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Lyle Zapato

"The Octopus Cycle"

Lyle Zapato | 2010-10-22.2795 LMT | Cephalopods | Entertainment | Retro

Cover: Amazing Stories, May 1928
Scan from Poulpe Pulps. (Click to enlarge.)

"The Octopus Cycle" by Irvin Lester & Fletcher Pratt with art by Frank R. Paul was the cover story for the May, 1928 issue of Amazing Stories. (You can read it online at Wikisource.)

It's a pulp sci-fi horror about thousands of giant, whistling, bullet-proof octopuses that walk out of the sea and into the jungles of Madagascar, from which they terrorize the natives. An American scientist, Walter Weyl, A.B., A.M., B.Sc., is contacted by his French friend working in the Madagascan government asking for help investigating strange disappearances. He travels there and is caught up in an attack on a military camp by the octopuses hiding in the trees. The soldiers manage to kill only one, which Weyl describes in a letter to the press warning of the octopus menace:

"Now, as to the animals which attacked us. I had one before me for some sixty hours, though with little opportunity to examine and none at all to dissect it. My observations, though somewhat scanty, lead me to the conclusion that we are dealing with a hitherto unknown member of the great mollusk family. The family includes the octopus and oyster, neither with red blood, and it was the nearly colorless fluid that puzzled me about the blood of the beast that attacked the ship.

"The beast that was killed at the camp had a larger body than any known member of the family, and tentacles at least fifteen feet in length and correspondingly powerful. A protective covering of chitin appears to have been developed, and due to the lack of any internal skeleton and the fact that the muscles must base on it, this protective covering to its body is of a thickness and strength sufficient to be quite impervious to rifle bullets. The one we killed had received a bullet full in the eye, which passed through into its brain.

"It is this brain that offers the most remarkable feature of these creatures. A brief investigation shows me that their brains are certainly larger than those of any animals except the big apes, and probably as large as those of the lower races of man. This argues an intelligence extremely high, and makes them more than ever dangerous, since they can evidently plan acts and execute them in concert.

"They have eight tentacular arms, covered on the lower side with the usual cephalopod type of suckers, the center of each sucker being occupied, as in some species of octopus, by a small, sharp claw. The thickness, and therefore the muscular strength of these arms is enormous. It is no wonder men proved utterly powerless against them.

"I am unable to say anything about either their method of breeding or what device they have arrived at for breathing air; probably some protective covering keeps the gill-plumes moist, as in the crayfish, making access to water at times necessary.

"In the face are two very large eyes, capable of seeing well in the dark and located directly in front of the large brain. The mouth consists of a huge beak, razor-edged. There are no teeth. Add this formidable beak to their extraordinary powers of swimming, their swift progress on land, their giant strength and their great intelligence, and it becomes evident that the human race is faced with a great peril.

"There is nothing whatever to prevent these animals from swimming the ocean or attacking the greatest city. One of these beasts could kill a hundred people in an hour and hardly any weapon we possess would be of the slightest use . . ."

Meanwhile back in civilization, the press mocks his tale of "Umbrella Beasts" -- as he unwisely called them -- even as the octopuses continue to wipe out villages and lay siege to the fort in which Weyl and his compatriots seek refuge. Fortunately a British scientist takes interest in Weyl's report and arrives on his yacht, which is conveniently and coincidentally provisioned with giant-walking-octopus-killing flamethrowers of German origin. But this is all pointless, because in the end Nature seeks to balance things by sending shoals of killer whales to eat the octopuses as they return to the sea to moisten their gills. Octopocalypse averted!

When I originally listed the story on the Tree Octopuses in the Media page I thought I might be stretching a bit since the cover shows the Umbrella Beasts walking in a clearing and the story itself, while including people being snatched in the jungle, was ambiguous as to whether the octopuses were actually in the trees or just standing among them.

However, Matt Goodman -- graphic designer and editor from Heliograph -- acquired an original copy of the issue after I mentioned it in the Airship Troopers review and sent me a scan. The pretty spectacular full-page illustration accompanying the story shows they're indeed semi-arboreal:

Octopus siege on Fort Dauphin. (Click to enlarge.)

Besides the unfortunate racist imagery, the story is also horribly anti-octopus, presenting them as man-eating monsters bent on world domination:

As he wrote, Weyl's mind was again filled with the terror of that mad march through the jungle with the "Umbrella Beasts" whistling on every side, and his imagination shuddered at the picture of London or New York under an invasion from those grim Madagascar jungles; all business stopped, every door barred, the octopuses triumphantly parading the streets, breaking in here and there and strangling the last resistance of families cowering in corners, powerless against the invulnerable and irresistible animals. Here and there some squad armed with dynamite or some other weapon more powerful than rifles, would offer a brief resistance, but they too would go down in time. Civilization throttled, and in its place a ghastly reign of animalism...

Also, here's the intro to the story from the octopusphobic editors of Amazing Stories, along with its photo of an octopus whose eyes have been menacingly doctored:

Here, again, is a different story, a thriller that you will remember for many years to come. And that you may not shout at once "impossible," we are printing in this issue an actual photograph of one of these sea creatures, which comes pretty close to what our authors have in mind, except that they do not roam on land, but keep strictly to the sea. As Curator Dr. Ditmars, of the Bronx Zoological Gardens, pointed out recently, nature is always far more surprising than fiction. For instance, there are really fish that climb trees, impossible as this sounds, and they do exist now in India; also there are snakes that can fly from one tree to another. These things may sound impossible and fictional, but they are facts.

octopus with menacing eyes

Fortunately we live in more enlightened times when octopuses are beloved and the few remaining octopusphobes can learn to overcome their fears with a moderately challenging online how-to (just avoid using the above photo in your therapy).

UPDATE 2011-01-22: If the ending to this story reminded you of H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds, it might be because the story itself was very likely inspired by an essay Wells wrote titled "The Extinction of Man". Read more about it here...

End of post.