June 12, 2018

The Lumberjack and the Devil-Fish: A Story from Maine

Here's a weird story I just found in Haunted Maine by Charles Stansfield Jr. There are a lot of ghost and folklore books out there, but Stansfield's has some crazy legends I haven't read before. Like this one...


Back in the 19th century, a lumberjack named Jack Johnston lived in Millinocket, Maine. Johnston came from a local family but was unpopular. This was partly because he was curmudgeonly and didn't like to follow rules but it was mainly because he hated going to church and made fun of anyone who did. Johnston didn't believe in God and didn't care who knew. (You can probably guess this story isn't going to end well.)

Johnston liked to go fishing on Sundays while everyone else was in church. Unfortunately he was not a patient person, and one Sunday as he stood on the lake's shore he became frustrated because the fish weren't biting. He cursed the lake, he cursed the fish, he cursed his fishing rod. Being an irreligious person he cursed God, and finally for good measure he even cursed Satan.

Found on Pinterest. 

As soon as he invoked the Devil's name he felt a tug on his line. "Finally," he thought, "I've got a bite." Whatever was on the other end was big and it nearly pulled Jack into the lake, but with a lot of work he reeled in the fish. When he saw it he gasped in horror.

The fish was hideous. It was longer than a man's arm and had huge bulging red eyes. Sharp fangs filled its mouth, and its sinuous black body exuded a noxiously smelly slime. It was a monster.

Jack briefly thought of bringing the creature home to cook, but it was too revolting even for a surly lumberjack to eat. Instead Jack tossed the Devil-fish into a farmer's well as he walked by. "Good riddance!" said Jack without a backward glance.

Jack thought that was the end of the story, but it was not. Shortly after Jack disposed of the fish people in Millinocket began to notice that livestock was going missing at night. At first it was small animals like chickens or piglets, but soon calves and goats began to disappear. People thought it might be a feral dog or even a wolf that had crept down from Canada but those theories were soon put to rest. Several people said they had seen a hideous snake-like fish crawl out a well every night to seek out prey. Fearing for their livelihoods, local farmers tried to propitiate the Devil-fish by throwing food down the well. It didn't work. The creature just grew larger and hungrier, and it continued its nighttime hunting. At some point there wouldn't be any livestock left in town and the creature would began eating humans...

Photo of a wolf eel from Pinterest.
Jack had told some of his lumberjack cronies about the hideous fish the day he caught it, and word spread through town that he was responsible for the monster's reign of terror. An angry mob came to Jack's house one night. He had caused the problem by fishing on the Sabbath day! He had to get rid of the Devil-fish!

Fearing for his safety Jack agreed to kill the fish. But how was he supposed to kill a supernatural demon fish? He couldn't go to the local minister for advice, so instead he went to an old woman who had a reputation for being a witch.

The woman didn't even bat an eye as Jack told his story. When he was finished she dug around in a big trunk and pulled out a strange-looking sword. "That fish is no ordinary fish," she said. "It was sent by the Prince of Darkness himself when you cursed him on the Sabbath day. But this is no ordinary sword! It can dispatch even the most ferocious of demons, but..."

"Sounds good lady," Jack said, reaching for the sword.

"But, "she continued, "there's a catch. After you kill the demon you must kill the next thing you see. If you don't the Devil will drag you down to Hell."

Jack took the sword and headed to the well. On his way he bought a chicken from a local farmer. When reached the well he tied the chicken to a nearby tree. His plan was to kill the chicken after he slew the Devil-fish, thereby keeping his soul from the Devil's clutches.

The Devil-fish emerged from the well shortly after sunset. It was ten times larger than it had been when Jack caught it. When it saw Jack it emitted a hideous roar and rushed towards him. Jack raised the sword and with a single blow chopped off the monster's head. The creature emitted ichorous bile as its body twitched on the ground. It was dead. 

Before he could turn to kill the chicken Jack hear a familiar voice. "Jack, my son! You killed the monster!" Jack turned reflexively and saw his father, coming to congratulate him for saving the town.

Jack groaned. Unless he killed his father his soul would be dragged to Hell. Jack was not a nice person, but he was not a murderer. With a sigh he put down the sword, fell to his knees, and then collapsed on the ground lifeless. The Devil had taken his soul.


There are a some interesting things about this story (other than a monstrous Devil-fish). Some aspects of it are clearly based on classic New England folklore. The Sabbath-breaker who gets into supernatural trouble is one of them, as is the anti-social lumberjack. I've read quite a few stories about cursed lumberjacks, lumberjacks who make deals with the Devil, etc. It's a common theme. 

Some other aspects make it seem more like a classic fairy tale. The witch and the magic sword are two of them, but the one that really struck me was Jack needing to kill the first thing he sees. He thinks it will be an animal, but it turns out to be human. 

A similar motif appears in several classic Grimm's fairy tales. In "The Nixie of the Mill Pond," a man promises a water spirit whatever has just been born on his farm. He thinks it will be a calf, but finds out his wife has just given birth to a son. Oops. In "The Girl with No Hands" a farmer promises the Devil whatever is standing behind his barn, thinking of his apple tree but finds his daughter is there instead. Oops. 

The motif isn't just limited to the Brothers Grimm. In the Estonian fairy tale "The Grateful Prince" a king lost in the woods promises the old man who guides him home the first thing that comes out of his palace gate. The king thinks it will be his faithful dog that greets him every day, but wouldn't you know it - his wife has just given birth and his infant son is carried out of the gate first. Again, oops. 

I suspect "The Millinocket Devil-fish" is a literary folktale that someone created based on classic New England themes with a little bit of Grimm's fairytales thrown in. Still, it's a good story and I'm glad Stansfield included it in his book. Who doesn't like stories about monstrous snake fish that live in wells?


Sue Bursztynski said...

Goodness, that photo is scary! It’s amazing how many real scary looking creatures there are without having to resort to fantasy!

That “first thing you see” theme goes back further than the Grimms. It’s in the Bible, with the story of Jephthah’s daughter. He is a general who promises the first living thing he sees when he gets home to God, if he can win this battle. His daughter comes dancing out with the household to greet him, instead of the animal he had expected. She asks for a few months to go out into the hills with her companions, to “bewail her virginity”, whatever that means. Maybe the translation is a bit off. But he does offer her up and given that human sacrifice was not a Jewish thing, even in the days of the patriarchs, I’m wondering if it’s even older than that story suggests, connected with the Canaanites, who certainly did do human sacrifice... So, a very old theme!

Peter Muise said...

Hi Sue! Thanks for that Old Testament reference. I had forgotten that story! When I just looked up Jephthah on Wikipedia I read that there is a Greek myth with a similar theme about a general named Idomeneus. Fascinating!