An excerpt from our newest Systema Paradoxa release, Devil in the Green: A Tale of the Montauk Monster, by James Chambers. This is volume 5 in the series and was featured in the July 2021 Cryptid Crate monthly subscription box.
I never intended to hunt monsters.
That strange summer that found me combing Long Island’s south shore beaches and wandering through its nearby Pine Barrens forever changed my life. The resolution to every mystery I encountered during those hot and humid months only led to greater enigmas, each one branching, hydra-like, when I believed it resolved, sprouting new lines of investigation that led me farther from the certainty of the ordinary world into one overshadowed by phenomena few people ever encounter.
The events of that summer provided me a glimpse at the inner workings of the universe and awakened in me a deep dread and understanding of humanity’s cosmic insignificance, although with too little information to make any sense of it. Perhaps there is no sense to it. Perhaps chaos defines all existence, a string of random biological, chemical, and physical actions and reactions. Atoms and molecules colliding, binding, reinventing their substance. The ceaseless transformation of energy. Mistakes of awareness. Sentience nothing more than a glitch in space and time. I don’t believe these things, but if existence does possess purpose, it reaches far beyond mere human experience and comprehension.
All of this, I realize, sounds like something out of a century-old pulp magazine or the liner notes for some Sixties prog-rock album, but to this day, I still grapple with how to describe my experiences. I struggle to explain, even to myself, how opening a shoebox full of old bones knocked my entire world off its axis.
I wonder if Dr. Annetta Maikels, who brought me to that time and place, suspected what her investigation into an animal carcass more than a decade old might uncover. Did she seek to open Pandora’s box? Or did she, as she explained when we first met, mean only to debunk a local legend?
A quirk of chance brought Annetta to my door late that June. Ethan Scapetti, a college friend of mine and a reporter for a Long Island daily newspaper, introduced us after he broke his leg and four ribs in a car crash. Two days before his appointment to cover Annetta’s viewing of the remains of the so-called Montauk Monster, a black sedan sideswiped his car off the road into a telephone pole, a hit-and-run accident. I had freelanced for his paper, shooting photo features of local events for its website. Ethan hoped to throw the work my way, knowing I sorely needed it and hoping I’d take the assignment more seriously than any of the jaded staff reporters who might cover it for him.
After wishing him a speedy recovery, I brushed up on the lore of the Montauk Monster, finding blessed little to learn. The infamous photo from the 2008 sighting of its carcass at Ditch Plains Beach, Montauk looked to me exactly as most experts described it: the remains of a small dog or raccoon, grotesquely distorted by decomposition and several days floating in salt water. The remains vanished soon after the sighting, reportedly removed by a local resident who then buried them on their property or stored them in a garage. They were never seen again. Thanks to a Gawker.com headline, the picture went viral and sparked the imaginations of millions around the world.
The group of young women who snapped the photo offered little information. After first embracing the limelight, they later shied away from it and the Montauk Monster altogether.
That single image, however, birthed an unforgettable beast. Reports of similar creatures followed from around the world, as close as Staten Island and as far away as Asia. None of them offered proof of anything other than that a few days of ocean exposure could dramatically alter the appearance of a small, dead mammal. Still, something in that first photo, in the deformed body and more so in the sharp, unnatural lines of its muzzle leading to a sort of beak nagged at me enough that I couldn’t firmly close the door on the possibility of another explanation. That odd head and beak conjured memories of illustrations in childhood books about prehistoric giant mammals, so out of place in 2008 that I understood why it fascinated many who saw it. More than a decade later, a second Ditch Plains sighting reignited interest in the so-called Montauk Monster.
A couple walking the beach discovered the second carcass, which resembled the original creature in almost every detail, except that it retained a bit more of its fur, bleached gray by sun and salt water. They shot a photo with a composition similar to the 2008 image, but it failed to achieve the same viral popularity. With all the grim, depressing news in the world that year, perhaps no one had the heart for monster stories. But for those already interested in Monty, as Annetta liked to call the thing, it offered hope of validation, opening a new chapter in the legend. More importantly, it inspired Annetta, a biology and zoology professor at King’s College in Brooklyn, to use her summer break to indulge her infatuation with cryptozoology and investigate an enticing lead. For that, I am forever grateful—because it brought her to my door.
Annetta arrived at my house in Hicksville early on a Saturday morning.
Her stature and confidence intimidated me from the moment I saw her. Close to six feet tall, she almost matched my own height. She wore hiking boots and khaki shorts, a green T-shirt under a light, short-sleeved jacket loaded with pockets, and a satchel slung across her torso. With dark, brown skin and close-cut hair, she looked smart, adventurous, and official. The sight of her immediately altered my impression of the assignment, and I regretted answering the door in faded college sweatpants and an old Adventure Time T-shirt.
“Benjamin Keep?” she said.
“That’s me.” I invited her in for a cup of coffee while I changed clothes and gathered my camera, a high-quality digital SLR that had set me back several months’ worth of student-loan payments, and soon we hit the road. Annetta drove a Prius that seemed too small to contain her. She refused to share with me the address of our destination.
