Research often takes writers to very strange places. This is especially the case if you’re writing about the supernatural, I find. Recently, I’ve been delving deep into Dartmoor folklore and uncovered a very peculiar story indeed.
Needless to say, it’s now been firmly inserted into the book I’m working on at the moment. Here’s the story itself – the strange case of the ‘Devil’s fireball’ in the heart of a Dartmoor village.
Widdecombe on the Moor
We absolutely love Widdecombe on the Moor. It’s one of those quintessential Dartmoor locations; complete with postcard-pretty cottages, lovely old pubs and plenty of surrounding nature.
It’s also home to one of the strangest folkloric tales of the south-west. But to tell it, we’d need to rewind to the seventeenth century, and base ourselves in the local church, which still stands to this day.
The ‘Great Thunderstorm’
Let’s return to Sunday, 21st October, 1638. As you might expect, the church is full of worshippers, though the skies overhead are grumbling with the sound of an oncoming storm. Still, it’s not unusual in these parts. Dartmoor’s known for its extreme weather conditions, which can change in a heartbeat.
This storm proved to be far worse than anyone predicted.
According to onlookers, a ‘strange darkness’ filled the church in the middle of the service, followed by ‘powerful thunder’. Then, to the congregation’s amazement, a huge ‘ball of fire’ tore through the window, pulling part of the roof down with it.
If this wasn’t terrifying enough, the fireball then proceeded to float around the church, burning several unfortunate people who couldn’t get out of its path quickly enough. Another man was thrown so hard against one of the pillars that his skull was shattered and his ‘brain hurled to the ground’. Even the local dog didn’t escape, as one eyewitness account claimed that it was thrown around as if seized by a tornado.
The Devil’s Work?
The locals presumed that supernatural foul play was at the heart of the matter. They laid the blame on a local gambling man called Jan Reynolds, who according to legend, had made a deal with the devil. The deal went along the lines that if Reynolds was ever discovered asleep in church, the devil would come and claim his soul.
Guess who happened to be asleep on the day the mighty fireball arrived? You guessed it, it was our man Jan, who’d nodded off with a pack of cards in his hands. Turns out the naughty chap had not only drifted off during the service, he’d also been playing a card game beforehand!
A more Modern Explanation
These days, we’ve got far greater understanding of meteorological conditions, and we now know that this ‘fireball’ was the first recorded case of ball lightning.
However, regardless of what it was, it must have been terrifying for the people that experienced it. I personally can’t think of many things worse than being chased by a huge orb of fire!
Dr Ribero’s Agency of the Supernatural – The Case of the Green-Dressed Ghost, is available to buy – you can do so here (US) or here (UK). You can also find the second in the series there, The Case of the Deadly Doppelganger... and the third one, The Case of the Hidden Daemon, is due for release in October!