Some say he was a man.
Some say he was a heaving, pulsing, quivering, oozing mass of industrial filth — as foul as the Hackensack River that spawned him. A creature so unspeakable, so obscene, that few who encountered him survived — and those that did were reduced to gibbering madmen, their minds useless, their lips only able to murmur over and over the terrible name: "Oily Oliver, Oily Oliver, Oily Oliver…"
Harry Quackenbush was one of the lucky ones.
It happened back in 1917, the old folks say, in a little town called New Milford. And in those days, in that town, everyone knew one thing: Keep off the river.
" 'Twouldn't do," they would say, shaking their heads. And the wise ones would nod, and their children would whisper, "Is it true what he says, Papa? Is it true about —" And Mama would clasp her hand over the child's mouth and say, "We do not speak of The Friendly One." And everybody would go home and eat fritters.
But Harry Quackenbush was not to be persuaded. Why, this was the 20th century! No old wives' tales, spoken over a Bergen County hearth in the dark of winter, were going to spoil his lovely afternoon, canoeing with his friends on the Hackensack River. A Quackenbush never runs.
"Tonight is the full moon," someone said.
"Full of the moon, Oily Man come soon," said another.
"Whatever you do, don't stay out when the moon has risen!" said a third.
"Pshaw!" said Harry Quackenbush, and meant it.
If anyone noticed the random streaks of viscous scum, shimmering on the water, no one said anything.
Some industrial chemical, no doubt — byproduct of one of the many splendid factories on the river, creating useful products to improve all our lives. No one said with foreboding: "That looks like oil…"
Well after midnight — for they had paddled far upriver — the travelers beached their canoes where they had begun their journey, many hours earlier. Three of the party broke away and headed home. The remaining five began the weary walk to the trolley station.
The moon was full.
"Look! What is that?" Harry Quackenbush exclaimed.
Dead ahead — for the road was clear as daylight — he could see something moving far beyond the railroad crossing.
A man. A thing. Impossible to say which.
It seemed like a man. But it was huge, massive. It was naked and white. But the whiteness was dulled by something. Oil…
The others, lagging behind, had just gotten as far as the railroad tracks. Now they saw it too.
"Please, let's not get any closer," one of them pleaded.
But Harry Quackenbush was not one to be frightened by a manifestation of timeless evil. "I'm not afraid," he declared. Slowly, carefully, they all began walking toward the terrible apparition.
The hideous creature suddenly crouched on all fours like a big animal. Away it galloped, more an ostrich or hyena than a man, through the high grass along the edge of the road, along the tracks.
"Where — where did it go?" gasped one of the party.
In the monster's lair
They walked past the railroad tracks. There was no sign of the Thing. There was nothing — nothing except the shadowy sunken barrels, filled with oil, that the railroad men used to lubricate their train parts.
That's when they heard it. The sound — coming from a short distance away. Faint but unmistakable. Splashing…
"Look!" someone cried.
There in one of the barrels, glistening and hideous in the moonlight, was The Thing. Leprous, palsied, putrescent, it swished and sloshed — slathered itself in oil — as if it were anointing itself for the Devil's banquet.
"Great heavens!" Harry Quackenbush exclaimed.
Slowly, they backed away — never daring to take their eyes away from the palpitating mass that quivered and dripped oil from every pore. At last they reached a bend in the road, and broke into a run.
"Saints preserve us!" said the old trolley man as they boarded. "You're white as new milk. Why, you look as if you've seen —"
"But we have seen him!" they cried at once. "Back there, in the woods, splashing around in a barrel. We saw Oily —"
"That'll do," said the old conductor quickly. "We don't say that name around here. The Friendly One, we call him, when we must speak of him. Better not to speak at all."
"But surely" put in Harry Quackenbush, "he is just a poor madman, some benighted fellow living down by the river, bathing in the oil to keep the mosquitoes off."
"Aye, think so," said the old conductor, grimly. "Until he comes for you in the dark, when there is no help for it!" He leaned in closer. "He comes from The Down Below," he hissed. "He is composed mainly of oil, they say, as living things are composed mainly of water. When the moon is full, he is drawn upward, seeking life — and hating it. For oil and water cannot mix."
"But if that is true," Harry Quakenbush said, "why should such a creature haunt the Hackensack River?"
The old trolley conductor looked at him in astonishment. Surely he knew. Everyone knew.
"Because that water isn't water any more!" he cried.
"Man has meddled in nature! Things, foul and appalling, were loosed into the river, years ago! Now, it is his habitation. Where he prowls." He sunk his voice to a whisper. "Where he feeds..."
It was his stop. Harry Quackenbush got off the trolley. But he went home only for a moment. Grabbing his gun and a flashlight, he returned after an hour's walk, to the spot where he had last seen the frightful specter. It was nearly dawn. Down by the railroad tracks, the barrel was empty.
Then he saw the tracks. Bigger than a man's. Mastering his fear, he followed the terrible footprints for miles, to where they terminated — the Hackensack Water Company plant. There, they stopped.
What was it the old conductor said? he thought. Oil and water can't mix.
The sun was coming up. The shadows were falling away. Here, thought Harry Quackenbush — here is where Oily Oliver met his end.
Perhaps there is something in the the purity of processed water. Something that is too much for any evil thing.
Let us hope so, he thought. Let us all hope so. And so we hope today.
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Note to readers: The plot of this story follows the newspaper accounts of the period. I took some liberty with the dialogue. — Jim Beckerman
Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his insightful reports about how you spend your leisure time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.