One of the more entertaining aspects of writing this little series of articles on folklore is the fact that my researches often throw up a huge number of surprises. Often these are the unexpected connections between different things, surprisingly ancient origins for common customs, or simply discovering that the received wisdom on a particular topic is complete hogwash. But every now and then, you unearth something that will give you a little chill...
Over the years, I've done quite a bit of research on the folklore that has grown up around toads; and a very fascinating area of study it is too. Now recently, I was just doing a bit of digging, hoping to discover more about a secretive group of yesteryear called the Toadmen, when I chance upon an article discussing a creature that I was fairly sure was the invention of a favourite author of mine. I have long been a devotee of the fiction of Mr Ramsey Campbell, so then it was something of a strange surprise to find an article by a cryptozoologist on a being that I had always assumed to be one of his creations.
Mr Campbell began his writing career at an early age, having his first weird short stories published while still a teenager. And in these early years he had fallen under the spell of HP Lovecraft, as many of us do at that age, and hence his first tales were stories in a Lovecraftian vein, expanding the canon of the Cthulhu Mythos. Following his hero's lead, Campbell constructed a milieu of fictional towns, located in the Severn Valley, where his own pantheon of evil Elder Gods and beings from Outside brought the gifts of madness and death to all those disturbing their ancient slumbers. One such early tale was entitled The Box in the Priory, which under the mentoring of Lovecraft's friend and publisher August Derleth, would become The Room in the Castle. And this tale would appear in Campbell's first book, published in 1964 by Arkham House, The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants (and can also be found in the Campbell anthologies Cold Print 1985, Dark Feasts 1987, and Alone With the Horrors 1993) which collected together these Lovecraftian pastiches from our young author.
Now Cthulhu Mythos tales are very much exercises in myth making with writers inventing monsters, alien races and demon gods that haunt accursed places and are referenced in blasphemous grimoires and ancient legends. The approach was pioneered by Lovecraft, who being rather disappointed by conventional occult lore and feeling the likes of ghosts and vampires were a bit too familiar to be frightening, decided to create his own horrors and constructed their own histories and myths to give them life. Other authors - at first friends of Lovecraft such as August Derleth, Robert E Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert Bloch, but later new generations of writers - joined in the game, dropping names and references picked up from each others stories, weaving together a new dark mythos.
Therefore The Room in the Castle, like many Cthulhu Mythos tales, takes an obscure name found in an earlier story and spins a new yarn with it. In this case, Campbell had picked up on a reference in a Robert Bloch story entitled The Shambler from the Stars (first published in Weird Tales, September 1935). In this tale Bloch (the man who would later write classics such as Psycho) has his narrator say "I recall allusions to such gods of divination as Father Yig, dark Han, and serpent-bearded Byatis". And as no one else had written anything about the last in that roll call of ancient evil, Campbell decided to pen a story about the snake-fringed Byatis. Hence in the tale we learn the monster god was accidentally freed from its in a primordial tomb by the Romans in ancient Britain, and had haunted the Severn Valley for centuries ever since. Byatis's manifestations was the dark truth behind a local legend of a monster known as the Berkeley Toad, and the alien horror would later be captured by a wicked nobleman who practiced the dark arts, who trapped the horror in a dungeon in the ruins of a crumbling Norman castle. It is a fun little story, and given that it has been reprinted in two best of collections, it's fair to say it's one of the better Lovecraftian pastiches the young Campbell wrote. And indeed it is a favourite of mine too, and not just because its hero is a researcher into folklore.
So then, imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon a site relating the tales of the Berkeley Toad as actual fact. At first, I simply assumed that this was merely the product of the kind of sloppy journalism for which the interwebs are notorious. And the paucity of the results yielded by an initial causal Googling seemed to confirm this, with the Berkeley Toad only appearing on pages relating to Byatis, the Cthulhu Mythos and of course Mr Ramsey Campbell. However one should never give up after the first attempt, and with some more extensive and careful searching, I discovered to my surprise that actually the reverse was true - that what I had assumed to be a fictional entity was in fact real. Or rather, a real life legend I should say...
Now it is fair to say that this is a rather obscure local tale, and I had trouble in finding sources for some of the claims in the original article, and its recounting of Romans discovering a curious tomb sound suspiciously like a garbled version of Campbell's backstory for Byatis. However I have established the following facts...
Berkeley is a small market town in Gloucestershire, and indeed just like in Campbell's story there is a Norman castle there. However rather than being the isolated ruin of the tale, Berkeley Castle is still in relatively good order and is the home of the Berkeley family - indeed it is the one of oldest continuously inhabited castles in England. However in the Morning Room of the castle there is a curious carving which depicts a monstrous toad-like thing squatting upon two human heads. More curious still, a very similar carving of a toad and two heads is found carved on a corbel in a local church, St. Marys. And significantly this carving adorns the chapel of the Berkeley family tombs.
According to the conventional wisdom, these carving are supposedly what is often called a sermon in stone. The medieval world had a complex system of symbolism, and hence many odd features in old churches that feature seemingly un-Christian things are actually visual lessons using this language of imagery. In the medieval mind toads were associated with poison (for they secrete toxins as a defence) and romantic jealousy (due to their breeding habits where several males will attempt to mount the same female), therefore these two Berkeley carvings are traditionally interpreted as warnings on the sins of gossip and envy, with the toad figure poisoning the minds of two women as they speak.
