“The Black Dog”

And, with this, I’m current on the weird fiction discussions over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Black Dog”, Stephen Crane, 1892. 

This is almost an anti-weird story. It’s only in the context of it being anthologized in collections of supernatural fiction, like the Library of America’s American Fantastic Tales where I read it, that entices a weird fiction devotee to take a look at it.

I almost got the feeling it was a joke story, a belief strengthened by its subtitle, “A Night of Spectral Terror” in the New York Tribune where it was first published. Even the ISFDB entry on the story calls it a parody.

The story is simple and fairly short at five pages.

Four rain-soaked men are traipsing through woods that seem to be some place in the American Northeast, maybe Maine given the dialects we “hear”.

They come across a house and ask to stay there. 

Only two of the four play a significant role in the story and get names based on physiognomy: “pudgy man” and “little man”. Neither they nor anyone else in the story (except Jim Crocker – as in “Crock”?) gets a name. 

Considering that they are just barging into his home, and the owner, the “slate-colored man”, is hospitable, they’re kind of jerks. 

The four hear an odd noise before the door opens. The owner, the “slate-colored man”, frequently talks about his uncle Jim Crocker who isn’t dead yet. And he’s not going to die because the black dog hasn’t been seen yet. He’s a “speerit”.  

The pudgy man isn’t having any of that superstitious talk. That’s because, retorts the little man, ‘you have merely a stomach and no soul”. 

When the slate-colored man goes upstairs to take care of his uncle, we hear the uncle demanding the window be opened because of the smell of the soup the slate-colored man made. 

Coming downstairs, the slate-colored man says “The black dorg’ll be along soon.” 

The men all sit listening to the winds in the trees. 

Down the road a “phantom dog” lies down. Then he moves towards the house and howls. A cry is heard from the room upstairs. 

The men stare in terror at each other. The slate-colored man says “The black dorg” and heads upstairs followed by the men. 

They find the old man dead. The “spectral dog” howls outside. 

The little man sees the dog below the window. In panic, he (and maybe we are to assume he’s a little man in more than one way because he does this) throws all sorts of things out the window and at the dog. It stops howling. One of the things was a bowl of the bullion the slate-colored man made. The dog evidently slurps up the bullion. 

“The damn dog was hungry” says the pudgy man. “That’s your phantom”, says the little man. 

The last paragraph is “On the bed, the old man lay dead. Without, the spectre was wagging its tail.”

I suppose, charitably, you could say Crane is making an allegorical point besides writing a parody. The black dog doesn’t bring death but he symbolizes the balance of life and the universe. A man dies. A dog lives. 

It’s possible, as suggested by some over at LibraryThing, that the slate-colored man is a black which may have been to add some humor to his character. Maybe. But Uncle Crocker, presumably a relative, isn’t described in any detail, certainly not like a black. 

The slate-colored man is agreeable and servile though so he may play into a stereotype.

Crane’s story promises weirdness and the supernatural and collapses into the near quotidian at story’s end.

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