"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.”
Stories of a spectral hound haunting the Hanging Hills of central Connecticut have endured for more than 100 years. Even today, visitors to the Hanging Hills, including to the popular Hubbard Park and its Castle Craig in Meriden, frequently report mysterious sightings of a black canine. Fortunately, most only see the animal once.
Unlike so many local tales whose origins are unknown, or which evolved piecemeal over time, the legend of the Black Dog has a clear beginning: the winter of 1898. That’s when a curious story called “The Black Dog” appeared in The Connecticut Quarterly.
“It is a short haired black dog of moderate size, with nothing particularly noticeable in its actual appearance,” wrote the narrator of the tale of the dog’s 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.”
In February during the late 1890s, the narrator, who is identified only by the initials F.S. and is a Harvard-trained geologist, decides to explore the lava-formed Hanging Hill’s West Peak. He is joined by Herbert Marshall, who worked for the U.S. Geological Survey. Before departing, F.S. tells Marshall he saw a strange black dog on a visit to the region three years earlier. Marshall responds that he has also seen the dog twice before and recounts a local legend that seeing the dog three times meant death. Ignoring this superstition, the men set out the next morning to hike and climb to the summit of West Peak.
“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,” F.S. writes. “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.”
As the young scientist and Marshall set out, they found themselves at the mercy of those winter winds. The ascent to the peak went smoothly but on the way down it was bitterly cold and a familiar canine made an appearance. “Here, high on the rocks above us, stood a black dog like the one I had seen three years before,” F.S. writes. “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.”
At that instant, the rock outcropping Marshall stood on gave way and he fell to his death. The narrator made it off the peak and later wrote down his story of woe. In a postscript to the story it is revealed that F.S. was found six years later near where Marshall fell, presumably after a third and final encounter with the black dog.
The story is written by W. H. C. Pynchon, grandfather of acclaimed author Thomas Pynchon, and was clearly labeled as fiction by The Connecticut Quarterly, which published poems, fiction and nonfiction. The elder Pynchon was 31 and a Harvard-educated scientist working as a professor at Trinity College in Hartford. Over the years, perhaps because of the similarities between Pynchon and his fictional narrator, the story came to be taken as truth rather than fiction.
The story is written by W. H. C. Pynchon, grandfather of acclaimed author Thomas Pynchon, and was clearly labeled as fiction.
“It is amazing to me how many people today think it was folklore and not literature — and how many people think Pynchon died,” says Stephen Gencarella, a University of Massachusetts folklorist who writes about the Black Dog in a chapter of his book Spooky Trails and Tall Tales Connecticut: Hiking the State’s Legends, Hauntings, and History. “I guess that shows the power of a good story.”
In his book, Gencarella writes that those who believe Pynchon narrated the tale overlook the fact “the narrator’s initials were F.S. and that Pynchon was a popular — and alive — lecturer in Hartford in the early 1900s. He did die young but of pneumonia in Oyster Bay in 1910.”
But Pynchon didn’t invent the concept of spectral hounds roaming the woods. British folklore tells of the Black Shuck, a ghostly hound that leaves no footprints and whose appearance often foretells death. In Welsh mythology the hounds of Annwn are also harbingers of death and by some accounts can only be seen by earthly black dogs. Locally there was the tale of the Black Fox of Salmon River, a tributary of the Connecticut River that flows through Colchester and surrounding towns. This fox could not be killed but would beguile hunters, causing them to chase it until their death.
“Pynchon did his homework,” Gencarella says. “He tapped into folklore in the British Isles and America about black dogs. I think he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for that. His grandson did not fall far from the tree.”
Pynchon’s grandson went on to become one of modern literature’s biggest stars. Now 83, Thomas Pynchon is famously reclusive. He has avoided reporters for more than 40 years, few photos of him exist and there is scant biographical information about him. Maybe he’s worried a certain Connecticut dog might be on his trail, or perhaps appreciation for a little mystery just runs in the family.