THERE’S AN ANCIENT Hindu fable that dates back to at least 300 BCE, about a childless couple who decide to adopt a mongoose. They raise the creature as if it were a son, feeding it, letting it live among them in their house. Eventually they also have a child, and the mongoose becomes its faithful protector, even as the couple begins to quietly distrust the animal. One day, returning home, they find the house in disarray, the crib overturned, the baby missing, and the mongoose’s mouth stained with blood. Horrified, they kill the mongoose. Only later do they realize what had happened: a snake had entered the house, intent on eating the child, and the mongoose fought it to the death. The blood on its mouth was the snake’s blood; underneath the upturned crib they find their child, unharmed.

The fable warns against rash action, of course, but also against greed and hubris. The couple in the story have tried to have both a human child and this other child, and by bringing a wild creature into their household they have upended the domestic order. It’s a lesson James Irving and his family learned firsthand. In 1916, Irving and his family moved to a remote farmstead on the Isle of Man known as Doarlish Cashen, about a mile from the tiny village of Dalby. There he lived with his wife Margaret and young daughter Voirrey until the early 1930s, when a talking mongoose named Gef appeared and took over their family.

In an exhaustive chronicle running close to 400 pages, the paranormal researcher Christopher Josiffe has attempted to chronicle the story of Gef and the Irvings, as well as make sense of just what happened on Doarlish Cashen. Gef!: The Strange Tale of an Extra-Special Talking Mongoose is, as the artist B. Catling writes in his introduction, “the definitive account of a story that refuses to become definitive,” a mystery whose possible explanations only invite more questions.

Gef (pronounced “Jeff”) first appeared in September 1931, when the Irvings began hearing tappings and knockings that they initially assumed was a mouse, and subsequently thought to be a small weasel or stoat trapped in the walls of their farmhouse. On October 20, James and Voirrey finally got a glimpse of the creature, a yellow and brown “ratlike” animal with a long, bushy tail. The animal lingered, continuing to make noise, but by December these noises had become distinctly less animal in nature; they sounded, the Irvings later told the Isle of Man Examiner, “similar to a baby child beginning to talk,” and before long the family “heard definite words issuing from the walls.” More curious than frightened, they tried to teach their strange new visitor nursery rhymes, which within a week he could repeat back to them. Soon he could speak fluently and conversationally. “From that time on,” the Examiner reported, “this queer body has repeated parts of their conversations, has discussed their private lives with them, and has retailed gossip gleaned from the outside.” A quick study, Gef not only spoke English, but in time also picked up other languages, including bits of French, German, Yiddish, Flemish, Spanish, and Hebrew. He enjoyed singing songs and telling jokes, could change shape, and appeared to be clairvoyant.

It was not clear to the Irvings or anyone else what exactly Gef was: a ghost, a cryptid, a hallucination? James Irving (who did most of the talking on behalf of the family) would often offer conflicting assessments. “I never said that he was a mongoose,” he writes in one letter. “I don’t think he is an animal. I think he is a spirit in animal form.” In another letter, however, he contradicted this statement, writing, “Undoubtedly, he is a species of mongoose, but whether a hybrid or not, I cannot say.” Gef himself would later claim that he was an Indian mongoose, and that he had been born 80 years earlier, on June 7, 1852, and had come from Delhi. He was initially known as “the Dalby spook,” a name Josiffe prefers over “talking mongoose,” in that the former “is more ambiguous. It does not restrict Gef to being identified as a mongoose. ‘Spook’ suggests something uncanny or supernatural, and places Gef within the context of Manx myth, legend, and fairy tale.”

Gef was initially hostile toward the Irvings, terrorizing them at night, insulting and threatening them, even throwing rocks at the family. Within a year, though, they had struck a truce with Gef, who subsequently became a part of the family. He ate the food they left out for them, and would catch and kill rabbits that he would leave on the doorstep (he was apparently prodigious enough at this that the Irvings sold surplus rabbits in Dalby). He would stick up for them, offering to slaughter the livestock of any of Irving’s enemies, and he was particularly protective of young Voirrey.

