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Lyle Zapato

The Wonderful Electric Elephant vs. Giant Octopus

Lyle Zapato | 2013-01-04.9240 LMT | Cephalopods | Elephants | Simulacra | Retro | Random Found Thing

Happy New Year again! Here's a giant octopus trying to crush an electric elephant:

The elephant in the grasp of an octopus.

It's from The Wonderful Electric Elephant (1903) by Frances T. Montgomery, a children's book about a young man named Harold who encounters and shoots an elephant on a trail at the Grand Canyon, only to discover it's actually an electric-powered mecha-elephant piloted by a mysterious old man who soon dies after spilling his immortality elixir. Harold finds the man's will inside, which states that he now owns the elephant, as well as the gold and other curios and treasures the man had collected. Reading the instruction manual, he learns the elephant is watertight, so decides to cross the Pacific seafloor to Japan. On the way, he frees silky-locked Ione from Native Americans and she becomes his companion, and eventually wife, as they travel the world having adventures and frightening people, as one does when one comes into possession of a wonderful electric elephant.

The Edisonade whimsy of traveling the world in the fully appointed belly of a robotic, amphibious elephant is however marred by cringeworthy racism, particularly aimed at Tartars and Native Americans, both of which Harold kills in large numbers. It's a story for children where the protagonist uses his wonderful, whimsical robophant to electrocute a band of Native Americans for his amusement (although we're assured he read in the local newspapers that they deserve it), chases down and shoots those who flee, and later unemotionally notes the sight of their surviving wives and children before crushing their dogs and stealing their belongings to decorate the elephant's cabin. Whimsy!

It's not all ethnic cleansings though, as Harold and Ione make many friends in Japan, including the Emperor, and enlist the Prince and Princess of Siam as traveling companions.

The book was illustrated by Cassius Coolidge, who's best known for his paintings of dogs playing poker. In fact, the above scan and the ones below come from the Coolidge fan site DogsPlayingPoker.org. Click the images to go there for larger, uncropped versions, as well as all the others from the book.

Cover from Amazon.com. Not sure of edition date.

As for the text of the story... Google has listings for copies of the book, but no scans. Project Guttenberg doesn't have the text either. It doesn't seem to have been reprinted since the 1920s. AbeBooks has three copies, but they start at over $700. Fortunately, the story was serialized in newspapers, so the Chronicling America project has the text, but I can't verify if it's the same as the book. Here's the octopus chapter to give a taste of it:



They had been traveling for many days without anything of interest happening and it was getting a trifle monotonous. Nothing but water, water everywhere and huge, ugly deep sea monsters to look at. They were now so far from shore that the bottom of the ocean was too deep for them to travel on, as the weight of the water alone would have crushed them; so they had to go right through the water or rise to the surface and speed along when it was calm; but even if they did that, there was nothing to see but miles and miles of water all around them. They never met a ship nor saw a sail in the distance, for they were out of the course that the vessels take.

One day the monotony was broken and in not a very pleasant way either, but in a manner that would have proved disastrous had it not been for the wonderful electric current that could be thrown into the elephant. They were going along at a good speed and both Harold and Ione were reading; Harold stopping occasionally to glance at the compass and see that the elephant was keeping the right course. Suddenly they came to a violent stop that threw them both off their seats.

"Gracious, Harold! What has happened? Have we broken down?" cried Ione.

"Goodness me! I don't know, but I think we must have run into something—it may be a submarine wreck. I must keep a lookout at the peep-hole after this and not be so careless or we'll get smashed all to pieces," said Harold, and just then elephant and all were picked up like a toy and turned completely over. For a second they were left standing on their heads, but only for a second, when they were given another whirl and turned right side up again.

Harold gathered himself together and rushed to one of the peep-holes. Horror of horrors! What did he see but a gigantic octopus facing them, with its long feelers sent out in all directions to wind round the elephant and crush it to death! Of course it thought the elephant alive and that it had found a nice, large morsel to eat. One of its many feelers was already wound round the body of the elephant while two or three others were writhing and twisting themselves round the legs and trunk. Had the elephant been alive it would have been crushed to death immediately; even as it was, it could be broken to pieces by the strength of the hideous devil fish. Harold quick as a flash turned the electricity into the skin of the elephant, which gave the octopus such a tremendous shock that it was killed instantly. The feelers loosened and the elephant was free again.

Ione was so frightened that her teeth chattered. "Of all the repulsive, terrifying objects I ever saw, that monster was the worst!"

"I agree with you," said Harold. "I have read about horrible, unshapely sea monsters, but no one even in his wildest dreams could imagine anything as repulsive as that gigantic, spidery looking octopus, with its long feelers as large around as a tree trunk and yet pliable enough to be twisted like a corkscrew, and what power and strength it had in them, even to pick the heavy elephant up as if it had been an India rubber ball! I never believed the stories I have heard about them or about the wonderful sea serpent, but hereafter, no matter how improbable the story may sound, I shall think it might be true," said Harold.

After their dangerous experience they kept a sharp lookout, speeding along as fast as they could, for they were both getting tired of travelling under the water. That same day they passed a sunken ocean liner. There she lay tipped half over and destined to drift and drift and drift, until she rotted to pieces and fell apart, which would take ages, held together as she was with iron bars and bolts, and too water-logged to sink.

As they passed this ship Harold exclaimed, "How lucky we did not run into it and get tangled in the rigging."

