Number 7 of The Dennis Wheatley Library of The Occult is Harry Price: The Biography of a Ghost Hunter by Paul Tabori. As you would expect, this is indeed a biography of the psychical researcher and investigator, Harry Price.
The quality of a biography obviously rests upon the biographer. In this case we have Paul Tabori, author, psychic researcher and third choice literary executor of Price’s estate. I must admit to having certain preconceived ideas about this book and they were met within the first few pages when I read this paragraph:
“It must be admitted that while he was alive Harry Price was far more appreciated outside these isles than at home. But is this not the fate of practically every prophet whatever his mission and message?”
So, right from the start, Price is raised to the level of prophet but, thankfully, the style settles down after the first chapter and becomes a little less adulatory. What we are left with is a rather mediocre series of tales which serve as a synopsis of Price’s work, the reader learns nothing of the man behind the work.
I’m left with the question of how to write a post about a rather mediocre biography. The answer, of course, is to go off on a tangent and talk about something far more interesting. Let us talk about one of Price’s most fascinating cases, which Tabori does briefly include in his biography, and expand upon it. And so we have:
Nigel Kneale, Familiar Spirits and Gef the Talking Mongoose
We’re going back to the Autumn of 1931, to a remote, hilltop farmhouse in an area called Doarlish Cashen on the Isle of Man. This is the home of Mr. James T. Irving, his wife Margaret and his teenage daughter, Voirrey. It seems that Mr. Irving was a European representative for a Canadian piano manufacturer but, after hitting hard times, the family decided to move to the Isle of Man which was Mrs. Irving’s birthplace.
One evening, Mr. Irving and Voirrey encountered a creature at their home. It was described as the size of a large rat but with a yellow face and a flat snout. This creature took up residence behind the hollow matchboard walls of their home and began to keep the family awake with its skittering and growling. Voirrey tried to lull the creature by singing nursery rhymes to it but, to her surprise, it repeated them to her in a high pitched human voice. And once the creature had discovered the power of speech it wouldn’t stop; and not just mimicking either, it would engage in conversations with the family, calling Mr. and Mrs. Irving by their first names, Jim and Maggie. Soon after this the creature took to travelling the island to eavesdrop on the locals and bring back news to the Irvings, it would also regularly hunt rabbits for them.
News of this strange occurrence soon spread around the island and the story was picked up by the local press. By January 1932 the story had reached mainland Britain and the newspapers of the day were all running the story of, what had become known as, The Talking Weasel.
The Irving’s initially called their strange interloper Jack, but he soon put them right and told them he preferred the name Gef, claiming to have been born near Delhi, India in 1852 and that he was a Mongoose.
Of course, Mongooses (Mongeese?) are not native to The Isle of Man but there is a story which suggests that a local farmer introduced Mongooses to the island in 1914 to control the rabbit population and it appears they bred and went feral. It was reported that a Mongoose was shot and killed on the island in 1947 and it’s alleged that locals still see them occasionally to the present day. However, on discussing this with a friend who was born and bred on the Isle of Man and lives just five miles from the site of the Irving’s house, it appears that although there are feral ferret/polecat hybrids at large in the countryside, the feral Mongoose theory may be a rather fanciful concoction.
Gef’s activity continued and developed in the Irving household. As well as talking to the family he became a mischievous presence, throwing stones at people, stealing items from neighbours and shouting abuse at the family; always unseen by everyone except the three members of the Irving family.
In 1932, Harry Price received a letter from a Miss Florence Milburn of Peel, Isle of Man. Miss Milburn wrote to Price to inform him of the activities of the strange creature, ‘somewhat like a weasel’, at the Irving’s farm. Price sent his friend and colleague, Captain MacDonald to investigate. MacDonald witnessed the voice of Gef but his report was inconclusive. It wasn’t until three years later, in 1935, that Harry Price paid his own visit; again, his findings were inconclusive, which may strike us as odd. As we know, Price was not averse to debunking psychic fraudsters so, if this was a hoax perpetrated by one or more of the Irvings we may think that such a simple case would be easily seen through by Price. And it wasn’t that Price simply dismissed it as unworthy, he found it sufficiently interesting to write a book on the case, ‘The Haunting of Cashen’s Gap’.
Gef’s activities continued over the years until, in 1945, James Irving died. The family moved away from the house and a new tenant took possession who poured scorn upon the idea of Gef the Talking Mongoose.
In 1970 a magazine caught up with Voirrey in an interview and she still claimed the story was true. Voirrey died in 2005.
The Irving’s house at Doarlish Cashen has since been demolished, so it is unlikely that any more evidence will come to light.