While a singing, joke-telling mongoose seems delightfully absurd and comical, like something out of a children’s cartoon, there are dark elements to the story. Gef had a mean streak bordering on violence; Irving reports that he once told him, “If you are kind to me, I will bring you good luck. If you are not kind, I will kill all your poultry. I can get them wherever you put them.” On another occasion, he was even more threatening: “You don’t know what damage or harm I might do if I were roused. I could kill you all if I liked but I won’t.”

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As word got out about Gef, James Irving became something of a local celebrity. Several paranormal investigators, spiritualists, and skeptics made the pilgrimage out to the remote farmstead to figure out what exactly was happening. Among those who traveled to the Irvings’ homestead looking for evidence of Gef was the spiritualist book publicist Norah Nicholls (she would later be press secretary to Virginia Woolf, who described her as a “flashy underworld flibbertigibbet”). Nicholls concluded that the local “general attitude is of outward scepticism but inward nervousness — there is Something there; but how can an animal talk? People in the village won’t go near the place […] no one will go there at night.

The conclusion gradually becomes inescapable, as one reads Josiffe’s book, that Gef was a creation of Voirrey, or perhaps Voirrey and Margaret in concert. (It’s possible that the entire family was involved in some kind of ruse, but James Irving’s steadfast earnestness about the whole Gef affair has led many to conclude that he was innocent of any plot.) There were numerous signs that the daughter was behind the strange occurrences, and Josiffe peppers them throughout his narrative, strongly implying that Gef was Voirrey’s creation without ever outright saying so. From the beginning, there were rumors that Voirrey was the origin of Gef’s voice: “Does the solution of the mystery of the ‘man-weasel’ of Doarlish Cashen lie in the dual personality of the 13 year-old girl, Voirrey Irving?” the Dispatch asked the day after first reporting on the phenomenon. Early on, Josiffe quotes a local man remembering his late mother-in-law’s comment that the Irvings “always had a mongoose to catch & eat the cockroaches, & it was at tea time Voirrey would throw her voice as if the mongoose was talking…”

Why would Voirrey invent such a strange creature? Living alone with her parents in a remote part of a remote island, Voirrey’s intellect and curiosity may have been stifled, and Gef may have been one by-product of her curious and lonely existence. As one of the principal investigators of the Dalby mystery, Richard Stanton Lambert, commented to several of his colleagues, “You must admit that Voirrey has had an unnatural upbringing for a child. She is very lonely, has only her parents for company, and they are so much older. No young people around. We wanted to talk to Voirrey ourselves, but she is close and very reserved…” Additionally, Gef’s propensity to look out for Voirrey seems suspect: Harold Dennis, of London’s National Laboratory of Psychical Research, had been trying to get definitive proof of the Dalby spook when he was told by James Irving that Gef “had been talking that morning, and had promised to speak to me in the evening providing that I made a promise to give Voirrey a camera, or gramophone!”

Sensing that Voirrey held the key to the whole mystery, Lambert and his colleague Harry Price proposed to take her on a boat tour of the Isle of Man, hoping to get her away from her father in order to learn more about the true nature of Gef. Voirrey, intelligent but largely sheltered, quickly agreed, but James stymied their plan by accompanying them and monopolizing the conversation (as Price and Lambert had feared he would). A subsequent attempt to get her to come to London unaccompanied was similarly rebuffed. Despite strong evidence that Voirrey was behind the entire mystery — or at least knew the truth of what was happening — no one could get past James Irving’s loquacious defenses, meaning any hypothesis about Gef remained provisional.

