“The Harbor-Master”

This week’s bit of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Harbor-Master”, Robert W. Chambers, 1904.untitled

The narrator of this is engaging story is a 24 year old general supervisor of the waterfowl section of the Zoological Gardens in Brooklyn, New York. We never do get his name.

Among his many jobs is answering the various letters from people offering to sell or donate exhibits of alive and stuffed animals. (The zoo does not hire people to collect samples.) The letters and answers are reviewed by the narrator’s supervisor Professor Farrago.

One day he’s surprised that Farrago actually wants him to respond to a letter from Burton Halyard, a man who claims he has some living great auks to sell for the princely sum of $10,000. Great auks are thought to have gone extinct around 1870 when the last ones were seen in Labrador. Halyard’s letter cryptically says that he may have an even more remarkable specimen for them – an amphibious biped – which seems even more ludicrous. However, he says that, when the narrator arrives, he’ll meet people who have seen it and are believable.

So the narrator is off to Black Harbor. We’re never told where on the Atlantic coast or even the state or Canadian province that Black Harbor is in. I’d guess, given that we hear of mica mining, that it’s New Hampshire.

Taking the local railroad, which services such a mine, he encounters Frank Lee, a supervisor there.

He knows Halyard, who lives off by himself. He doesn’t like Halyard. He thinks he’s cranky and a hypochondriac and a cynic, but he also says Halyard is always truthful.

Lee also says he may as well mention the harbor-master now since the narrator is bound to hear about it. The narrator doesn’t recognize the name, and Lee isn’t going to give him any specifics. He does say, before giving the narrator directions, that if the narrator doesn’t want to stay with Halyard he can stay with Lee and his wife. (That’s a nice bit of misdirection by Chambers and makes Halyard seems more ominous. But the narrator never does feel the need to go to Lee’s.)

On the way to Halyard’s, the narrator sees a dark man-like figure scramble down a cliff and vanish into the sea. The narrator writes it off as some kind of otter.

When the narrator shows up at his house, Halyard immediately knows who he is and is very argumentative. Halyard, in a wheelchair, is something of a character. He is rather abusive to his nurse and tells the narrator that he pays for the privilege of abusing her. Later, however, he adds that he’s going to will the house and all his money to the nurse for all the trouble he’s given her.

When the narrator shows up at Halyard’s door, Halyard and his nurse are talking about some strange encounter she had in a boat (something thumping on the bottom and grabbing the float).

But Halyard isn’t a man to waste time. He shows the narrator the great auks. He really does have a breeding pair and chicks. The narrator has a meal with Halyard and says he’ll arrange for payment and shipping.

The narrator, over the course of the story, becomes fonder of Halyard who likes to provoke the narrator into an argument just for the joy of arguing. Halyard is smart, if cynical. He’s even a Harvard Man.

And the narrator begins to notice the nurse (and, no, we never seem to get her name) is rather attractive.

That night Halyard wakes the narrator up to tell him about the harbor-master – that amphibious man, slate-colored and possessing gills. It’s been taking an interest in the nurse, following her and coming up to the house. Lee and some men from the mine had to rescue her once. The narrator confesses he did see something strange climbing down the cliff but wrote it off as a sea otter. Halyard says the harbor-master exists. He’s not an hallucination or an optical illusion. Halyard also tells him that the deepest point charted in the Atlantic lies right off the coast. He speculates the harbor-master is a member of a race of amphibious men who have existed in the sea, and Halyard is going to shoot the harbor-master to protect the nurse if it shows up at the house.

That night the narrator sees the same strange figure descend into the sea.

The nurse, for her part, refuses utterly to acknowledge or talk about the harbor-master.

Chambers, the very successful romance writer (check out his Wikipedia page for all the early movies based on this romantic novel), has a funny line about the narrator’s flirtations:

For instance, when she lost her needle – and, another time, when we both, on hands and knees, hunted for her thimble.

However, directions for those pasttimes may be found in contemporary classics.

Spoilers Ahead

A ship shows up to take the auks and Halyard and the nurse to New York City. But the harbor-master attacks the boat (this story is definitely a contender for inspiring the movie The Creature from the Black Lagoon) and disables its rudder. It runs aground on shore.

The narrator beats the harbor-master off (now, of course, he has a good look at it and is a believer) with a boat-hook. Halyard is rather indignant that he doesn’t kill the harbor-master. The narrator tells him the creature is hard to kill. At that point, the great auks break out of their cages and fly off. In a nice reversal of convention, the narrator faints.

The story ends with the narrator and the nurse married, the auks gone (and the narrator concludes the story asking people to contact him if they see them – there’s a reward), and Halyard recovered, hiking about Switzerland, and asking the narrator to join him.

It’s a nice combination of romance, humor, realism, and eeriness. Chambers the painter does a nice job of describing the area around Black Harbor.

This is one of the tales that fed directly into H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”. At least that’s Robert M. Price’s claim. It’s not unambiguous that it influenced Lovecraft according to Lovecraft scholar David Haden. Lovecraft may have simply, when he mentioned the story in a 1927 Lovecraft, been remembering the story. Human-animal hybrids are a longstanding feature of myth, folklore, and supernatural fiction argues Haden.

Price argues that Lovecraft got two things out of the story: the appearance of the “Innsmouth look” in the harbor-master and the idea of an abyssal canyon off the Atlantic Coast — Devil’s Reef in Lovecraft’s story and unnamed location in Chambers’.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

2 thoughts on ““The Harbor-Master”

  1. tony January 1, 2023 / 10:54 pm

    Halyard actually marries the nurse, much to the narrator’s chagrin. How did you miss that?

    • marzaat January 2, 2023 / 1:40 pm

      If true, sheer inattention it would seem.

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