TAKING SHAPE: LITERARY TRADITIONS
Robert W. Chambers (b. 1865, d. 1933) was an American fiction writer, best remembered today for his horror anthology The King in Yellow (1895) which was a primary inspiration behind the first season of HBO’s hit TV series True Detective (2014 – Present)
starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.
Less well remembered is Chamber’s novel
In Search of the Unknown (1904) which may be regarded as one of the earliest works of cryptozoological-themed fiction (so early it predates the coining of the word cryptozoology itself!). While a discussion of the entire novel would be interesting I’m only going to focus on the first five chapters which comprise the book’s first act and which were, in fact, originally published in advance of the novel in Ainslee’s Magazine in August of 1899 as a short story titled “The Harbor-Master.”
As with the last story discussed in this series, “The Harbor-Master” follows an unnamed scientist, specifically a zoologist at the New York Zoological Gardens who, in this case, also serves as our narrator. As we quickly learn our protagonist has what he sees as the unfortunate fate of being repeatedly
dispatched by his boss,
Prof. Farrago, to go and find various cryptids which our skeptically minded narrator doesn’t believe exist even though (spoilers) he keeps repeatedly finding them.
Harbor-Master,” the protagonist has been sent to retrieve a pair of presumably
extinct Great Auks which are allegedly in the keep of a cantankerous old man by the name of
Burton Halyard living alone with only his live-in nurse on a small island off the coast of New York state. Doubtful that such birds actually exist our narrator is even more dismissive of Halyard’s hinting of an elusive “amphibious creature
resembling a man” which also resides in the proximity of his island.
However on his trek out to Halyard’s home our narrator spots something strange on a rocky outcropping on the mainland near the ocean…
“I had descended half-way
towards the beach, and was examining the cliff opposite, when
something on the very top of the rock arrested my attention—a man
darkly outlined against the sky. The next moment, however, I knew it
could not be a man, for the object suddenly glided over the face of
the cliff and slid down the sheer, smooth face like a lizard. Before I
could get a square look at it, the thing crawled into the surf—or, at
least, it seemed to—but the whole episode occurred so suddenly, so
unexpectedly, that I was not sure I had seen anything at all. However, I
was curious enough to climb the cliff on the land side and
make my way towards the spot where I imagined I saw the man. Of
course, there was nothing there—not a trace of a human being, I mean.
Something had been there—a sea-otter, possibly—for the remains of
a freshly killed fish lay on the rock, eaten to the back-bone and
Putting the strange sighting out of his mind, our protagonist arrives at Halyard’s home where he is surprised to discover that the man is indeed in possession of a pair of Great Auks and that he is willing to part with them for ten thousand dollars and if the narrator will agree to stay with him for a week so as to alleviate his loneliness.
The protagonist initially balks at the second half of the deal but then reluctantly agrees, both so that he can acquire the Great Auks and because he finds Halyard’s young nurse to be quite fetching and, evidently, in need of some attention of her own (if you catch my drift). In addition, during his stay he learns that Halyard and the nurse both claim to have knowledge of a creature they call the harbor-master, which Halyard insists is “a man with gills like a fish who lives in the ocean” and furthermore has “taken to hanging around my
cove” as he is evidently “attracted [to] my nurse!”
Eventually the week comes to an end and our narrator prepares to depart with the Great Auks only to learn that Halyard has decided to come along and bring his nurse as well. The three board a boat and begin to sale for the mainland. All is well when the boat inexplicably comes to dead halt as if it had run aground… only they’re in the middle of the ocean. Next something from under the water rips the rudder from the rear of the boat. Suddenly the narrator spots something in the water…
“It was then that I… caught a glimpse of
something ahead—something that a sudden wave seemed to toss on deck
and leave there, wet and flapping—a man with round, fixed, fishy
eyes, and soft, slaty skin. But the horror of the thing were the two gills that swelled and
relaxed spasmodically, emitting a rasping, purring sound—two gasping,
blood-red gills, all fluted and scolloped and distended. Frozen with amazement and repugnance, I stared at the creature; I felt
the hair stirring on my head and the icy sweat on my forehead.
‘It’s the harbor-master!’ screamed Halyard.”
The harbor-master, now on board the boat, makes for the nurse but our protagonist fights the creature off. However in the process the boat is scuttled and the Great Auks escape, making their way out into open water. The three eventually make their way to the mainland. Our narrator has to return to his boss empty handed – no Great Auks, no amphibious humanoid, and not even the pretty nurse who – learning that Halyard plans to leave her his home and fortune – decides to unexpectedly marry her boss!
The story ends on a humorous note with the narrator informing readers that…
“In regard to the harbor-master, you may believe it or not, as you
choose. But if you hear of any great auks being found, kindly throw a
table-cloth over their heads and notify the authorities at the new
Zoological Gardens in Bronx Park, New York. The reward is ten thousand
“The Harbor-Master” is a significant – and I feel highly overlooked – story in the history of the development of science-fictional gill-men. Here is a tale which combines elements of paleo-fiction (the Great Auks) and cryptozoological-fiction but also anticipates Universal’s Creature of the Black Lagoon by 50-years in its depiction of an amphibious humanoid who becomes infatuated with a human woman and attempts to make off with her in a climax that involves a siege on a boat. One truly has to wonder in Creature creator
William Alland did not know about this story?