I have given a very brief overview of the full story here to whet your appetite; there is no shortage of information about the case online and, if you haven’t already, I can recommend diving in.
Now, what are we to think of this strange case?
There are perhaps three prominent theories we can put forward.
And with all three of these theories we need to consider whether it was a single member of the Irving family responsible, or whether it was a combination of two or three members.
If it was an out and out hoax, and by hoax I mean a conscious deception, then for what reason would it have been conducted? Monetary gain seems unlikely, although Mr. Irving told Harry Price that he intended to write a book about his experiences this never came about and would have been unlikely to sell in sufficient quantities to make Irving his fortune. Perhaps boredom and a sense of mischief could be an explanation, Mr. and Mrs. Irving were used to travelling the world before settling down to life in the lonely farmhouse. Voirrey had known little else other than the farmhouse, she was an isolated child living with her aging parents. We must assume that it would be highly unlikely that a single member of the household would have been able to dupe the other two for the fifteen or so years that Gef was with them so, if it was a hoax perpetuated by a single person, then it is likely that the other two would have become willing participants.
The story certainly bears all the hallmarks of a classic poltergeist haunting. Harry Price himself had a particular fascination for poltergeist activity and investigated countless cases. In his introduction to his 1945 publication Poltergeist Over England, Price states that poltergeist are:
“mischievous, destructive, noisy, cruel, erratic, thievish, demonstrative, purposeless, cunning, unhelpful, malicious, audacious, teasing, ill-disposed, spiteful, ruthless, resourceful and vampiric”
He also suggests that poltergeist differ from ghosts in that they infest a location rather than haunt; they prefer company to solitude. This all fits in with Gef’s modus operandi; however, Price continues by suggesting poltergeist are ‘invisible, intangible and inarticulate’ – none of which Gef are.
But Harry Price wasn’t the only one to investigate the Irving’s visitor. Famed psychologist / parapsychologist Nandor Fodor also investigated the case and, despite some reservations, he could find no evidence to suggest that Gef was not a mischievous animal with the power of human speech. However, he later revised his conclusion in favour of the idea that, rather than an independent creature/spirit, Gef was an external manifestation of the inner turmoil within the mind of one of the family members. This theory for poltergeist activity, the unconscious telekinetic activity of a troubled mind, garnered strength over the following decades to become the prominent explanation for the phenomenon in the post-Freudian 20th century. We may think that Voirrey would be the main suspect for this, poltergeist are most commonly thought to attach themselves / emanate from a teenage girl; but Fodor thought that James Irving was the cause.
Hoax or poltergeist? The former suggests a conscious decision, by one or more of the family, to deceive; the latter suggests and unconscious deception by a single member of the family. But let us consider another alternative.
A familiar spirit is said to be a demon or, in some cases, a fairy which has taken corporeal form to do the bidding of a witch. More often than not, this spirit takes the form of a domestic animal; we’re all aware of the archetypal witch’s cat but, historically, they have supposedly taken the forms of all manner of beasts – toads, cockerels, pigs, goats, ferrets, dogs, lambs, etc.
The familiar assists the witch / sorcerer / cunning-man / wise-woman (choose your terminological favourite) in his or her magical practises. In animal form they can travel undetected, sometimes even invisibly, to eavesdrop on neighbours, steal items and cause sickness and death to people and livestock. In return, the witch will allow the familiar to suckle from her, usually the offering is a drop of blood.
It doesn’t take too much of a leap of the imagination to think about Gef in these terms. The Isle of Man has a strong history of folklore relating to witchcraft and fairies so perhaps we can consider Gef to be a fairy in animal form, if not in reality then in the mind of one of the Irving family.
Most of the information we have today on traditional witchcraft and animal familiars is handed down to us through the witch trials of the 16th and 17th century and, considering the persecution which occurred at this time, we may consider these records as somewhat unreliable source material. But what if there is some truth in the psycho-spiritual concept of familiars? After all, the witches of Western Europe were not the only ones to utilise animal spirits; we can see a strong similarity in Siberian shamanism. The Russian folklorist G. V. Ksenofontov conducted research among the Tungus people of Siberia where he observed:
“Every shaman must have an animal-mother or origin-animal. It is usually pictured in the form of an elk, less often as a bear. This animal lives independently, separated from the shaman. Perhaps it can be best imagined as the fiery force of the shaman that flies over the earth. It is the embodiment of the prophetic gift of the shaman, it is the shaman’s visionary power, which is able to penetrate both the past and the future.”
“The shamans tell us that they have two dogs who are their invisible assistants. In the séance they call them by their names, ‘Chardas’ and ‘Botos’. The dogs of a blood-thirsty shaman possessed by evil spirits will kill cattle and people.”