“I promised I’d keep it a secret,” she said, and when I pointed out that I’d learn it when we got there, she grinned and said, “Maybe.”
We merged into highway traffic and sped east along the Long Island Expressway, another furious insect joining the frantic scurry along the asphalt ant trail.
“What do you know about cryptozoology?” Annetta asked me.
“What the average person knows from watching Bigfoot documentaries and looking at pictures of the Loch Ness Monster online,” I told her. “But I’ve read up on the Montauk Monster.”
“Yeah? So, tell me what you know about Monty.”
I ran down what I’d learned from my research.
She nodded. “Well done, Ben, and yeah, I’ve heard all the explanations for why Monty isn’t a cryptid. Publicity stunt, dead raccoon, latex hoax. Maybe one of them is right—but maybe none of them are.”
“You hope to prove it one way or the other?” I slid a notebook and pen from my camera case. “This is for the record, by the way.”
“Nope, not looking to prove anything. Only theories require proof, and I have no theory yet. But I don’t like the other theories. I’m gathering evidence to form my own theory.”
“How did you learn the location of the remains, and what makes you believe they’re authentic?”
“The owner called me out of the blue. Said she heard about my interest from mutual acquaintances. But I don’t believe anything yet. I mostly expect at the end of this trip out to the ass-end of Long Island we’re going to wind up looking at a collection of squirrel bones. If we’re lucky, they’ll be dressed up to look like something weird, and we’ll be entertained.”
“Like the Feejee Mermaid.”
“Exactly. PT Barnum at his finest. Gold star for you. If we’re very, very lucky, though, they’ll turn out to be something special.”
“The remains of the 2008 creature?”
“Wouldn’t that be nice?”
I agreed it would, then shifted gears. “What attracted you to cryptozoology?”
Annetta laughed. “Now there’s a long story.”
“We’ve got a long drive.”
The nomadic tribes of summer thickened and forced us to slow down, to fall into place with the great migration of beach-seekers, wine-tasters, and antique-hunters fleeing stifling New York City and suburban boredom for Long Island’s once-pastoral East End. As a native Long Islander, I made a point of avoiding Montauk, the Hamptons, and the transplanted city social scene that flooded the Island every summer. Upper-East- and West-Siders, for whom most of the Island counted as the local flyover country, looked down their noses at we suburbanites. The “bridge-and-tunnel” crowd, they called us, but their snobbery never hindered their annual invasion of the South Fork from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Annetta frowned at the mass of surrounding cars, but as the sunlight warmed my face and I eyed the clear blue sky, it surprised me traffic moved anything above an absolute crawl on such a near-perfect summer day.
“Damn this traffic. We need to be there before noon. The owner was insistent about that. I don’t want to roll up at 12:05 and have a door slammed in our faces.”
The dashboard clock read 10:12. “We’ll make it. Might cut it close, but this traffic’s got to thin out sometime. Tell me your story and take your mind off all this.”
After a sigh, Annetta said, “Okay, you ever hear stories about the alligators in the sewers?”
“Where? In the City?”
“Right. People bring home baby alligators as pets from trips to Florida or Georgia or wherever. Their kids love them for a few weeks, then get bored and forget about them. The baby gators grow a little too big, flash some teeth, and then suddenly, a light bulb goes on in Mom or Dad’s head. This thing will get huge and need food. They don’t want to deal with it, and their kids hardly remember they have it. So, one night while everyone’s asleep or some afternoon while the kids are at school, they flush the poor gator down the toilet, good riddance.”
“Yeah, I know this one. There’s an old movie about it. The gator survives its toilet ride, winds up in the sewer, where it grows to full size, and roams around under the city, chowing down on sewer workers. It’s a classic urban legend.”
A tractor-trailer, finding a miraculous opening amongst the cars, flew by us, shuddering Annetta’s Prius with its backdraft. To either side of the road sprawled the Pine Barrens, dark and unkempt, one of the last great spaces of Long Island yet to face bulldozers and conversion into strip malls and townhome developments. Protected, for now, it persisted under development rumors that circled like sharks. Proposals for a 600-acre golf course, a casino, eco-housing, and even an adventure park had all tested the strength of the law protecting more than 100,000 acres of wilderness. Surrounded by it, Annetta’s story sounded like a campfire tale, and a shiver ran through me.
“My grandmother told me about the alligators when I was in second grade,” Annetta said. “Scared me silly. I refused to ride the subway for a month after that. My mother was furious with her because I made us walk everywhere or take the bus. One time we even took a cab because I cried so hard when she tried to carry me down the stairs at Jay Street Station. Eventually, my fear gave way to other worries, schoolwork, who was coming to my birthday party, other kid stuff. My mom promised me a Snickers if I took the subway again. She figured I’d see there wasn’t anything to be afraid of, and we could get back to normal. My first time back, though, wouldn’t you know it? I saw an alligator down there.”
