Gef!: The Strange Tale of an Extra-Special Talking Mongoose, out now from Strange Attractor, is Christopher Josiffe’s sweeping investigation into Gef (pronounced like “Jeff”).
The book draws on newspaper clippings from the media frenzy around Gef, diaries, artist sketches, previously unpublished photographs, and the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature at the Senate House in London. What at first appears like an obvious hoax becomes something more complex, as Gef’s presence as a spirit, ghost, hallucination, possessed animal, indication of family hysteria, or a young daughter’s ploy for attention are all methodically examined.
“Over the years my understanding of the Irving family’s experiences almost a century ago has taken many twists and turns, shifting in shape and form almost as many times as Gef himself, so I present here the facts of the case and leave you to draw your own conclusions as to who, or what that clever little mongoose really was,” Josiffe writes in a foreword.
In the nearly 400 pages of Gef! are images and accounts from Josiffe’s years-long obsession with this singing, stealing, multilingual talking mongoose (who was said to speak phrases in English, French, German, Yiddish, Spanish, Flemish, and Hebrew). Josiffe journeys to the ruins of the Isle of Man farmhouse, torn down in 1971, where it all began, and revisits the 1936 book on Gef — The Haunting of Cashen’s Gap — authored by Richard S. Lambert with paranormal investigator Harry Price.
It might seem like quite a lot of pages to devote to one early 20th-century mystery, but Josiffe contextualizes Gef within a paranormal moment in Great Britain (emerging alongside such cryptids as the less verbose Loch Ness Monster, who drew international notice in 1933), as well as the enduring engagement with Spiritualism. That American-born movement centered on the belief that spirits were around us, and wanted to communicate with us. Gef, when queried on if he knew what death was, said: “Yes, a changeover.”
The visual history of Gef is particularly interesting. Fur samples (revealed to be that of a dog), paw prints, and photographs of James Irving pointing to his “hands” emerging from a wall, or a concrete step where Gef’s voice was heard, only add to the eeriness of the tale, rather than dispelling its myths. Photographs of the camera-shy Gef appear alternately cat and squirrel-like, always obscured, and his own attempt at a self-portrait is barely more than a scrawl. He could be violent — “You don’t know what damage or harm I could do if I were roused. I could kill you all, but I won’t” — and proclaim godlike talents — “I’ll split the atom! I am the fifth dimension! I am the eighth wonder of the world!” Gef himself was unsure of his form, or powers, sometimes claiming to have magical abilities, or clairvoyance, which required some form of invisible technology. Once when Margaret asked him about her husband’s long absence, Gef responded: “I don’t know. I have not got my magic phones on.”
While he’s frequently referred to as a “mongoose,” he was initially called the “Dalby Spook” (referring to his geographic location on the Isle of Man). Yet to a reporter in 1932, James assured: “There are no spooks here.” The journalist with the Daily Dispatch in Manchester, which was Gef’s first appearance in the mainland press, wrote:
Had I heard a weasel speak? I do not know, but I do know that I have heard today a voice which I should never have imagined could issue from a human throat: 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; and that others have had the same experience as myself.
The Irving family themselves appear in these photographs, neatly dressed and apparently sane, posed in front of their remote home. A recurring theory is that the daughter Voirrey used ventriloquism to throw the high-pitched Gef voice around the house. Indeed, she was an early fixation of Gef’s. When her parents attempted to move her bed to their room, he let out a shrill shriek: “I’ll follow her, wherever you move her.” It would also account for her father’s incredible earnestness in all of his discussions of Gef. Yet as Colin Dickey wrote in his article on Gef! for the Los Angeles Review of Books, “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.” Whatever occurred, Voirrey, who died in 2005, never confessed a role in the creation of Gef.
Josiffe concludes that when he started to research the case, he was “confident that a close reading of the primary sources,” combined with the recollections of the Isle of Man inhabitants, “would be sufficient to establish whether it had been a hoax, or a genuine paranormal phenomenon.” Instead, the deeper he looked, “the evidence became more conflicting, pointing on the one hand to fraud, and — at the same time — to something inexplicable.”
Gef!: The Strange Tale of an Extra-Special Talking Mongoose by Christopher Josiffe is out now from Strange Attractor.