Black Shuck is the Norfolk name given to one of many different huge, spectral hounds which are common in the folklore of the British Isles. Also called by such names as Padfoot, Skriker, and Black Shag, these enormous black hounds haunt lonely places such as heaths, remote crossroads, graveyards, and even abandoned towers and castles. They are hideous and terrifying in appearance, often being as large as a horse, covered in thick, matted black hair, and sporting luminous green or red eyes from which flames flicker. They are almost always seen after dark.
Several other variants of the Black Shuck are described in British folklore, including a headless type and one which is seen running atop a moving layer of mist rather than the ground. Sometimes, the Black Shuck is accompanied by a tall, headless woman, or transforms into a headless woman on the ninth night it is seen by a particular traveler.
The Shuck is a deadly beast. On some occasions, it attacks humans, snapping their necks in its powerful jaws as easily as a mortal hound breaks the neck of a hare. At other times it is the foreboding sign of impending death in the family, particularly if the person who sees it fails to avoid encounters with the beast on subsequent nights. Sometimes, the hound produces a blast of searing hellfire when it vanishes, slaying nearby people or setting fire to buildings.
All that said, the Shuck and his international brothers are not always a threat to the traveler … the Gurt Dog of the Quantock Hills (and others like him) is said to watch over lone wanderers and children, and others are content to watch and follow, vanishing when confronted.
Another significant "black dog" is the Manx moddey dhoo1, generally found haunting the area around Peel castle - sometimes said to scare people so much that they were struck mute and died soon after, but equally said to have been at one point such a familiar sight that the garrison were no longer afraid of him.
Some graveyard-haunting dogs may turn out to be a church-grim: these are a species of guardian spirits peculiar to Northern European mythology which protect the interred dead from evil influences. In some cases the dog stands as a substitute for the soul of the the first person to be buried in a given graveyard, who would otherwise be on guard duty until the day of judgement.
Similar beasts were also traditionally associated with The Wild Hunt and were occasionally left behind on people's hearths by them. Wisdom dictated that such dogs should either be exorcised directly or well cared for until the hunt returned for them the following year. Treating them badly was considered distinctly unwise. According to some traditions of the wild hunt, such dogs might well be transformed humans (or at least human souls) which might add another complication.
Game and Story Use
- In a fantasy game, the Black Shuck has many uses. It could be a spirit of vengeance which is tied to a specific locale, such as a ruined wizard's tower, a temple where the priests were slaughtered by a mad nobleman, or the empty heath surrounding a town cursed for the dreadful deeds of its past inhabitants. It could also be a demonic assassin sent by a lord of devils or another otherworldly being to kill specific enemies.
- The hound could be simply a dangerous combatant, using its bite and the blast of fire when it dematerializes to kill its target. On the other hand, it could have more esoteric and sinister powers. By appearing to its victim, it places a curse on the unfortunate. This curse causes the target to die at midnight after a certain number of days unless they find a way to force the hound to materialize and are able to defeat it in combat.
- In a modern game, the Black Shuck is more likely to be a solitary menace, rather than the result of a magical curse or the servant of otherworldly powers. Its methods of attack remain the same, but it is probably the spirit of a malevolent person of great greed and violence who has returned to haunt the scene of their past villainies. Finding clues to this person's life — who perhaps lived hundreds of years before — will become crucial to finding the best way to laying the murderous spirit to rest.
- The dog might turn out to be a force for good - or at least an enemy of evil - like the Hounds of the Wild Hunt it may come forth to search out evil souls and drag them to Hell. Of course the soul it has chosen to hunt may turn out to be a bad guy the characters need alive to help them against the enemy of the moment.
- Or the dog might turn out to be an ordinary large black mastiff which has been daubed with phosphorescent paint to simulate the legend, as in The Hound of the Baskervilles.
- And keep in mind that even though the Hound of the Baskervilles was not supernatural, it was still a dangerous creature and terrifying to meet at night on the fog-enshrouded moors.
- There is also the possibility of at least some of these dogs being psychopomps - a role occasionally attributed to the moddey dhoo - which would make them useful removers of undead and similar nuisances. If an encounter with such a dog is fatal, it might well be because you were at - or beyond - the term of your natural life.
- The presence of a church-grim might be an amusing surprise for people intent on interferring with the burials at a given place of worship. As well as being a big spectral dog (and probably in none too good a mood give that they were often buried alive), in some traditions they were said to be able to ring the church bells.
- More ambiguously, a grim might take to attacking archaeologists or builders who are disturbing the graveyard, or even a sexton disinterring medieval corpses into an ossuary to free up burial space.
- The idea of a spirit guardian like the Church-Grimm could be used to provide amusing surprises for PCs attempting astral (or other out of body) probing around your dungeon. Having your naked astral soul set upon by a very angry ghost-dog might be an experience not to be repeated.
- Getting an unlooked for pet from the Wild Hunt might also be an amusing side quest.
- Especially if it's a transformed human looking to defect - remember in a lot of traditions, the hunt took up the souls of the damned. Explaining where their dog went could be bad enough, without also having released someone quite unpleasant back into the living world.