“Seriously, yes, but not really. My mother liked to board at the front of the train. We always waited near the end of the platform, with a view of the tunnel, and I saw all sorts of stuff on the tracks. Cockroaches. Rats. Litter. And that one time, in the darkness where the rails curved out of sight into the gloom, I saw something big and frightening with a mouth full of ugly, glistening teeth slither between the rails. I had no doubt it would climb the three little steps at the platform’s end and devour me. I grabbed my mother’s hand, too frightened to speak. Tears in my eyes. I looked up at her, pleading, and she gave me one of those ‘it’s all right, honey’ smiles parents use when they see you’re upset but don’t know why. I pointed to the monster in the tunnel, and when I looked back at it, do you know what I saw?”
“I’m guessing not an alligator.”
“A black trash bag blowing on the track. Our train pulled in then, funneling the air ahead of it, banishing that plastic bag into the subway depths. My mother hustled me onto the train. I never did tell her about my ‘alligator’—but I never forgot it.”
“Okay, but you saw what you saw because of the power of suggestion, the ideas your grandmother planted in your head. Your mind drew them onto a scrap of trash. How’d that lead you to cryptozoology?”
“The psychology of it isn’t the part of the experience that stuck with me. It’s the question, see? However briefly, I believed an alligator was on the train tracks. It was one hundred percent real to me until it wasn’t, but it left a question in my mind. Could an alligator really survive a flush down the drain then live in the New York City sewers?”
“No, right? It would be caught in filters along the way or snagged at a treatment plant, and that’s that.”
“Did you know how sewers worked when you were in the second grade?”
“Me neither. Anyway, that’s what got me hooked. And here is our exit.”
Annetta’s story had distracted us from the traffic, and now she guided her Prius up the exit ramp, off the Expressway. A fair number of cars and trucks came along and stayed with us. My parents often spoke about their trips out to Montauk or Orient Point, the South and North Forks of the Island when they were young, back when potato farms occupied more acreage than vineyards. Then city people and tourists “discovered” those places, the Hampton Jitney started shuttling eager, summer-struck Manhattanites on a regular schedule every Friday afternoon and Sunday morning, and everything changed. I imagined the place undeveloped, like Annetta’s subway tunnel, a place where you could mistake a trash bag for a monster. An untamed place that had still existed not so long ago and maybe remained under the surface.
I don’t know if it came down to Annetta’s story setting the right mood, me simply getting caught up in her telling of it, or the shadows of the Pine Barrens, but barreling down Route 24, through Flanders, I believed that at the end of our drive, we might actually find that very special thing.
James Chambers is an award-winning author of horror, crime, fantasy, and science fiction. He wrote the Bram Stoker Award®-winning graphic novel, Kolchak the Night Stalker: The Forgotten Lore of Edgar Allan Poe. Publisher’s Weekly described The Engines of Sacrifice, his collection of four Lovecraftian-inspired novellas published by Dark Regions Press as “…chillingly evocative…” in a starred review. His story, “A Song Left Behind in the Aztakea Hills,” was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award.
He has authored the short story collection Resurrection House and several novellas, including The Dead Bear Witness and Tears of Blood, in the Corpse Fauna novella series. He also wrote the illustrated story collection, The Midnight Hour: Saint Lawn Hill and Other Tales, created in collaboration with artist Jason Whitley.
His short stories have been published in the anthologies The Avenger: Roaring Heart of the Crucible, Bad-Ass Faeries, Bad-Ass Faeries 2: Just Plain Bad, Bad-Ass Faeries 3: In All Their Glory, Bad Cop No Donut, The Best of Bad-Ass Faeries, The Best of Defending the Future, Breach the Hull, By Other Means, Chiral Mad 2, Chiral Mad 4, Dance Like A Monkey, Dark Hallows II: Tales from the Witching Hour, Deep Cuts, The Domino Lady: Sex as a Weapon, Dragon’s Lure, Fantastic Futures 13, Gaslight and Grimm, The Green Hornet Chronicles, Hardboiled Cthulhu, Hear Them Roar, In An Iron Cage, Kolchak the Night Stalker: Passages of the Macabre, Man and Machine, Mermaids 13, No Longer Dreams, Qualia Nous, Shadows Over Main Street (1 and 2), The Side of Good/The Side of Evil, The Society for the Preservation of CJ Henderson, So It Begins, The Spider: Extreme Prejudice, To Hell in a Fast Car, Truth or Dare, TV Gods, Walrus Tales, Weird Trails, and With Great Power; the chapbook Mooncat Jack; and the magazines Bare Bone, Cthulhu Sex, and Allen K’s Inhuman.
He has also written numerous comic books including Leonard Nimoy’s Primortals, the critically acclaimed “The Revenant” in Shadow House, The Midnight Hour with Jason Whitley, and the award-winning original graphic novel, Kolchak the Night Stalker: The Forgotten Lore of Edgar Allan Poe.
He is a member and trustee of the Horror Writers Association, and recipient of the 2012 Richard Laymon Award and the 2016 Silver Hammer Award.
He lives in New York.
Visit his website: http://www.jameschambersonline.com.