Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Terror of the Sea Caves: An Adventure in Publishing [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Jan Laurvik stumbles upon a knife fight in the streets of Singapore. An Englishman and his Lascar mate have taken the worst of it in a fight with several Chinese attackers. The six foot two Scandinavian has to fight for his life as well:
Startled and furious at this novel attack, Jan reached for his knife. But before he could get his hand on it the Chinaman had leaped into the air like a wild-cat, wound arms and legs about his body, and was struggling like a mad beast to set teeth into his throat. The attack was so miraculously swift, so disconcerting in its beast-like ferocity, that Jan felt a strange qualm that was almost akin to panic. Then a black rage swelled his muscles; and tearing the creature from him he dashed him down upon the floor, on the back of his neck, with a violence which left no need of pursuing the question further. Not till he had examined each of the bodies carefully, and tried them with his knife, did he turn again to the wounded Lascar leaning against the wall.
Laurvik is given a map to a sunken junk containing a fortune in pearls. To avoid a possible assassination, he copies the map, introduces an error into it and puts it back in the pirate's pocket. The adventure has begun! Avoiding competition, Jan assembles a crew on a little scow called the Sarawak and follows the map to the treasure. There he uses his diving suit to locate the sunken ship. Unfortunately for him a giant squid has made a home of the derelict. The fight between man and squid is one of the best I've ever read.

Who is the author of this adventurous brawl? Is it one of Robert E. Howard's Pulp tales for Top-Notch? Is it a Talbot Mundy yarn for Adventure? No, it is the work of "The Father of Canadian Poetry" and author of the private lives of animals. Shades of Bambi! What is going on?

The story is "The Terror of the Sea Caves" from Everybody's Magazine (January 1907), predating Howard's punch ups by twenty years, and Mundy's by ten. The author is Sir Charles GD Roberts who included it in his The Haunters of the Silences (1907), a collection of animal stories featuring a polar bear on its cover. Of this adventure yarn and a few others, he writes in the Introduction:
But when I write of the kindreds of the deep sea, I am relying upon the collated results of the observations of others. I have spared no pains to make these stories accord, as far as the facts of natural history are concerned, with the latest scientific information. But I have made no vain attempt at interpretation of the lives of creatures so remote from my personal knowledge; and for such tales as "A Duel in the Deep," "The Terror of the Sea Caves," or "The Prowlers," my utmost hope is that they may prove entertaining, without being open to any charge of misrepresenting facts.
This explanation makes sense for in the story the author dedicates what feels like a long time on the squid's thought processes, allowing us to see the underwater world from his view. In most Pulp tales this would not happen. But the tone of Haunters of the Silences is not that of pulse-pounding adventure tales but another genre altogether, the Naturalist movement of the turn of the century. Authors like Roberts, Ernest Thompson Seton (Wild Animals I Have Known (1898) and James Curwood (The Grizzly King, 1916) paved the way for books like Felix Salten's Bambi: A Life in the Woods (1923). None of which reads like a Disney movie. These authors wanted to show animals in their real habitats, doing what they really do, without Victorian sentiment or inaccurate science.

So why did Roberts write "The Terror of the Sea Caves" instead of another installment of Red Fox or another poem like "Canadian Streams"? Not all of Roberts work is dedicated to poetry and animal tales. He wrote several books about the men and women who live in the wilds like Around the Campfire (1896), The Forge in the Forest (1897) and The Backwoodmen (1909). Like Jack London in America, Roberts work goes in many directions but his fame lies in only some of these. To academics Roberts is a poet. To popular readers he wrote animal stories.

Still, this only partly explains why he'd write an adventure yarn for an American magazine. The other half of the explanation is the world of magazines between 1880 and 1920. Many Canadian writers penned stories like this for British and American magazines, which flourished during that forty year period, before the coming of the Pulps. The Strand, Pearson's, The Pall Mall Gazette, The Idler in the UK, The Atlantic, Colliers, Munsey's, Argosy, and many others in America furnished markets to hungry writers. The animals of Roberts' fiction may have lived in the Canadian wilds, but their publishers did not. Many Canadians wrote for these publications (though they usually ended up moving to either London or New York); writers such as Sue Carleton, Robert Barr, Grant Allen, Hulbert Footner, Sir Gilbert Parker, RTM Scott, WA Fraser, and Frank L Packard. Even the Governor-General of Canada and British peer John Buchan wrote adventure novels; The Thirty-Nine Steps being the most famous.

Charles GD Roberts
So it was for money. And why not? If Roberts wanted to do something more elevated he had his poetry. If he wanted to write something more in line with his interests he could pen the tale of lynx or a salmon or a grouse. If he wanted cash, he could write a yarn with pirates and diving and all manner of things he knew nothing about. He probably included it in Haunters of the Silences as filler. He was a successful author by 1907 and he moved to Paris that year. He would not return to Canada until 1925.

Does this make "Terror of the Sea Caves" a bad story? Not at all. It is written as an adventure story should be, with brash fights and hidden dangers and growing excitement. If Roberts hadn't become the godfather of Bambi or the Father of Canadian Verse, he would certainly have had a career in the Pulps. He probably preferred being Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (and that wonderful moustache) to the gritty urban streets and a penny a word grind. How would that compare with getting the cover illo for Thrilling Adventure or a three-part serial in Blue Book with John Hamberger illustrations? Tough choice. Fortunately, Chuck doesn't have to make it.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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