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  • The Tunisian Talking Ferret

    Number 16 in the celebrated Pan Book of Horror Stories (“over four million copies sold … fourteen stories to thicken your blood with ice-cold fear”) features a decidedly horrifying tale, ‘The Tunisian Talking Ferret’ (1975) by the otherwise unknown Harry E. Turner.

    The story opens with Howard K. Benson, a P.T. Barnum-style showman who is forcing his way through the dense crowds that throng  the bazaar of an unnamed Tunisian town. The scene is dream-like, or rather, nightmarish, with the heat of the North African sun, the “ripe, fetid stench” in the cobbled streets coated with slime, the incessant buzzing of flies. The side-streets are thronged with mangy dogs “cringing limply in the shelter of the faded awnings, pink tongues lolling,” whilst naked children eat warm fruit, as their veiled mothers haggle with shopkeepers and stall-holders in “shrill, insistent voices.”

    Benson has been told by an anthropologist friend of an incredible talking ferret, and where it may be seen – as a street entertainment in the town’s bazaar. He is determined to purchase this wonder and take it back with him to the United States where it will make his fortune.

    16th Book of Pan Horror Stories (1975)

    An Arab youth agrees to lead him to the ferret on payment of one dinar. He takes Benson to a small, cobbled square, where “half a dozen Negro tumblers” are entertaining the crowd with somersaults and balancing displays.  Suddenly, the tumblers disappear, as three figures appear: two heavily-muscled Chinese or Malay minders, dressed in pantaloons with “studded waist belts and foot-long ornate slippers.”

    Between these two is an malevolent-looking dwarf dressed in a white kaftan, his shaved head topped with a fez. He carries a wooden cage covered in a black cloth. They walk to the centre of the square, where the dwarf whips away the cloth to reveal “a small brown animal … a pointed ugly snout and fierce black eyes” inside the cage.

    The dwarf removes the ferret from the cage so that Benson is able to get a better view. Its mouth opened, to reveal “yellow, pointed teeth,’ and then “its leathery lips formed distinct and separate sounds.” It was speaking in Arabic, in “unmistakably human”and hideous tones.

    The ferret turns its head towards Benson, who has made his way to the front of the crowd. Its head swells out from its snout “like a bulbous, matted pumpkin.” Just above its eyes, he can see a livid dent, over which the animal’s fur has only partially covered.

    It seemed to Benson that the frightful beast was directing its speech at him, its “long wolfish tongue slicking over guttural phrases with scarcely a pause for breath.”

    The dwarf gazed at Benson with undisguised malice…

    TO BE CONTINUED

  • “Half-mongoose, half-weasel” – yes it’s Jack, the Dalby Spook

    Mona’s Herald, Tuesday 8th March, 1932

    This clipping from a Manx newspaper, Mona’s Herald,  gives us a insight into the early stages of the Gef story’s development. At this point, in the first few months after Gef’s first appearances, he is not yet ‘Gef’ but ‘Jack’ – note, also, the favoured Manx term by which he was (and still is) known on the Island – the ‘Dalby Spook.’ His more well-known moniker, ‘Gef the Talking Mongoose,’ was coined later by a mainland journalist.

    We may also note that at this early stage, Gef’s (or Jack’s) physical identity is not fixed – here he is descried as a “strange animal, half mongoose, half weasel.” Indeed, the idea of the Spook as a chimeric, shape-shifting entity was to be strengthened in later months, as James Irving (and others) described his appearance as, variously, that of a polecat, a squirrel, a large cat (as well as a weasel or a mongoose).

    The father and son mentioned in the article are Charles and Arthur Morrison, the former being a wealthy Liverpool businessman who worked at the Cotton Exchange, one of James Irving’s oldest friends. He was given the alias of ‘Northwood’ in Harry Price and R.S. Lambert’s The Haunting of Cashen’s Gap, just as Price’s investigator, Captain Harold Dennis was disguised as ‘Captain MacDonald.’