A teenage girl’s prank causes mayhem among rural simpletons: that might seem to be the end of the story. But there are problems with the Voirrey hypothesis that make the case of Gef that much harder to dismiss. The main issues involve motive. Some have argued that Voirrey, unhappy to find herself on a remote part of a remote island, conjured the haunting to convince her father to move the family back to the mainland. If Doarlish Cashen was haunted by a malevolent spirit, perhaps, then Voirrey could have lobbied for a move to somewhere less isolated. But if this was the strategy, it backfired; the Irvings didn’t leave until James Irving died in 1945, after the Gef sightings had died down. Nor could it have been the case that the Irvings were only doing this for money; as James himself confessed, the farm’s reputation as a home for ghostly visitors decreased its value to less than half of what he paid for it.

Add to this the odd habit James Irving had of seemingly revealing the various ways in which his daughter was behind the trick. Take, for example, Gef’s famous ability to catch rabbits; since they were sold in town, these were some of the few tangible items of proof that something was happening. But as Josiffe notes, Irving himself was “quite open about Voirrey’s own rabbit-hunting skills — he could have concealed this (for fear that it offered a simple explanation for the source of the rabbits) — but chose not to.” As Lambert recalled being told by Irving,

Voirrey and Mona (the dog) had developed a method of catching the rabbits. Voirrey would tell Mona to point a rabbit, who became mesmerised, and Voirrey would creep round behind the rabbit, and knock on the head with a stick or something, and thus kill it. The rabbit would be too mesmerised to move.

When James Irving was asked to provide physical proof of Gef, he sent Harry Price some supposed fur samples, but laboratory analysis quickly determined that the fur came from a dog, likely Mona. Why would Irving offer such an easily debunked piece of evidence — and, if he wasn’t in on it, why would Voirrey let him? Not only are the usual motives for fraud inapplicable here, but if it was all a hoax, the Irvings seemed to be recklessly unconcerned with maintaining it.

Nor was it that easy to write off the Irvings as delusional or mentally unstable. From the beginning, witnesses focused on Irving and his family’s sanity and sensibility; one of the earliest stories on the Dalby spook, in the Isle of Man Examiner, concludes: “Our story may leave the reader unconvinced, it may be unconvincing, but it is backed by the assurance of as sane a man as one could ever meet, and at that we must leave it.” Another reporter from mainland England noted that “the people who claim it was the voice of the strange weasel seem sane, honest, and responsible folk and not likely to indulge in a difficult, long drawn-out, and unprofitable practical joke to make themselves the talk of the world.” Even the more devoted investigators who spent a prolonged period with the Irvings saw them as basically trustworthy, despite the incredulous tale and minimal proof. Harold Dennis, writing to Harry Price, confessed: “I don’t quite know what I really think, as the attitude of the Irvings has rather defeated me. Mr Irving appears to be a perfectly genuine man, and quite above the Manx farming class.”

Could the Irvings, then, have been telling the truth? This is the conclusion of many who’ve contemplated the Dalby spook, and at times it seems to be Josiffe’s as well. “Despite the clear evidence of hoaxing, it should be emphasised that an acknowledgement of fraud having been perpetrated in certain instances does not necessitate the entire opus of phenomena being fraudulent,” he warns.

The annals of psychical research are full of cases of Spiritualist mediums whose paranormal ability was only intermittent, causing them to fabricate or simulate on those occasions when they were committed to giving a public performance but unable to produce genuine phenomena.

Statements like this reflect the curious logic of the occultist’s Occam’s razor. First, an exceptional story is proposed: a talking mongoose with supernatural powers lives with a family. Second, debunkers propose a series of obvious explanations: fraud, delusion, et cetera. Third, the believer responds by casting doubt on these provisional hypotheses, and finally claims that the original implausible hypothesis, however unlikely, must be true. Because no definitive debunking has been proved, the occultist can claim victory. Visitation by a supernatural mongoose is thus considered more plausible, more realistic, than a family perpetrating an elaborate hoax for no sensible reason. The assumption here seems to be that while the world may be fantastical, unknowable, vast, and infinite with its strange and supernatural possibilities, human psychology is simple, and reducible to a set of finite causes and motivations. If the Irvings were sane and unable to profit, or uninterested in profiting, off of Gef, then, such logic runs, a talking mongoose is suddenly the most reasonable answer.

