The phrase “black dog”, when it doesn’t bring to mind Led Zeppelin IV, is usually associated with Winston Churchill, whose favoured term it was to refer to his depression. Churchill’s black dog in recent years has given its name to a major charity for the treatment of depression and related mood disorders, the Black Dog Institute, whose logo makes clear the link:
Though he is its most famous exponent, the metaphor’s origins predate Churchill by a considerable margin. The black dog’s pedigree has been documented more exhaustively than I can recount here (see, for example, the excellent essays of Paul Foley and Megan McKinlay ); however, it is generally thought that Churchill, probably thanks to his childhood nanny, adopted a phrase that had made its way into the English folk lexicon via the language’s most famous lexicographer. The metaphor is attested a number of times in the correspondence between Johnson, Boswell and Mrs Thrale, with Johnson in particular relishing its many possible extensions. “I shall easily forgive my master his long stay”, he writes in 1778 in reference to Mrs Thrale’s dispirited husband, then convalescing in Brighton, “if he leaves the dog behind him”.
Whether the black dog was by that point already on the loose in the common parlance is difficult to determine, however it does make several appearances in one of Johnson’s favourite works – “the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise”, as Boswell recounts – Richard Burton’s seminal 1621 study of humankind’s endless battle with depression, The Anatomy of Melancholy. One reference is of especial relevance, the case of Cardinal Crescence, who, says Burton, “died… desperate at Verona; still he thought a black dog followed him to his death-bed, no man could drive the dog away”. Other sources make reference to the flaming eyes of the beast that could not be seen by the cardinal’s servants and whose appearance seemed to hasten Crescence’s death.
Returning to Churchill’s lifetime, the black dog metaphor is used occasionally in the literature of the late nineteenth century. Robert Louis Stevenson displays a certain fondness for it, using the same stock phrase beloved of Churchill – “the black dog was on his back” – in his New Arabian Nights of 1882, and later making freer use of it as a hallucination suffered by the sea captain in Treasure Island in 1883. It is tempting to point to The Hound of the Baskervilles as another instance, but owes more to the folk tradition of the spectral hound. At any rate, while Conan Doyle certainly plays with demonic dog device, the mystery’s denouement leaves us not with a hellhound but with a painted pooch at the wrong end of a shotgun shell.
Less, if any, attention has been given to a rather obscure novel that appeared some five years before The Hound of the Baskervilles in which the evil black dog features prominently: Mary Kingsley’s sensational The Carissima: A Modern Grotesque. The story concerns a young Englishman named Constantine Leversedge, whose travels in South Africa bring him to a mining camp, several days’ ride from any town. Suffering from a fever by the time he arrives, he discovers that all the men, woman, and oxen in the camp have died of thirst. The sole survivor is a dog that Leversedge spots lying upon the body of child whose throat it had ripped out so as to drink its blood. Leversedge attempts unsuccessfully to kill the dog twice before leaving the camp, but soon realises that the dog is following him, keeping pace with his horse. Like Cardinal Crescence, he is haunted by its luminous eyes, “yellowish-green discs” that shine out “mile after mile, all through the night”. He reaches the coast and sets sail for England but one night on board the ship he sees the dog again: “I only saw its eyes – two glowing green discs a trifle bigger than a sixpence”, Leversedge recounts. The explanation he attempts makes an intriguing connection between the spectral dog of folk myth and the metaphorical dog of the folk saying:
“I knew something very evil was upon me. In that dead camp I had seen a Thing-Too-Much. For there is a Thing-Too-Much, you know, in nature, in men and women, in what happens.”
Leversedge posits a link between the trauma that precipitated his depression and his subsequent hallucination, confounding the distinction between the psychological and the supernatural. Kingsley’s story takes an unexpected turn from this point. It transpires that Leversedge’s fiancée, Charlotte, is able to summon the dog by performing a tarantella, which she has been doing in order to drive Leversedge to suicide so that she can inherit his vast fortune. The nature of the dog is never made entirely clear, nor is any complete explanation offered for Charlotte’s ability to control it through her piano playing, and the reader is left to wonder in what infernal obedience school she acquired this handy knack. Nevertheless, The Carissima makes an interesting footnote in the history of a phrase.