Compare this with excerpts from British witch trials, in this case from the St. Osyth trial of 1582:
“This examinate, beeing asked howe shee knewe the names of mother Bennets spirites, sayth, that Tyffin her spirite did tell this examinate that shee had two spirites, the one of them like a blacke Dogge, and the other redde like a Lyon, and that their names were Suckin and Lyerd , and sayeth that Suckin did plague Byettes wife unto death, and the other plagued three of his Beastes whereof two of them dyed.”
“The saide Ursley bursting out with weeping, fel upon her knees, and confessed that shee had foure spirites, whereof two of them were hees, and the other two were shees: the two hee spirites were to punishe and kill unto death, and the other two shees were to punishe with lamenes, and other diseases of bodyly harm: and also to destroy cattell.
And she this examinate, being asked by what name or names shee called the sayde spirits, and what maner of thinges, or colour they were of: confesseth and saith, that the one is called Tittey, being a hee, and is like a gray Cat, the seconde called Jacke, also a hee, and is like a blacke Cat, the thirde is called Piggin, being a she, and is like a blacke Toade, the fourth is called Tyffin, being a shee, and is like a white lambe.
This examinate being further asked, which of the saide spirites shee sent to punishe Thorlowes wife and Letherdalls childe, confessed and sayed, that shee sent Tyttey to punishe Thorlowes wife, and Pigen Letherdalls Childe.
And this examinate, without any asking of her owne free will at that present, confessed and saide, that shee was the death of her brother Kemps wife, and that she sent the spirite Jacke to plague her, for that her sister had called her whore and witche.”
“And casting her eyes aside, shee saw a spirit lift up a clothe lying over a pot, looking much lik a Ferret. And it beeing asked of this examinate why the spirite did looke upon her, shee said it was hungrie.”
Note the ferret familiar being kept in a pot. Another ferret familiar appeared in the 1589 Chelmsford witch trial when Joan Prentice was accused of killing a child by witchcraft. Joan was reported to have described how a ferret appeared to her and said “Joan Prentice, give me thy soul.” Joan refused as she believed her soul was not hers to give, so they reached a compromise when the Ferret, who was named Bid, replied:
“I must then have some of they blood”, which she willingly granted, offering him the foreginger of her left hand; the which the ferret took into his mouth and, setting his former feed upon that hand, sucked blood thereout…
In 1932, at the height of Gef the Talking Mongoose’s fame, there was a 10 year old boy living on the Isle of Man. He was the son of the owner/editor of one of the local newspapers and his name was Thomas Nigel Kneale. In later life he became better known as Nigel Kneale, author and screenwriter.
We spoke about Kneale in my last post when we discussed his adaptation of the Norah Lofts novel The Devil’s Own for the 1966 Hammer film, The Witches. You can read it HERE.
As I mentioned, Kneale had a remarkable knack, which can be seen in much of his work, in juxtaposing the mythic and the folkloric with the scientific and the psychological. We all know Kneale from his work on, among many others, the Quatermass cycle, his BBC adaptation of Orwell’s 1984 and the magnificent 1972 supernatural drama The Stone Tape. But when we are discussing Gef the Talking Mongoose we must talk about his 1976 drama series, Beasts.
Beasts was a series of six supernatural tales exploring the relationship between humanity and animals and we must wonder whether, as a 10 year old boy living on the Isle of Man, Kneale picked up some influences from the stories he must have heard concerning Gef and the Irving family.
In the second episode of the series, During Barty’s Party, we have a middle-aged couple trapped in their own home by a horde of rats. It may be fanciful, but perhaps echoes of Gef can quite literally be heard with the unseen rats scratching and skittering behind the woodwork.
In the fourth episode, Baby, a young couple move into an old farmhouse and during renovation they discover a large urn bricked into a cavity in the wall. When they crack open the seal they discover inside the dry remains of an unidentifiable creature. This sets into motion a tale of ancient witchcraft and a familiar spirit. Interestingly, W. Walter Gill published a book concerning the history and folklore of the Isle of Man called A Manx Scrapbook; this was published in 1929, two years before Gef appeared, and in it Gill relates a tale which occurred at Doarlish Cashen:
“Some men digging here many years ago unearthed a flat stone covering a funerary urn which contained black ashes. They buried it in the hedge-bank. A long time afterwards, and not extremely long ago, a young man hunting rabbits with his dog (” Paddy,” whose name, in the interests of historic accuracy, shall be placed on record), thought he saw a rabbit bolt into the hedge. He began pulling away. the stones and soil, and while doing so he felt something invisible pushing him back. When this happened a second time a sudden fear took him and he ran down the hill-side till he reached his home. A white stone in the hedge still marks the spot where the urn was buried.”