    Charles Morrison steadfastly insisted on his old friend Irving being an entirely honest and trustworthy witness, whose word could be relied upon – even when making these most fantastical and outlandish claims about a talking, singing animal living  behind their walls and occasionally making an appearance inside and outside the house.

     

  • “Hello, this is the Dalby Spook”

    ” On Friday evening last, at 7.30 o’clock, as the good fairy ‘The Phynnoderee’ was busily working – as all good fairies do – turning out our ‘Weekly Times’ at some 4,000 copies an hour, a sharp tinkle, tinkle rang out on the telephone bell in the ‘Times’ Office.

     

     

     

     

     

    Isle of Man Times, 4 January 1936 (page 9)

    On lifting the receiver, a voice boomed forth: “The ‘Dalby Spook’ is speaking – the first public call from Dalby – and I wish ‘The Phynnoderee’ in the ‘Times’ Office every success and prosperity.”

    ‘The Phynnoderee,’ on hearing this cheerful message, redoubled his energies and, infused with new life, turned out hundreds, nay, thousands, of ‘Weekly Times,’ knowing that his friend the ‘Spook’ would be eagerly waiting to read all the news about the ‘big’ people in the Isle of Man and elsewhere.

    Being rather over-eager, the paper broke, but this was soon rectified, however, and away he went again until, with a sigh of relief, knowing that the needs of the ‘big’ people in the Isle of Man were supplied, he finished his task for the evening.

    Isle of Man Times, 4 January 1936 (page 9)

    Before going to bed, however, ‘The Phynnoderee’ wished to thank his friend the ‘Spook’ for his kind message, and hoped that the public telephone box, newly erected in Dalby, would be a great boon and blessing to him and all the ‘big’ people riding in Dalby district, and that they will take full advantage of this modern mean of communication.”

  • Other Spooks at large on Man

    Ramsey Courier. 31 July 1942 (page 4)
    Ramsey Courier, 31 July 1942 (page 4)

     

     

     

    The mystery of Doarlish Cashen and its Dalby Spook (a.k.a. Gef the Talking Mongoose, the Little Man-Weasel, the Eighth Wonder of the World etc etc) captured the imaginations of Manx people and was a regular feature in the Island’s newspapers at the time. (Interestingly, the Quatermass, Stone Tape and Beasts script writer Nigel Kneale lived on the Isle of Man as a boy during Gef’s heyday; his father was the owner and editor of the Herald newspaper. It is quite evident that the fantastic tale of the Dalby Spook made an impression on the young Kneale, and evidence for this may be discerned in certain elements of his work, most notably the six-part TV series Beasts).

    I shall write more about Kneale and Gef elsewhere, but for now, I wish to highlight a couple of ‘copycat’ news reports from the Isle of Man’s media.

    It was inevitable, perhaps, that other parts of the Island wanted in on the Spook action, and were envious of all the attention that was being garnered by the rural parish of Patrick, and its tiny village of Dalby in particular.
    So it is that we read of apossible rival to Gef, a Douglas Spook, even some 10 years after Gef’s heyday. The Talking Mongoose had clearly not been forgotten.

    This Spook had apparently appeared in the house of “a family of hawkers” whose sleep was disturbed by “heavy knocking,” a “clinking sound like someone counting money,”  and later, by the apparition of a ”
    little old lady” who was seen by Mr Isaac Walton, the head of the household:

    Ramsey Courier. 31 July 1942 (page 4)
    Ramsey Courier, 31 July 1942 (p.4)
    Ramsey Courier. 31 July 1942 (page 4)
    Ramsey Courier, 31 July 1942 (p.4)

    “I came wide awake all of a sudden,” he told the reporter, “There was no curtain on the window and the room wasn’t dark because it was a fine, light night. I just turned my head and saw a little old woman coming from the door to the head of my bed.”

    Unfortunately for himself, Mr Walton had locked himself in his bedroom before retiring for the night. So he was not only puzzled as to how this spectral lady could have entered his room, but was also in a state of some fright.

