The Black Shuck, Protector of Women

One of the most famous Fenland legends is the story of the Black Shuck. Made world famous by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, this black ghost dog of immense size is said to roam the Fens and is attached to various beliefs. Some say if it follows you home then it’s a sign that you will be dead within a year. Others believe it has a more instantaneous evil, with a howl so wicked that if you’re unfortunate enough to hear it your hair will be frozen white, at best, or the blood in your veins will cease to flow, at worst. Most versions of the legend suggest that the Shuck is ungodly; a hellish creature, at least a minion of Satan, if not the Devil himself. However, I’ve reason to believe that the Black Shuck isn’t sinister at all. In fact, I believe he is benevolent. A misunderstood hound that deserves a much kinder reputation than the frightful whispers you might hear in the Fenlands, or in popular media. Today I’m going to tell you the truth about the Black Shuck.

All Black Shuck stories are taken extremely seriously in the towns and villages of East Anglia and Norfolk. Sometimes inquisitive tourists, Holmes fanatics, or ghost hunters come down our way, pestering locals because they want to hear a true insider’s perception of Old Shuck. Locals, born and raised around Shuck tales, might tell them the stories they could read just as easily on Wikipedia, but tourists will never be gifted with the true beliefs. Certainly not the details I’m going to give you today. If outsiders pipe up that they’ll go looking for the dog themselves then they’ll be sharply warned off. This isn’t a game to people here; it isn’t a bit of fun, or a work of fiction. It’s much deeper than that.

So why have I decided to reveal the secret legend here? I am lucky enough to have heard what I believe is the true Shuck story, many years ago. I guess I didn’t realise how important it was at the time. I was a very young boy, and though I took everything in I never had the misfortune to have to truly understand it. Over the weekend it all came flooding back to me.

For me to truly understand the tale of The Black Shuck something horrendous had to happen. On Friday a good friend of mine, Shelley, was walking home from work at 5.30pm. She cut through a park in order to save an extra 15 minutes on her commute. In that park she was confronted by a middle aged man. He overpowered her and dragged her into some bushes. She cried out, of course, and even though there were people passing by, just a stone’s throw away, no one came to help her. The man raped my friend. Afterwards, he pulled up his trousers and did up his belt, and thanked Shelley before leaving her there, lying in the dirt.

I visited Shelley in hospital. She looked so broken, her body bruised and battered, her mind a mass of confusion. I cried as she told me what had happened. Then I sobbed when she brushed off my sympathy, my horror, telling me it ‘was just something that happens’.

Why did she feel this way? Why did she seem accepting of this awful crime? I have my suspicions. Shelley told me that when she spoke to the police she felt that they didn’t believe her. She’d had a glass of wine after work, after all. She’d worn silk underwear, under her work trousers. After being interviewed, interrogated, she had been left with a sense of hopelessness, of self-blame.

I spent all weekend thinking about this awful situation. Wondering why my friend had been led into believing it could in any way be her fault that a man had raped her. It made me think of a story my mother told me when I was a young boy. She said it was the truth about the Black Shuck, and I think I finally understand what my mother was telling me all those years ago. And I am quite sure that I’ve just received a phone call that offers me confirmation that my mother’s version of the Shuck was, indeed, the true one. For Shelley, for so many others, I want  – No, I need – to share the truth about the Black Shuck.

When I was 6, maybe 7, years old, I was playing with my catapult in the back garden one afternoon after school. My mother came outside and asked me what I was doing. “I’m saving you from the Black Shuck, Mummy!” I called to her. We’d learnt about the beastly hound that day at school, and I was quite enthralled by the legend. I pulled back the elastic band and released a small rock that hurtled towards the poor silver birch that was playing the part of the Shuck.

A chip of white bark flew off and I cheered. “Defeated, you beast!” I turned to my mother and looked at her triumphantly, but my smile melted away when I realised that she wasn’t impressed by my heroic combat. She was shaking her head and frowning. “Come inside now, Mikey. I think we need to have a chat.”

We sat by the fire, lit in preparation for the cold autumn evening that approached. “So what have those quacks at the school been telling you this time then, Mikey?” She smiled gently at me, letting me know I wasn’t in trouble.

I repeated the exciting tale that Mr Cox had told the entire school during assembly that day. It had been of a dog as tall as us, at least! It had eyes as red as the fires of hell. It would follow you home silently – you’d never hear the padding of its feet, or the clip of its claws against the pavement, but you might feel its hot breath on the back of your neck. You must never turn around, Mr Cox had warned the hall full of infant school children, for if you looked into its evil eyes then you’d just signed your own death sentence.

Mum scoffed and poked at the coals in the fire. “There’s a dark reason that men like Mr Cox are so scared of the Shuck, Mikey, and I’m afraid I’m going to have to tell you a truth that you’re too young to hear, my boy. He’s forced my hand though. I haven’t a choice.”

I pulled a blanket around me and listened to my mother intently as she told me of a young girl, Alison, who had once lived in a close by village.

