Dr Eric Dingwall reviews Nandor Fodor & Hereward Carrington’s Haunted People:The Story of the Poltergeist Down the Centuries (New York : E.P. Dutton, 1951):
Later sections contain brief accounts of some famous cases such as that of the Bell Witch and the Transylvanian Jinn, to these has been added (for no reason that I can discern) an account of the so-called ‘talking mongoose’ which was investigated, according to Mr H. Carrington, “by a number of sceptical and competent witnesses,” although, as a matter of fact, no serious inquiry was possible owing to the conditions existing at the time …
The Brooklyn Museum holds a small but rather splendid ancient Egyptian bronze statuette, which it dates between the 26th and 31st Dynasties (664-332 BCE).
The scene depicted is one in which the Pharaoh stands before an ichneumon (Egyptian mongoose). Mongoose were not uncommon in the ancient Near East or North Africa, and Egyptian mongoose in particular later became known as ‘Pharaoh’s rats’! Here, the ichneumon represents the solar god Atum, and in this mongoosely form would do battle each night with Apep (or Apophis), the embodiment of chaos and opponent of Ma’at, the Egyptian conception of order, balance, law and justice. Apep was represented by a snake; this mythological conflict between mongoose and snake mirrored real-life animal behaviour, evidently based upon observation, which may still be seen today in India in the form of staged mongoose vs. cobra bouts.
It is notable that the giant serpent Apep was known variously as ‘the evil lizard’, ‘the encircler of the world,’ ‘the enemy’ and ‘the serpent of rebirth.’ A giant snake appears to have been one of the very earliest representations of divinity, maybe even the earliest. Aboriginal Australians’ Rainbow Serpent parallels West Africa’s (and Haitian Vodou’s) Damballah, and incredibly, a recent archaeological dig in Botswana uncovered evidence that the San (Bushmen), believed to be the earliest people of all of Africa, revered a deity in the form of a python some 70,000 years BCE.
It may be that we are looking at the displacement of the original, chthonic deity by subsequent, solar deities, with the earlier god then being demonized to become a ‘devil.’ It is a very familiar and recurring pattern, described by Robert Graves in his The Greek Myths (Penguin, 1955) who saw these stories as memories of a matriarchal culture being overthrown by a patriarchal one. Apollo defeats Python and thus takes control of the Delphic Oracle. In Sumerian and Babylonian myth,Tiamat, a creator goddess, is overthrown by Marduk, a storm god; she is later portrayed as a monstrous sea-beast, the embodiment of chaos. And of course there are echoes of this eternally-recurring conflict in the Bible – the serpent in the Garden of Eden (later shown to be none other than Satan, ‘the Adversary’) may be linked with the bronze serpent mounted upon a pole by Moses (Numbers), and with the bronze serpent worshipped in the Temple (2 Kings). Elsewhere in the Bible we are enjoined to “be wise as serpents” (Matthew 10:16).
The ancient Egyptian’s word for the ichneumon was khatri, a Semitic loan word that originally meant ‘weasel’ – Gef’s own identity fluctuates between his being “an extra clever mongoose” and “a ghost in the form of a weasel.” Early Isle of Man newspaper reports spoke of Dalby’s “eerie weasel” or “man-weasel,” and certainly the Irving family originally conceived of Gef as such. His mongoose identity arose some time later.
When explaining his origins, Gef was quite clear: he had been born on 7th June, 1852, in Delhi, India. However, he also gave a vivid description of having seen the Pyramids and the Sphinx, “rising up from the sand.”
Both India and Egypt, for the Irving family, would evidently have been exotic regions redolent of magic and mystery. We know that James Irving was an avid reader; but the only book we are certain of having been upon his bookshelf at Doarlish Cashen was Hereward Carrington’s Hindu Magic (Annals of Psychic Science, 1909), in which the author sought to “examine the evidence for the genuine phenomena, and [to] explain the tricks and fraudulent devices employed by travelling fakirs in order to deceive their sitters, and to produce their tricks.”