    The apparition was described as being dressed all in black, with an old-fashioned bonnet and having a pale, white face with white hair showing underneath the bonnet. After approaching the unfortunate Isaac Walton’s bed, she walked towards
    the window, peered out, and then disappeared through the locked door.

    Such was Mr Walton’s shock that he told the Ramsey Courier reporter “If you had stabbed me with a knife you would’ have drawn blood” – a curiously violent image but one that graphically alludes to his having been ‘drained of blood’ during his terrifying experience.

    Quite understandably, the family refused to stay in the house that night, and when they returned the following day, were rewarded by an “unearthly scream” in the middle of the night, which had the effect of causing them to seek alternative accommodation.

    This apparition, and the peculiar sounds heard by the family, whilst not being unimpressive, are more standard ghost fare. One can’t really view the little old lady dressed in black with the Irvings’ all-talking, all-singing mongoose, whose vocabulary of swear words was matched only by his knowledge of other languages than English (or Manx).

     

    Isle of Man Examiner, 22 May 1936 (page 3)

    And it must be said that another rival to Dalby’s Spook, the so-called Ramsey Spook, did not have the same charisma and je ne sais quoi as our lad Gef. The Ramsey Spook was at least contemporaneous with Gef, this report appearing in the Isle of Man Examiner in May 1936 (just a few weeks after the publication of Price and Lambert’s The Haunting of Cashen’s Gap).

    The Ramsey Spook had manifested in a convalescent home situated at St Trinian’s, Grove Mount (sadly not the St Trinians – if only it had been, Ramsey’s contender would perhaps have given Gef a run for his money).

    According to the Examiner report (which began “Have you heard of the Ramsey spook?”), the primary – nay, the only – supernatural activity observed by both patients and Matron (a Mrs Barrar) was that of the rest home’s front door bell, ringing persistently. (One is reminded of the bells of Borley Rectory, originally designed as a means to summon the servants, continuously ringing, even when the wires had been severed by one of Harry Price’s investigators).

    Isle of Man Examiner, 22 May 1936 (p.3)

    One reads the Examiner report eagerly, in hopes of further and perhaps more chilling phenomena. But no – although the writer is most keen to emphasise “It is not an electric bell.” The bell had been inspected by “[a] gentleman, interested in psychic matters” but, whilst he had “inspected the bell and the wiring very thoroughly” he could “find absolutely no fault in it.”

    And whilst it is pleasing that news of Gef and his extraordinary antics had encouraged Manx residents elsewhere on the Island to keep a look out for any spooky carryings-on in their own locales, one can only feel that the Irving family, and their Dalby and Glen Maye neighbours, had been rewarded with by far the more entertaining Spook of these three.

     

  • ‘Jef’ appears in FATE magazine, June 1952

    A rather fine article by journalist Harold T. Wilkins for FATE magazine, published June 1952. Lots of good detail, including descriptions of Doarlish Cashen’s interior:

    I caught sight of a grey stone house, very like the farmhouses in the wild hills of Wales. Sombre and stern, its walls were of slate-slabs with narrow oblong windows not made to open for gales and lashing rains blow and sting most of the year. Doarlish Cashen has only two stories and, as you approach, seems to be built on great slabs of concrete that show signs of cracking. A porch stands in front built to keep out the driving rains from the sea which otherwise would meet the occupants full-face when they come out the door.

    […]

    The space thus made was ideal for a small animal. A dark stairway leads up to two bedrooms. I had to grope because the ceilings had low beams and the ground floor room was dark. The only illumination was a smallish petroleum lamp. But there was an air of neatness about the place and signs of refinement very unusual in either a Welsh or Manx farmhouse. On the walls of the lower rooms were water colors and the living rooms were nicely furnished. Upstairs, in the Irvings’ bedroom Indian rugs lay on the floor. 