“She was barely a teen when it all happened,” Mum sighed. “It was a long time ago, very long. A time when men could do as they wished to women – girls, even – without fear of punishment. If a baby Miss was the first born child then the midwives would announce the sex solemnly, and the mother would fill with utter dread. The only hope they clung to was that they’d soon after be blessed with a son, who could protect his sister from the advances of the scum surrounding them.

“Well, for Alison’s parents it simply wasn’t so. No son, no protector. They were destined to have one child, their stunning baby girl with her jet black hair and her golden-brown eyes. Alison’s mother knew her girl would need protection, maybe even more so than other girls. There wasn’t much that her mother could offer but she had to do something. So she insisted to her husband that they got a dog.

“She didn’t just pick any old runt, oh no. She searched for three years for the right hound. It was at a traveller’s market that she finally found the right one. He was a big, fat pup with jet black hair and golden-brown eyes – just like her daughter’s! Not as beautiful, I suppose… They say the pup had a scruffy mass of fur and a squashed up face that made it look ancient, but as Alison’s mother looked at that baby dog she saw something beautiful and felt a familiarity that she couldn’t explain.

“As Alison’s mother was leaving the market, pup in both arms, an old traveller woman caught her arm and pulled her aside for a moment, mysteriously whispering into her ear. “The song of the Lord isn’t as holy as you’d think woman, and this one knows it. He’s a good boy.”

“Well, those words didn’t make much sense to Alison’s mum, but it hardly mattered. She knew by the size of this mutt’s paws that it was going to be a beast, and the length of its fangs told her it could keep her baby girl safe if she raised them together.

“And so she did. Alison’s mother named the dog Old Shuck, a word meaning terrifying fiend, but it was a gentle soul really. He became Alison’s best friend. Old Shuck went everywhere with the girl; It’d wait outside the village school, it accompanied her to the shops and back, they ran in the fields together, it slept at the foot of her bed. They were never apart.

“That dog was so sweet and kind to her daughter. Even though he grew huge, he remained  soppy and playful. Alison’s mother was sure her intentions of him being her daughter’s protector would be thwarted, should it ever come to a fight. He was a sweet thing! His size was a deterrent, at least. He grew as tall as you are now… that’s one thing your teachers are right about. It didn’t matter that he was soft as cotton, because he looked like he could tear a man’s head off, especially if that little girl clicked her fingers in the right way.

“Some evils are harder to keep at bay than others, though. A lust filled man can be as insistent as anaesthetic. When Alison turned 13, her mother saw the way that the village Friar looked at her daughter on Sunday mornings. She saw it and she knew. He was a huge man, well over 6 feet, and sturdy too. He had size 14 feet, something he bragged about in bad taste, and his hands were blocks. When he had baptised newborn Alison, some 13 years before, her mother had shuddered as he held her baby girl, because she knew he could crush her skull into powder if he wanted to.

“Yes, Alison’s mother knew the look the friar gave her teenager. She knew it quite personally, for her own husband, Alison’s father, was a lot older than herself. As she watched that dirty old pervert leering over her daughter, drooling at the mouth, hands everywhere, she knew what was coming, and she was terrified.

“When the Friar sent a note demanding that Alison start singing in the church choir, her mother collapsed into tears. It wasn’t as though she could escort Alison herself, to keep an eye on her girl who was being forced into a world too mature for her, because that wasn’t how the world worked back then. If that Friar had said a bad word about Alison’s mum… well, she would be hanged! So it was all down to Old Shuck. It had to be. She handed the safety of her daughter, the star of her universe, right over to that fluffy, overgrown mutt.

“Shuck escorted Alison to choir practice each week, where he would wait in the churchyard because it wasn’t proper for a dog to be inside a church. They say the hair on his back stood up straight when the Friar bolted those young girls inside the church to sing the word of God. They say he knew that man’s secrets.

“One dark evening, as the rain poured and the clouds came alive with electricity, Shuck lay down outside the church. He was drenched, he was cold, his fur was heavy, but still he waited loyally for his best friend. Hours later the doors finally opened, and out ran 4 or 5 other young girls, each giving Shuck a quick pat on the head. But before his Alison had emerged, the doors were slammed shut once more. The Friar had trapped her in there with him! Alone.

“Shuck was agitated. He didn’t know what was going on, but he knew that something was terribly wrong. As the thunder began to crackle and crack he became more and more worked up. He began to throw himself into the church doors… thud, thud, thud. Thick and heavy, they bore his weight well.

“Inside, the Friar had pinned poor Alison to the altar. His intentions… Well, they were dark, Mikey. Very dark. And her wails of terror kept pushing her beloved black hound. Thud, thud, thud, he kept going, as the storm around him grew.

“You’ve never heard the scream of a desperate woman, Mikey, and I hope you’ll never have to. Something in that pitiful girl’s sob gave Shuck the strength he needed. It brought the magic that comes with loyalty and love. A bolt of lightning scorched the church door and the thunder boomed. With one last weighty thud, Shuck burst through the doors!