The first episode, Special Offer, concerns a girl called Noreen who works in Briteway, one branch of a small supermarket chain. Noreen doesn’t fit in with anyone, she is an outsider; her boss and the rest of the staff dislike her. Briteway has a cartoon mascot, an indeterminate yellow rodent name Briteway Billy which, strangely enough, fits the Irvings’ original description of Gef – about the size of large rat with a yellow face and a flat snout. When Noreen’s latent telekinetic abilities come to the fore in a fit of pique they take the form of, what appears to be, poltergeist-like activity; cans flying off the shelves, bags of flour bursting, bottles exploding, etc. Crucially, Noreen does not appear to realise that it is her that is causing the disturbances, instead she blames the seemingly invisible rodent when she declares the perpetrator to be Briteway Billy.
If we take a look at this excerpt from Kneale’s script of Special Offer we will see a resemblance to the Nandor Fodor poltergeist theory we were discussing earlier. In this, we have the boss of Briteway, Liversedge discussing the matter with the general manager, Grimley:
Grimley: A poltergeist?
Liversedge: I’m sure of it.
Grimley: You mean a spook?
Liversedge: Oh, I don’t mean like that, it’s a lot more complicated. I remember a case, it was donkeys years ago, there was a house and there were noises, there were thumps and knockings. And then furniture moving and flying about.
Grimley: Yes, I remember something about that.
Liversedge: There are thousands, but this was one I knew; and the cause of it all was a young kid, a boy this time.
Liversedge: Things happened when he was there and when he wasn’t, they didn’t.
Grimley: He knew he was doing it?
Liversedge: They sort of do and they don’t.
Grimley: She does?
Liversedge: She does now.
Grimley: But what about the animal? You heard it, scratching anf breathing.
Liversedge: That’s all part of it.
We may consider the similarities between Kneale’s screenplays for Beasts and the story of Gef the Talking Mongoose perhaps a little vague to truly ascertain whether there was any influence there or not. However, long before Beasts Kneale wrote a collection of short stories, Tomato Cain and Other Stories. This was published in 1949 and Elizabeth Bowen wrote the introduction to the volume. This is an excerpt from Bowen’s introduction:
“This writer is a young Manxman. He has grown up in, and infuses into his stories, an atmosphere which one can cut with a knife. He is not dependant on regionalism – not all of his work has an Isle of Man setting – but it would appear that he draws strength from it: his work at its best had the flavour, raciness, “body” that one associates with the best of the output from Ireland, Wales, Brittany, and the more remote, untouched and primitive of the States of America. He turns for his inspiration to creeks in which life runs deep, to pockets in which life accumulates, deeply queer. Is the Talking Mongoose a sore subject with the Isle of Man? That interesting animal – of which the investigations of the late Harry Price never entirely disposed – might well be the denizen of a Nigel Kneale story.”
So, was Gef genuinely a talking mongoose? Was he a spirit in the form of an animal? Was he a poltergeist? Was he the externalised manifestation of a disturbed mind? Was he merely a hoax? Whatever he was, he possibly served as an influence on the work of Nigel Kneale, which we can be thankful for.
And talking of fictional accounts of the case of Gef the Talking Mongoose, I very much like the (purely fictional) possibility that it was Mrs. Margaret Irving who conducted the whole affair. She takes a bit of a back seat in the story to her husband and daughter. It was James and Voirrey who received the most attention from the press; they were the ones to first see the creature that became Gef; they were the ones that seemed to be the most vocal about it; they were the ones who were the main suspects. But Margaret Irving? She was the one originally from the Isle of Man, that land steeped in witchcraft and folklore. As Mr. Irving stated,
“Gef obeys my wife only, and that just within certain limits.”
And what are we to think of the incident where Gef drew blood from Margaret Irving? Where she:
“…had her fingers in his mouth and could feel his teeth.”
Perhaps we could consider this the act of a witch ‘suckling’ her familiar.
And when the reporter for the Manchester Daily Dispatch visited the farmhouse, who was it in the adjoining room conversing with Gef? Of course, it was Margaret Irving.
There’s no doubt about it, Margaret Irving was from a long line of Manx witches and, on returning to the island, regained her powers after encountering the spirit of Gef who was released after the unearthing of the funerary urn in Doarlish Cashen some years before. To divert attention away from her magical activities, she and Gef concocted this unlikely story to suggest a poltergeist hoax on the parts of her husband and daughter; that way, making sure the focus is on James and Voirrey and so leaving Margaret to dabble in her devilish deeds without persecution.
I reiterate, this is of course a purely fanciful notion…