    And the article’s description of Gef’s teeth and paw prints that he’d allegedly imprinted in plasticine are frankly redolent of H.P. Lovecraft (appropriately enough, when one recalls Brown Jenkin from ‘The Dreams in the Witch House’):

    Four casts were left by the mongoose. […] After studying these prints one is forced to say that they look more like […] a bizarre impression of a flabby mollusc with four truncated tentacles and flippers dragged over a sandy beach still wet with the outgoing tide.

     

    Artwork by Dominic Black, www.deviantart.net

     

  • “I am not a spirit”

    At various times, Gef announced: “I am an earthbound spirit.” However, he is also recorded as having stated: “I am not a spirit. I am just a little extra clever mongoose.”
    In addition, when commenting on a book on poltergeists that Jim Irving had been reading, Gef remarked: “I am not one of those.”

    Does this tend to offer evidence in favour of – or against – Gef’s identity as that of a ghost or a spirit?

    It was also noted by Fodor that “Gef dislikes all references to ghosts and spirits, and upon one occasion compelled Irving to tear up a book of ghost stories.”

    So, is all this evidence of his being a spirit – but one who was, at times, in denial of the fact?

    Or simply that he was unaware of his state? (there are several instances of psychics who, when in visiting  a haunted house and establishing contact with a ghost, have to explain to them that they are dead, and that they no longer belong on this earthly plane and need to move on…)

    Alternatively, one could interpret Gef’s statement that he was not a spirit as simply the truth – that he was, instead, some other physical, corporeal entity (a weasel or mongoose?) who had, marvellously, learned to speak.

    A third possibility is that Gef was merely misleading people deliberately so as to lead people up the garden path by making contradictory statements. Such obfuscation for fun has often been noted as a characteristic of similar entities…

  • Mongooses of Empire

    The setting is ‘Clouds,’ Lady Idina Sackville’s house on Mount Kipipiri above the Rift Valley in Kenya.   tatler

    Lady Idina’s unconventional and pleasure-seeking behaviour – and indeed that of the entire ‘Happy Valley set’ (the aristocratic colonial elite who lived in Kenya between the wars) were the subject of much gossip, following the murder of her husband Joss Hay:

    Other pets included two mongeese, who lived in the woodpiles on each side of the large fireplace in the sitting room and were vicious to the household cats and dogs. Ann remembered that she and Tom gave them ping-pong balls which the mongeese rolled along their stomachs before flicking them against the wall, thinking they were eggs that would smash. One night, Idina, Ann and Tom gave the mongeese some beer in a saucer, which they loved – too much – and “were soon rolling around in front of the fire – the three of us were in stitches watching them attempt to stand! It was the only time we were able to touch them.”

    From: The Bolter: Idina Sackville – the Woman who Scandalized 1920s Society and became White Mischief’s Infamous Seductress. London: Virago Press, 2008 (p.265)

    Note how these mongooses are here described as playing merrily with ping-pong balls, much as Gef himself amused himself for hours with a little rubber ball (later psychometrized by Nandor Fodor’s medium, Mrs Vincent). However, there is no record of Gef ever having succumbed to drink, despite visits to the Peel Castle pub.

    (Idina Sackville was to become the subject of several books and films – White Mischief by James Fox, later a film; Frances Osborne’s The Bolter, a biography. Characters based on Lady Idina also appeared novels by Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh).

    David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford, the 2nd Baron Redesdale

    Settlement, colonial appointments or military deployment in other countries (those of Africa, the Caribbean, or of the Indian subcontinent) – as a result of the British Empire – brought Britons into contact with mongooses, and they would sometimes bring these useful and interesting animals back with them to England. Thus, the Mitford sisters’ father David, sent to Ceylon as a tea planter and later having fought in southern Africa in the Boer War, is later recorded as having relieved the boredom of an office job (working on the publication of The Lady magazine) by bringing a mongoose with him to work and setting it to hunt rats in the building’s cellar. (A thinly-disguised account of this episode appears in Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate).

