look after him. Whether or not I am correct in identifying Black Dog as equal parts speculative fiction and mystery, it is certainly focused on a contemporary crime rather than an ancient evil. What raises Gaiman’s contribution to the black dog legend from the original to the exceptional is the way he not only offers a rationalisation of its continued existence, but binds the supernatural explanation to its own special logic. The ghosts that inhabit this particular piece of the American Gods universe are not restricted to the canine variety and the relationship between the villain and the ghost dog and between Shadow and the benevolent ghost is explained by the metaphor of flame and moth. Human beings, warm with their life blood coursing through them, are the flames that attract the attention of moth-like ghosts, which clarifies the reciprocal relation between corporeal and non-corporeal: the moth flying too close to the flame can either extinguish that flame or be destroyed by it.