“He ran to his Alison, who was naked on the altar, her clothes torn off and discarded on the floor. The Friar hovered over her with his back to the church doors, so frenzied by his lust that he hadn’t even turned to see what had caused the commotion behind. Shuck leapt high and he would have ripped that dirty man’s head right off, I’m sure of it. But the Friar turned last minute – perhaps he felt Shuck’s breath on the back of his neck – and he caught the poor hound with one huge hand.

“I’m so sorry to say it, but he squeezed the dear life out of Old Shuck. His soft yellow-brown eyes turned red as the blood vessels burst. Alison watched in horror. She knew her precious friend, her protector, was going to die. She whimpered mournfully, and reaching out to Shuck she choked out, “I love you.”

“And whether that love strengthened Shuck or whether it weakened the Friar, I’m not sure, but it allowed Old Shuck one last act. He twisted his head out of the Friar’s grasp and plunged forward, sinking his long fangs into his throat. He ripped a gaping hole into the man who attacked his best friend.

“Don’t flinch now, Mikey boy, rejoice! That man was a predator and he deserved what he got. It’s just a shame he took Old Shuck with him – As the Friar fell, so did the hound.

“Alison jumped off the altar, naked as the day she was born, and she ran home as fast as she could. She wanted to get help for Shuck, not realising that it was too late, Shuck had been starved of oxygen for too long. It did her good to not watch him die, I suppose.

“The friar and the hound lay there next to each other, taking their last breaths. Shuck didn’t take his blood red eyes off that filthy pervert, not for one second. He watched the bastard descend into hell, then thought of all the wonderful times he and Alison had had together. He was glad to have served such a wonderful friend. If a dog could smile then Shuck was surely beaming as he took his final breath.

“After Alison arrived home, naked and traumatised, her father gathered several local men and stormed to the church. They found the bodies of the friar and Shuck. And do you know what? They burned the body of the Friar in disgust, but they buried Shuck with honour. They feasted in his memory. And the villager’s love, and their loyalty, gave Shuck strength – even in death.

“To this day, the ghost of Old Shuck finds Fenlanders who are in danger. Maybe a woman with a man following her late at night,  on the dark country paths where no one but Shuck will hear her scream. Maybe a scared teen with a car full of leerers crawling behind, or a frail grandmother carrying her pension in her handbag. Well, good Old Shuck escorts these people right back to their front door! Out of harm’s way. And he’ll keep doing so, because he’s a good dog. He’s a protector.

“But the tale of Shuck got twisted over the years, as you’ve found out today. Why? Because some men want to demonise a protector of women. Some men want to silence the truth. Not all men are evil, Mikey, but some certainly are, and they want Shuck’s story buried with him.

“I know that it’s a big story for a young boy, Oh, I know. I wish I didn’t have to tell it, but I do. Partly because Shuck’s true story needs to be heard, but mainly because there is still a sighting or so a week of the hound. What does that tell us? That Shuck is still desperately needed. Things might seem different nowadays, but really the evils are just better hidden. Or better ignored, maybe.”

Mum sighed, looking into the fire. We sat in silence for a long time, before she turned to me. “I know that was dark, my lovely boy. But it’s a dark world. I’m sorry. Do you have any questions?”

I paused for a moment, several deep ponderings flitting through my mind. I decided I’d settle on what seemed the most important to me, at the time. “Can we get a dog, Mum?”

Many years have passed since my mother told me Alison’s story. I wish all vulnerable people had an Old Shuck to protect them from predators. I wish Shuck had followed Shelley home last friday. I hope that the legend is true, because Old Shuck is a reminder that there is good in this bad world. Shelley is my reminder that things aren’t all that different from Shuck’s time.

Of course, I was prompted – pushed, maybe – into revealing all of this. Yes, I’ve thought about it all weekend. Yes, I’ve agonised over my friend being raped. Yes, it’s brought back memories that I didn’t understand at the time. But there’s more to this reveal than that.

Last night the man who raped Shelley was found. There hadn’t been a big police hunt, and he certainly didn’t hand himself in. To be honest I had very little hope the monster would ever turn up, let alone pay for what he did to Shelley. However, a man was walking through the park on his commute, the same park where Shelley was raped. He noticed someone lying in a bush – the same bush where Shelley had been left, lying in the dirt. At first he thought it must be a drunk but there was an eerie stillness about the form, so he checked closely. It was a dead body. It was the man who raped Shelley.

His body was found in the same park, the same bush, that he attacked Shelley in. Why was he there? Waiting for his next victim, perhaps. How did he die? Well, the bastard – the deviant – had his throat ripped out. According to the news it was a dog attack. The police assume an owner is hiding their violent pet somewhere, and they seem to be putting on a better hunt for this hound than they did for the man who raped Shelley. Despite their efforts, though, I don’t think they’ll find the dog.

You see, I think that Old Shuck might have got there a bit late but that the good boy still sought revenge. Yes, I believe that it was the ghostly black hound that ripped the throat out of the man who raped Shelley, just like he did to the friar. And I believe that Shuck’s true story needs to be heard, but, even more importantly, so does Alison and Shelley’s.

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