At the time of Gef’s first appearances, in the autumn of 1931, there was still much excitement surrounding the rediscovery and excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Whilst Howard Carter’s initial discovery had been made in 1922, the excavations continued for 8 years, only being concluded in 1930. During this period, a fascination with all things ancient Egyptian was manifested in song lyrics, jewellery, breakfast cereals, soap, cigarettes, condoms … …and, of course, Hollywood films.
Boris Karloff starred in 1932’s The Mummy, the year in which the Gef story really began to take off, for the first time garnering newspaper attention beyond those of the Isle of Man. The plot of The Mummy features elements of a certain tale from the corpus of ancient Egyptian literature. This is the story of Setne and the Mummies, which has Setne trying to locate a magical scroll, apparently written Thoth himself. Amongst its spells is one that will give its reader the ability to understand the speech of animals.
Indeed, talking animals were themselves a familiar trope of ancient Egyptian literature. Talking cows, dogs and crocodiles appear in the Tale of Two Brothers and the Tale of the Doomed Prince, both New Kingdom (probably 19th Dynasty, 1295-1186 BCE).
Whilst, admittedly, no talking animals appear in The Mummy, the film is notable for its sinister and apparently supernatural white cat.
Gef was himself not confined to the physical form of a mongoose (or a weasel). On at least two occasions, he appears to have become embodied as a cat. In a letter to Harry Price’s representative and research officer, Captain Harry Dennis, James Irving recounts a curious episode:
Early in 1932, my daughter and I were alone in the house, broad daylight, and I chanced to look through the window of the room we were in, and I saw, to my surprise, a very large cat, striped like a tiger […] We ourselves did not possess a cat and I called Voirrey to come to the window to look at it. She did so, and remarked on the size of the cat, but, more especially the unusually large bull dog head it had. The cat then walked away from the door of the outbuilding, where it was standing (40 to 50 feet away from us), and I then saw it was a Manx tailless cat, and I was then a little more surprised, as the pure Manx cat is usually smaller than the English […] I thought this is no ordinary cat, so I slipped a cartridge into my single-barrel gun, and took “go” after him. Personally, I am very fond of a cat, and do not kill for killing’s sake. The cat was a little ahead of me, but easily within range, and it turned through an open gate way […] into a grass field. I was there a few seconds behind, and fully expected to see the cat, but no cat could be seen, look as I liked, the field was level, and there was not a bush or any roughness where he could have hidden, and the hedges were all earth, or sod hedges, as they are called here.… I detailed my experiences to my wife on her return that night, when Gef called out “It was me you saw, Jim.” Further explanation is beyond me.
(4 March 1935, HPC 3F 3, Harry Price archive, Senate House Library, University of London)
On another occasion, three young fishermen from the nearby city of Peel had called round to Doarlish Cashen, attracted by the local gossip and media furore regarding the ‘Dalby Spook.’ Irving invited the three men to come in and sit down; whilst they were all talking together, one of the three suddenly stopped talking and could be seen motioning with his hand, as if petting an animal. He asked Irving whether he or his wife or daughter owned a pet cat, as a white one had just leapt up from the floor, and was now sitting in his lap, quite happily being stroked.
Irving explained that not only did they not have a cat, white or otherwise, but that none of his nearest neighbours owned one either … (some time later, Irving produced a signed statement from the fishermen, attesting to the truth of what they had seen).
[I am indebted to Dr Megaera Lorenz for much of this post’s content. Dr Lorenz recently graduated from the University of Chicago’s Egyptology PhD program, and occasionally teaches courses through the Oriental Institute Museum’s Public Education office]
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.
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…
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.
” 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.
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.
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.”
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:
“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).
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).
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.
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.
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…
The setting is ‘Clouds,’ Lady Idina Sackville’s house on Mount Kipipiri above the Rift Valley in Kenya.
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).
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)
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.