    Similarly, novelist Arthur Calder-Marshall writes in his memoir The Magic of My Youth (London: Cardinal, 1990; first published, Rupert Hart-Davis, 1951), of visiting his beloved but eccentric aunt Helen:

    She opened a door into a large room. There was a noise of scuffling, and something long and thin and brown streaked past, pursued by something equally long and thin and brown. “You like mongooses, don’t you?” she asked, or rather stated, because she waited for no answer.

    The only mongoose I had met previously had bit me deeply in the finger, and my opinion was that the sooner all mongooses were exported to places plagued with snakes and rats, the happier the world would be; an opinion which my experience with Auntie Helen’s pair did nothing to modify. (The Magic of My Youth, p.68-69)

    rikki_tikki

    The above is all to suggest that – whilst unusual – a mongoose in Great Britain in the 1930s would not have been such a completely outlandish and unheard-of sight as might first be thought; indeed, not as unusual as a mongoose would be today in the U.K. of the 21st century, outside of zoos, safari parks and insurance adverts.

  • Of the Crowley and the Mongoose Cases (Christopher Josiffe)

    From a Spectator book review (New Bats in Old Belfries by Maurice Bowra. Robert Dugdale, 2005):

    Mr Justice Rigby Swift:

    Collinson, Harry; The Honourable Mr Justice Rigby Swift, MP for St Helens (1910-1918); St Helens Council Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-honourable-mr-justice-rigby-swift-mp-for-st-helens-19101918-65425
    The Honourable Mr Justice Rigby Swift. Photo credit: St Helens Council Collection

    “In 1920, at 46, Swift became the youngest High Court judge. In most respects he was liberal and jovial. […] He made passable jokes and had particular fun summing up the ‘Mongoose Case’ in 1937. That was an action for slander: Sir Cecil Levita, a former chairman of the London County Council, had suggested to a friend at the Carlton Club that Richard Lambert, editor of the Listener, was unfit for that post. Levita alleged that Lambert had been bamboozled by a Manx farmer who claimed to be in touch with a ghostly mongoose which was 86 years old, could say nursery rhymes and had a working knowledge of Russian, Manx, Hebrew, Welsh, Hindustani and Arabic. (Lambert received £7,500 damages and kept his job.)”

     

    Mr Justice Darling:

    “Swift was not as irrepressibly jokey as Mr Justice Darling, whom Max Beerbohm caricatured donning a black cap hung with bells. He had deep religious convictions. In 1934 the black-magician Aleister Crowley appeared before him, suing the painter Nina Hamnett and her publisher, Constable, for what she had said about him in her book Laughing Torso. Hamnett had claimed that in Crowley’s ‘temple’ on Sicily a baby had mysteriously disappeared […]”

    Aleister Crowley, by Augustus John. Photo credit: Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop

    Aleister Crowley is also directly linked to mongooses by virtue of his well-known joke (also claimed as a perfect allegorical illustration of his theory of Magick):

    “There is the story of the American in the train who saw another American carrying a basket of unusual shape. His curiosity mastered him, and he leant across and said: “Say, stranger, what you got in that bag?” The other, lantern-jawed and taciturn, replied: “Mongoose … “

    To read the rest, go to Three American Jokes / II / The Mongoose Basket

  • Mr Magoo of Duluth Zoo, and other zoo mongooses in the news

    If it was fame Gef sought, then it was an inspired choice of his to swap identities from weasel to mongoose. Perhaps on account of its faintly comical name, and also as a result of the well-known literary character of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, a mongoose was sometimes the subject of a light or comedic news item in the mid-twentieth century press.

