Starting Down the ‘Black Dog’ Road



I suppose it’s unavoidable in a tale narrated by a dead woman, but Black Dog Summer has a seam of something unashamedly mystical running through it. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a country where myth and magic are often lurking beneath the surface of things, but I’ve always wanted to write a story in which this otherworldly element makes its presence felt alongside the realism.

In a book featuring violent events, which are, horrible as it is to admit, undeniably based on real ones, it may surprise you to know that it’s the sinister spectre of a shadowy black dog skulking through the narrative that is based on something that actually happened directly to me.

So now, I’ll tell you a story. Unlike Black Dog Summer, this one is not made up, although had I been alone when it happened, I’d most likely have come to doubt its veracity…

It was a hot Johannesburg night in the middle of a long-ago summer. My significant other and I were driving back from an all night music recording session, wrung out and gritty-eyed, our heads too full up with fragments of the track we’d been working on for either of us to bother talking. We drove our ancient, falling-to-bits car with the windows open for some relief from the stifling heat, and I remember hearing the first birds beginning to sing. The dawn darkness was hazy and opaque and, along with the stillness, seemed to give the familiar suburban streets an ominous feel.

We were almost home, just a few more blocks to go before the mercy of bath and bed, when two gigantic black dogs stepped out into the road ahead.

The animals didn’t behave like regular dogs: they didn’t dash about, or bark, or scamper and sniff, they walked into the path of our oncoming car with an air of deliberate purpose and turned to face us. We slowed down, and as we got closer, the hair rose on the back of my neck. The dogs didn’t flinch as we approached; they showed no signs of moving. Without saying a word, we both wound up our windows, fast. As we inched along the silent street towards them, I noted long limbs, thick muzzles and dark faces, no particular breed that I could identify.

Why weren’t they getting out of the way? We revved the engine in an effort to get them to budge, and finally, at the last moment, the creatures moved off the road. I looked in the rear view mirror to see them still standing there, their vast heads turned to watch us pass.

We sped up and raced home as fast as the decrepit Honda would allow, and once inside, chatted about how strange it had been. What on earth had those weird dogs been doing? What had they wanted? Neither of us, we agreed, had encountered anything like it.

As we were getting ready to go to bed at last, something moved in the overgrown garden right outside the bathroom window. We froze. There was the unmistakable sound of panting and snuffling. The two of us exchanged a wordless, wide-eyed stare.


It was impossible. We were over-tired. Imagining it. There was no way in to the back garden, and why on earth would those weird dogs have followed us here in the first place? Just as we were about to laugh at ourselves for being daft, a coal black snout appeared at the open window, breath snorting from its nostrils. I went ice cold. And then, just as quickly, it was gone.

We never encountered the scary black dogs again, and despite all our rationalising and questioning and wondering, we never figured out the mystery behind their appearance, but the memory of that strange night has stuck with me ever since.

When I began writing Black Dog Summer, there was no way I could stop one of the giant beasts from slinking its way onto the page, shedding darkness with each malevolent step.

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