Gabriel Hounds is a brand of jeans in the same sense that Zero History is a book about fashion. Both statements are technically accurate, but only as a gateway to something…slippery. In Gibson’s 2010 novel, the Gabriel Hounds are a “secret brand.” The Kaizer Soze of pants. The smoke monster of denim. The brand is the MacGuffin in a hunt for truth beyond brand names, knockoffs, seasons, and flickering atemporality in a world that is evolving faster than we can focus our eyes.
Setting aside for a moment the product itself, and the very concept of a secret brand or a microbrand, a line of products marketed through non-marketing and secrecy (we can get to that later), the concept of a Gabriel Hound is a fitting one for the brand at the center of Zero HIstory.
A spectral figure, half-man, half-beast, that rips the flesh from sinners and drags them to the land of the dead, only to disappear into the fog leaving no trace may be a dramatic avatar for pants, but when the pants are contending with Hubertus Bigend, perhaps not…
She got out her iPhone and Googled “Gabriel Hounds.”
By the time her coffee arrived, she’d determined that The Gabriel Hounds was the title of a novel by Mary Stewart, had been the title of at least one CD, and had been or was the name of at least one band.
But the original Gabriel Hounds, it appeared, were folklore, legend. Dogs heard coursing, however faintly, high up in the windy night. Cousins it seemed to the Wild Hunt. This was Inchmale territory, definitely, and there were even weirder variants. Some involving hounds with human heads, or hounds with the heads of human infants. This had to do with the belief that the Gabriel Hounds were hunting the souls of children who’d died unbaptized. Christian tacked over pagan, she guessed. And the hounds seemed to have originally been “ratchets,” an old word for dogs that hunt by scent. Gabriel Ratchets. Sometimes “gabble ratchets.”
This description is fairly close to what you’ll see when Googling the term today. There is in fact, the 2006 book by Mary Stewart about two young people on an adventure in Lebanon. There is a metal band out of Cincinnati named Gabriel’s Hound, and another chamber rock band from Brooklyn called Gabriel and the Hounds (they’re not bad).
But going further back, Gabriel Hounds pop up in one form or another all across European folklore. In fact, there’s a long history of tales about spectral dogs, in particular haunting the woods of Wales and Northern England. There’s the famous Hound of Baskervilles from Holmes, but also references to Black Dogs, Yell Hounds, Hellhounds (Christian adaptation), Gabriel Ratchets, Gobble-ratches, Whisht Hounds, the Moddy Dhoo, the Yeth Hound, etc, etc. The mythology often surrounds a yelping noise heard in the distance, considered an omen of death.
Specifically, the Gabriel Hounds are an English version of Welsh, pre-Christian mythological creatures called Cŵn Annwn (pronounced like “coon anun” and the inspiration for more metal bands and songs), which are described as either black, or glowing white, with fiery red ears and eyes, sometimes with the head of a human.
The beasts were said to originate in the Welsh underworld, flying through the air to punish or seek vengeance on wrongdoers. In other descriptions, they are more benign or escort souls to the beyond. Their yowling is sometimes said to portend death or calamity, a sound that has been explained as the honking or wing beats of geese. Christian mythology later translated the beasts into hellhounds serving the devil or at the command of the angel Gabriel (although the name may come from an archaic word for corpse).
The beasts are also associated with The Wild Hunt, another ancient European myth that in all forms describes a monstrous, spectral hunt with hounds and horses, led across the sky by varying deities or supernatural figures such as Odin, the Welsh god Arawn, or Arthur.
With references like these, Gibson in his own way is something of a weird fiction writer, describing secret truths bubbling under the surface. While you wouldn’t mistake him for a Lovecraft or Ligotti, he’s said how in writing the Blue Ant trilogy, he was recalibrating himself to the ways in which our current times (or the times when he wrote each book) were weird.
Gibson is among the hardest of sci-fi writers, dealing lately in technology that exists or damn near exists. But he also shows us the ways in which technology and trend make our lives a bit supernatural, and how they reveal the strangeness just under the surface that governs us, for better or worse. The Mongolian Death Worms crawling below us. The vengeful, ghostly hounds of boutique clothing.