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"The Harbor-Master" by Robert W. Chambers (A Rare and Forgotten Story Transcription)

NOTE BY M. GRANT KELLERMEYER: While many fans of H. P. Lovecraft assume that Chambers’ influence on him begins and ends with The King in Yellow, the following story attracted a great deal of excitement from Providence. In letters to his friends he sometimes addressed them to “The Harbour-Master,” once recommended it as a possible title for a friend’s anthology, and crowed when August Derleth sent him some Chambers books (“Speaking of literature … Little Augie Derleth [has shipped] me a gratuitous batch of his bibliothecal discards [including] Chamber’s In Search of the Unknown (God! The Harbour Master!!!).” More tellingly, “The Harbor-Master” was a direct influence to “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” in ways which will immediately become obvious once you meet the eponymous character. “The Harbor-Master” is not actually a story, it should be noted, but the first five chapters from In Search of the Unknown, a novel about a ladies man with terrible timing whose day job is that of a skeptical cryptozoologist who travels the globe in search of fabled monsters and natural aberrations, most of whom are Chambers’ inventions (no Bigfoot or Loch Ness sightings), which reads like a mixture of Dr Suess and How I Met Your Mother. He travels widely across the continent in search of such supposedly extinct, Suessian concoctions as auks, dingues, the ux, sphyxes, and – of course – the amphibious harbor-master (all the while falling in love the closest Gibson Girl before fate or rivals prevent him from making a conquest). The rest of the novel is relatively forgettable (although “The Sphyx,” a take on Bierce’s “The Damned Thing,” is a clear prefiguration of the “Predator” movies), but no one who reads “The Harbor-Master” will be mystified by Lovecraft’s magnetic attraction to its title character.

The Harbor-Master

{1899}

I

Because it all seems so improbable—so horribly impossible to me now, sitting here safe and sane in my own library—I hesitate to record an episode which already appears to me less horrible than grotesque. Yet, unless this story is written now, I know I shall never have the courage to tell the truth about the matter—not from fear of ridicule, but because I myself shall soon cease to credit what I now know to be true. Yet scarcely a month has elapsed since I heard the stealthy purring of what I believed to be the shoaling undertow— scarcely a month ago, with my own eyes, I saw that which, even now, I am beginning to believe never existed. As for the harbor-master—and the blow I am now striking at the old order of things—But of that I shall not speak now, or later; I shall try to tell the story simply and truthfully, and let my friends testify as to my probity and the publishers of this book corroborate them.

On the 29th of February I resigned my position under the government and left Washington to accept an offer from Professor Farrago—whose name he kindly permits me to use—and on the first day of April I entered upon my new and congenial duties as general superintendent of the water-fowl department connected with the Zoological

Gardens then in course of erection at Bronx Park, New York.

For a week I followed the routine, examining the new foundations, studying the architect’s plans, following the surveyors through the Bronx thickets, suggesting arrangements for water-courses and pools destined to be included in the enclosures for swans, geese, pelicans, herons, and such of the waders and swimmers as we might expect to acclimate in Bronx Park.

It was at that time the policy of the trustees and officers of the Zoological Gardens neither to employ collectors nor to send out expeditions in search of specimens. The society decided to depend upon voluntary contributions, and I was always busy, part of the day, in dictating answers to correspondents who wrote offering their services as hunters of big game, collectors of all sorts of fauna, trappers, snarers, and also to those who offered specimens for sale, usually at exorbitant rates.

To the proprietors of five-legged kittens, mangy lynxes, moth-eaten coyotes, and dancing bears I returned courteous but uncompromising refusals—of course, first submitting all such letters, together with my replies, to Professor Farrago.

One day towards the end of May, however, just as I was leaving Bronx Park to return to town, Professor Lesard, of the reptilian department, called out to me that Professor Farrago wanted to see me a moment; so I put my pipe into my pocket again and retraced my steps to the temporary, wooden building occupied by Professor Farrago, general superintendent of the Zoological Gardens. The professor, who was sitting at his desk before a pile of letters and replies submitted for approval by me, pushed his glasses down and looked over them at me with a whimsical smile that suggested amusement, impatience, annoyance, and perhaps a faint trace of apology.

“Now, here’s a letter,” he said, with a deliberate gesture towards a sheet of paper impaled on a file— “a letter that I suppose you remember.” He disengaged the sheet of paper and handed it to me.

“Oh yes,” I replied, with a shrug; “of course the man is mistaken—or—”

“Or what?” demanded Professor Farrago, tranquilly, wiping his glasses.

“—Or a liar,” I replied.

After a silence he leaned back in his chair and bade me read the letter to him again, and I did so with a contemptuous tolerance for the writer, who must have been either a very innocent victim or a very stupid swindler. I said as much to Professor Farrago, but, to my surprise, he appeared to waver.

“I suppose,” he said, with his near-sighted, embarrassed smile, “that nine hundred and ninety-nine men in a thousand would throw that letter aside and condemn the writer as a liar or a fool?”

“In my opinion,” said I, “he’s one or the other.”

“He isn’t—in mine,” said the professor, placidly.

“What!” I exclaimed. “Here is a man living all alone on a strip of rock and sand between the wilderness and the sea, who wants you to send somebody to take charge of a bird that doesn’t exist!”

“How do you know,” asked Professor Farrago, “that the bird in question does not exist?”

“It is generally accepted,” I replied, sarcastically, “that the great auk has been extinct for years. Therefore I may be pardoned for doubting that our correspondent possesses a pair of them alive.”

“Oh, you young fellows,” said the professor, smiling wearily, “you embark on a theory for destinations that don’t exist.”

He leaned back in his chair, his amused eyes searching space for the imagery that made him smile.

“Like swimming squirrels, you navigate with the help of Heaven and a stiff breeze, but you never land where you hope to—do you?”

Rather red in the face, I said: “Don’t you believe the great auk to be extinct?”

“Audubon saw the great auk.”

“Who has seen a single specimen since?”

“Nobody—except our correspondent here,” he replied, laughing.

I laughed, too, considering the interview at an end, but the professor went on, coolly:

“Whatever it is that our correspondent has—and I am daring to believe that it is the great auk itself—I want you to secure it for the society.”

When my astonishment subsided my first conscious sentiment was one of pity. Clearly, Professor Farrago was on the verge of dotage—ah, what a loss to the world!

I believe now that Professor Farrago perfectly interpreted my thoughts, but he betrayed neither resentment nor impatience I drew a chair up beside his desk— there was

nothing to do but to obey, and this fool’s errand was none of my conceiving.

Together we made out a list of articles necessary for me and itemized the expenses I might incur, and I set a date for my return, allowing no margin for a successful termination to the expedition.

“Never mind that,” said the professor. “What I want you to do is to get those birds here safely. Now, how many men will you take?”

“None,” I replied, bluntly; “it’s a useless expense, unless there is something to bring back. If there is I’ll wire you, you may be sure.”

“Very well,” said Professor Farrago, good-humoredly, “you shall have all the assistance you may require. Can you leave to-night?”

The old gentleman was certainly prompt. I nodded, half-sulkily, aware of his amusement.