"Oh! how I wish we were out of this dreadful ocean! It is giving me the horrors and I am getting afraid to sleep or eat," said Ione. "How much longer do you think it will take us to reach the Sandwich Islands?"

"If I have made no mistake in my calculation we should reach there by to-morrow noon," replied Harold.

"There is one thing sure, Harold, I shall never go home to America by crossing the bed of the Pacific Ocean or any other ocean."

"How will you get home then?" asked Harold.

"I will stay on the other side or have you invent an airship and fly across," answered Ione.

"Why not put the elephant on board a ship and send it home as if it were a live elephant intended for some circus?" asked Harold.

"No, thank you, for then we would have to stay inside to work it to keep up the deception, and I do not care to stay in the hold of a ship shut up in an elephant and be seasick. So you see you will either have to build a bridge of a flying machine to get me over," answered Ione.

"If the old man who invented this elephant were alive, he could, I have no doubt, build a ship or flying machine of some kind that would carry us and the elephant, too, safely across the water," said Harold.

"Hurrah!" exclaimed Harold, a few moments later. "I see land ahead."

"Where? Where?" cried Ione. "Do let me see it. Yes, yes, it is land, and a mountain at that, and it looks just like the Catalina Island. Oh! I am so happy to see land once more that I feel like dancing, but as I cannot so that, hand me my banjo and I will play and sing you a darky dance tune or two, while you put on full speed and see how quickly we can get there."

After travelling at a high rate of speed for over an hour they could see in the distance five distinct mountain cones that were as symmetrical as the old-fashioned sugar loafs, all standing about one hundred feet from each other. They were very curious, and looked as if they might be giant ant hills. As they came nearer they saw in the side of one of the mountains a large hole that looked like the entrance to an immense cave. This it really proved to be, but of such magnitude and magnificence was it that it had the appearance of being the entrance to a cathedral with tall spires all built of white rock crystal.

"Did you ever see anything more solemn, grand and beautiful than that imposing looking entrance with the sun's rays falling aslant on its towers, filtering through the green water? And see how the sea anemones and the little pink shells are sticking to it like climbing roses, making it look more than ever like a cathedral with the ivy growing on it," Ione cried. "As anxious as I am to get to land, we shall have to stop and go inside, Harold, out of curiosity. Who knows but that we have found the home of the Sea King and his mermaid daughters!"

The entrance being large enough for them to enter, they shut down the speed to a slow walk and turning on the searchlight in the mouth of the elephant they proceeded to explore the cave.

The ground had an upward tendency and one hundred feet or more from the entrance they came out of the water and found before them a seemingly endless vista of sparkling pillars, domes and spires.

Their first glimpse of the grandeur and magnificence made them hold their breath and then exclaim, "How beautiful!" The searchlight had penetrated and lit up the furthermost corners and the lofty ceiling composed of dome upon dome hung with crystal stalactites, forming a lacelike pattern as if woven cunningly by human hands. The floor was spiked with hundreds of brilliant stalagmites of varying heights. Each dome rested on a fluted column fifty feet in height, thus making row after row of stately, glistening pillars. But the strangest part of all was that there seemed to echo from the dome and sides lovely strains of sweet music, swelling and resounding through the whole chamber, and then dying away in the distance, only to repeat itself with even more grandeur than before.

"Harold, do you see that enormous white shell with the pink tinted lining and scalloped edges, that opens and shuts as the water ebbs and flows?" asked Ione. "Well, listen, and you will find that every time it shuts and forces the water out, it makes that weird, musical sound; and if you look closely you will see all kinds and shapes of shells resting at the water's edge and all are opening and shutting just as the larger one is doing, and that is where this weird, sad music is coming from."

"It seems a shame to break off any of these perfect stalactites, but I must have a nice bit for a souvenir," said Harold.

He got out of the elephant and broke off a small, inconspicuous one. Looking at it closely he discovered that it was made of rock salt and that the whole cave was composed of the same material.

"Now I know where the ocean gets its salty taste," said Ione. "It is from large caves like this scattered all over the ocean's bed, and as the water runs in and out of them it thus becomes salty."

"What an idea, Ione! You have the queerest thoughts sometimes; you make me laugh."

"Well, you can laugh, but if not that way how does it get its salty taste? Give me a better explanation if you can."

When they came out of the cave and had passed the five cone-shaped mountains they found they were in sight of a submarine mountain chain, and Harold, by consulting his map, found that the top of this chain formed the Sandwich Islands.

[To be continued.]

Here are links to all the chapters of the serialization in the New-York Tribune (starting on Nov. 15, 1903):

The story ends with Harold and Ione "kidnapping" the Prince and Princess of Siam and taking them to the top of the Himalayas, where they discover that the elephant's inventor had also equipped it with a secret balloon and retractable wings and tail -- all deployable at the push of a button -- that can turn the elephant into a flying machine. This sets up the sequel, titled On a Lark to the Planets, in which they leave the earth's atmosphere and visit the planets (it was also serialized in the New-York Tribune starting in the Dec. 11, 1904 issue).

UPDATE 2015-01-13: Since posting this (or maybe I forgot to look before?), HathiTrust has added a scan of The Wonderful Electric Elephant (albeit a 1927 edition without the illustrations by Coolidge, but with the cover shown above) and Google Books has a scan of On a Lark to the Planets.

(Side note: the HathiTrust scan is the Google Books scan that Google doesn't let you read. If you find a book on Google Books that should be public domain but they for some odd reason refuse to display, look for it on HathiTrust.org. It's likely there.)

End of post.