However local legend has a different interpretation - allegedly the carvings show not two women but two children, a pair of unfortunates who were gobbled up by the monstrous toad! Now quite where the horrible creature came from I have been unable to ascertain, but it was claimed that the skin of the beast was exhibited in Berkeley Castle. In his 1837 tome A History of British Quadrupeds including the Cetacea zoologist Thomas Bell quotes an associate, a Mr Broderip who relates the tale in a letter -
The legend ran, that this was the great toad which inhabited the dungeons of the castle, and victimised the captives. Two of his own children were said to have been sacrificed to this monster by a Marquis of Berkeley of the olden time. I remember hearing the tale from our old nurse, and afterwards venturing to dispute the truth of the story. I can see her now, with her close white cap and shaking head, reproving me for my want of faith, and settling the question, as she thought, by solemnly announcing that the skin of the toad was still seen at the castle.
Delving further into the matter, I discovered that in the early 1600s, a faithful servant, John Smyth of Nibley, the steward of the castle, had compiled a history of both the Berkeley family and their home. And in these voluminous writings, which historians have named The Berkeley Mss., Symth writes -
Out of which dungeon in the likenes of a deepe broad well goinge steepely down in the midst of the Dungeon Chamber in the said Keepe, was (as tradition tells,) drawne forth a Toad, in the time of Kinge Henry the seventh, of an incredible bignes, which, in the deepe dry dust in the bottom thereof, had doubtlesse lived there divers hundreds of yeares; whose portraiture in just demension, as it was then to me affirmed by divers aged persons, I sawe, about 48 years agone, drawne in colours upon the doore of the Great Hall and of the utter side of the stone porch leadinge into that hall; since, by pargettors or pointers of that wall washed out or outworne with time; which in bredth was more then a foot, neere 16 inches, and in length more. Of which monstrous and outgrowne beast the inhabitants of this towne, and in the neighbour villages round about, fable many strange and incredible wonders; makinge the greatnes of this toad more than would fill a peck, yea, I have heard some, who looked to have beleife, say from the report of their Fathers and Grandfathers that it would have filled a bushell or strike, and to have beene many yeares fed with flesh and garbage from the butchers; but this is all the trueth I knowe or dare believe.
Now for those of you unfamiliar with archaic measurements, the terms mentioned were weights for dry goods - a peck was two gallons, a bushel was eight gallons (four pecks), and a strike was sixteen gallons (or two bushels). So then we have a beast that was several feet in size - far from Godzilla proportions of course, but all the same a toad, an animal usually only a few inches long, that was the size of a large sack of grain would indeed be a "strange and incredible wonder". And more to the point, big enough to chomp on people...
Here we also have the origin of the legendary beast - an old well deep in the castle dungeons. However it is interesting to note that as the loyal servant he undoubtedly was Symth somewhat glosses over the fact that the old tales claim that prisoners were fed to the monstrous toad. Nor does he mention the legend that two of the family's children were once upon a time fed to the beast. So far I have not been able to locate any Marquis of Berkeley, or any other worthy of that family for that matter, who had a reputation for dabbling in the black arts as did Sir Gilbert Morley in The Room in the Castle.
Was the beast ever real? Well toads in captivity can live up to fifty years and do indeed grow larger with age. Hence it is possible that a very long lived specimen might have exceeded the usual six inches or so. And so, taking the lower end of the range of sizes mentioned by Symth it is perhaps just feasible that there was such a creature - although a toad around a foot long would hardly be able to chow down on prisoners. Alternatively it may have been a specimen of some larger foreign species acquired as an unusual pet - the largest on record was a cane toad that measured 15 inches, which is certainly in the same ballpark as the smaller estimates of the Berkeley Toad.
But what of the skin that hung in the castle? Well sadly, it was long ago identified as something rather different. In his 1836 book Berkeley Castle: An Historical Romance, Volume 1, Grantley Fitzhardinge Berkeley writes -
One thing, which I remember well as a child has been removed; on yonder shelf was the stuffed skin of a huge seal, often pointed out to me by my nurse, as the great toad of old, which my ancestry used to keep in the donjon to feed upon their captives; and to which, as an ancient legend run, (doubtless derived from as authentic a source) the Marquis of Berkeley was supposed to have abandoned his two children.
Yes, the hide of the Berkeley Toad was nothing more than a badly stuffed seal it would appear. Whether this was acquired to embroider the legend of the carvings or maybe was their inspiration we cannot say. However it seems likely that some noble of the Berkeley family at some time either had the stuffed seal ,or perhaps a live toad of amazing proportions, as a curiosity. For in the pre-modern age, it was not uncommon for aristocrats to furnish their homes with such wonders and curiosities - such things were the blockbuster movies of their day. For like having ornate gardens and exhibiting works of art, owning an unusual animal would make one very fashionable, and draw many eminent visitors and guests to one's home. And the tales of feeding the creature on human flesh would only spice up the attraction of the curiosity.
However one mystery remains - and that is why as a long time devotee of the folklore of the British Isles, and indeed having a love of mythical monsters, I had not come across legends of the Berkeley Toad before. But perhaps I had read of these tales before, and merely forgotten... For after all, did not Ludwig Von Prinn write in the horrible De Vermis Mysteriis that Byatis had the power to cloud the minds of men?
Byatis, the serpent-bearded, the god of forgetfulness, came with the Great Old Ones from the stars, called by obeisances made to his image, which was brought by the Deep Ones to Earth. He may be called by the touching of his image by a living being. His gaze brings darkness on the mind; and it is said that those who look upon his eye will be forced to walk to his clutches. He feasts upon those who stray to him, and from those upon whom he feasts he draws a part of their vitality.
But surely that cannot be. Indeed, one hopes not, for might not dwelling upon the legend constitute a modern version of making obeisances to its image. No, of course not, that is mere folly born of poring over too many old and dusty tomes. But wait... What is that slithering I hear at the window...
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