Indeed, the more likely story — that Gef never really existed — is in many ways more unsettling than the paranormal explanation, mainly because it defies a number of common assumptions about human psychology, and the way a small family, mainly isolated, might grow in strange ways. Looking for a motive beyond profit and fame suggests a family in turmoil, a crisis that manifested itself in a mischievous and protective supernatural creature. Did Voirrey invent Gef to connect with her father? Josiffe notes that Irving claimed his daughter was “not an affectionate child,” and that the only one of his children he’d been close to was his son Gilbert (who, by the time of Gef’s appearance, had moved to the mainland). Unsurprising, then, that Gef emerged as a replacement son for James: “James Irving’s fondness for Gef was matched by Gef’s warm feelings for ‘Jim’ or ‘Jimmo.’ As if in acknowledgement of a father-son relationship, Gef would ask Irving to tell him ghost stories at night.”

Even more disturbing: Perhaps Voirrey used Gef to protect herself from her father. Gef supposedly James that “I’ll follow her, wherever you move her!” — a statement that the Irvings read as menacing, but which also suggests that Gef wasn’t about to let anyone else menace the teenage girl, either. Through the years there have been several veiled insinuations that Voirrey might have been the victim of sexual abuse, though no evidence of such abuse ever emerged, and with British libel laws being extremely stringent, investigators were careful never to make this accusation openly. It’s possible that Gef was an amalgamation of many of these things. Within a fractured, hermetic, and isolated family, strained by intrafamilial tensions and psychological pressure, a mercurial and malleable entity emerges that can negotiate these tensions, and serve as an outlet and scapegoat as needed.

Gef’s story is interesting in another way. As a magical figure, he breaks the mold of the taxonomy of the paranormal. Was he a ghost, a supernatural animal, a witch’s familiar? Each of these different mythological creatures, after all, accomplishes a different psychological and sociological function. To call something a ghost is to invoke a host of associations: an uncertainty about what happens after death, a mourning not yet finished. Nature sprites, on the other hand, reflect our ambivalence and ignorance toward the natural world itself: a landscape that is not just unknown and dangerous, but magical and treacherous. The motif of witches’ familiars takes this ambivalence toward wild animals and mobilizes it against women.

Changing his nature and constitution throughout the years, Gef was all of these things, and thus none of them. A hodgepodge of different folk beliefs, each of which spoke to a different set of anxieties and aspirations, Gef could speak to none of these psychological needs, no matter which language he used. It’s possible, then, to read Gef as a product of a singular kind of artistic genius on the part of Voirrey or her family. All of these various categories — ghosts, familiars, imps, et cetera — are the product of a collective and communal vision, passed down through centuries without author or design, gradually molding to the needs of each time and place. Gef can be seen as a work of folk art in this tradition, a synthesis of Indian, Celtic, Christian, and 19th-century Spiritualism.

Because Voirrey Irving never, even to her dying day, confessed to the true story of Gef, we’ll never know for sure what went on. Perhaps in this she was thinking of the sad tale of Margaret and Kate Fox. In 1848 the Fox sisters started the Spiritualist craze that swept through North America (and soon, the world), by communicating with spirits via a strange rapping noise. Forty years later, Margaret finally confessed that the entire thing had been a hoax, and demonstrated how she and her sister had created the rapping noise by secretly cracking their toe joints. The outrage from the Spiritualist community was so vitriolic that Margaret was eventually forced to recant her confession, affirming the proof of ghosts under extreme duress.

Without any word from Voirrey, we are left only with a story of something strange that once happened to a family. It’s a fascinating and disturbing psychological portrait of a small family, mostly cut off from the world, the facts of which are buried under so many layers of folklore, paranormalism, quackery, and pseudoscience that we’ll likely never understand what was really going on. There are no lessons here to learn — except, perhaps, for one we’ve known for centuries: never welcome a mongoose into your home.

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Colin Dickey is the author, most recently, of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places.