    Thus, Victor Thompson’s regular ‘Animals Are Funny’ column for the Sunday Pictorial (18 August 1935) chose to focus on Monty, one of a dozen mongooses resident at London Zoo. The story, headed ‘Monty The Kleptomaniac: Took To Crime After Giving Broadcasts’ monty-the-kleptomaniac hints at Monty’s possessing one or two Gef-like characteristics, namely, a love of attention, “he is one of the most popular exhibits” at the Zoo, on account of his being a “a natural comic. He greets nearly all visitors with shrill squeals of delight, and as soon he has attracted a big enough crowd he goes into a kind of can-can dance.”

    Another similarity to Gef was Monty’s propensity for stealing small objects, such as a lady visitor’s earring, fountain pens, handkerchiefs, gloves and bags of sweets. Thompson states that “all mongooses are greatly attracted by bright things […] which they hoard with a jackdaw’s enthusiasm” – reminiscent of Gef, returning to Doarlish Cashen from his travels around the Island, bearing trophies such as a paintbrush, a pair of pincers, some gloves.

    Monty’s ‘broadcasts’ refer to his appearance on a BBC radio broadcast from the Zoo, which was, of course, Price and Morrison’s dream – to be able to get recording equipment in place at Doarlish Cashen, and put Gef on the radio. Monty’s mischievousness adds another point of comparison with Gef: “He began to interfere with his keeper’s cage-cleaning by snatching dusters and upsetting pails.”

    This piece was published one month prior to Price’s ‘The Talking Mongoose’ article for the Listener (11 September 1935). But renewed interest in mongooses generated by the latter was perhaps responsible for Thompson’s follow-up ‘Animals Are Funny’ piece in the Sunday Pictorial, another mongoose-interest story, this time headed: ‘Jealousy Among The Mongoose: All Those At The Zoo Seem To Hate Each Other’ (16 February 1936), in which we learn that the star of 1935, Monty, was in fact a female mongoose, Montie. Thompson now focussed his attention upon George, a definite male mongoose. George enjoyed running on a treadmill inside his cage, left by its previous occupants – squirrels –  and ogling female mongooses, including Montie. He apparently had a party trick of hiding behind peoples’ ties and refusing to move (see photo below left).jealousy-among-the-mongoose-crop

    George had also starred in a Daily Mirror article the previous year, (28 November 1935), written by the Mirror’s ‘Zoo Correspondent’, who praises George’s lightning-speed reactions speed-just-watch-george “Where he springs from the keeper never knows […] For George has to move fast. For generations it has been the business of George’s family to kill snakes, and when you’re tackling an angry cobra you either move quicker than the snake or never move any more.”

    Another mongoose in the media, Mr Magoo, whose plight became a cause celebre in the Mid-West of the USA in the early 1960s again shows the enduring appeal of these little animals. Mr Magoo was a popular attraction at Duluth Zoo in Minnesota. He was noted for drinking tea, and, like Gef, “eats a little meat and vegetables and drinks a little milk. Its favorite is warm tea with sugar…” as the Zoo’s director, Lloyd Hackl (see photo below left, with typewriter and mongoose) explained. “It has the coloring of a squirrel, but with yellowish-brown eyes and the reddish cheeks and a throat all mongooses have in common.” (Duluth News-Tribune 13 November 1962)

    mr-magoo-the-mongoose-investigates-as-duluth-zoo-manager-lloyd-hackl-types-in-november-1962-george-starkey-news_tribune
    Photo: George Starkey/News-Tribune

    Magoo had been donated to the Zoo by a foreign sailor whose ship had docked at India, and he quickly became a favourite amongst the public. Unfortunately, in 1962, Magoo came to the attention of the US Customs, who declared that – under a 1909 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulation, which barred the importation of mongooses – Magoo must be killed. Duluth’s Harry Nash, head of the city’s recreation department, appealed for clemency, writing to the Fish and Wildlife Service and explaining that Magoo was “very popular with adults and children and is clean, healthy and well-mannered.”

    To learn what happened next, read: DULUTH MOBILIZES TO SAVE NEW PET / News-Tribune / Duluth mobilized Friday night to save its pet mongoose from the federal executioner and also Mr. Magoo The Mongoose, Part 2