Fearsome Critters

Jackalope

In early lumberjack folklore, fearsome critters are fantastical beasts that were said to inhabit the frontier wilderness of North America, such as  the jackalope, a rabbit with the antlers of an antelope. Fearsome critters were an integral part of oral tradition in North America lumber camps during the turn of the 20th century, principally as a means to pass time (such as in tall tales) or as a jest for hazing newcomers.

In a typical fearsome critter gag, a person would casually remark about a strange noise or sight they encountered in the wild; subsequently, another accomplice would join in. Meanwhile, an eavesdropper would begin to investigate.

Lumberjacks, who regularly traveled between camps, would stop to swap stories, eventually disseminating these myths across the continent. Many fearsome critters were simply the products of pure exaggeration; while a number, however, were used either seriously or jokingly as explanations for unexplained phenomena. For example, the hidebehind, a nocturnal creature that preyed upon humans that wander the wood, served to account for loggers who failed to return to camp, while the treesqueak, a squirrel-like animal claimed to inhabit the trees of New England, offered justification for strange noises heard in the woods. A handful mirrored descriptions of actual animals. The mangrove killifish, which takes up shelter in decaying branches after leaving the water, exhibits similarities to the upland trout, a legendary fish purported to nest in trees. In addition, the story of the fillyloo, about a mythical crane that flies upside-down, may have been inspired by observations of the wood stork, a bird that has been witnessed briefly flying in this manner. In particular instances more elaborate ruses were created using taxidermy or trick photography.

The character of the fearsome critters themselves was usually more comical than frightful. Often the greater emphasis is placed on behavioral traits with little or no detail mentioned on their appearance, as in the cases of the hidebehind, teakettler, squidgicum-squee, and hangdown. Some fearsome critters like flittericks or the goofus appeared to be ordinary animals that just behaved out of the ordinary. The more physically emphasized and improbable creatures seem to be distinguished by how far the storyteller could push the boundaries of biomechanics. Both the tripodero and snoligoster demonstrate facets more in common with mechanical apparatuses than animals, and the hugag and sidehill gouger seem to be more a play on applied physics than fanciful inspiration. While much of the literature that has been written on the subject echoes a naturalist’s perspective, commonly specifying a range of distribution, behavioral habits, and physical appearance, many of these myths were never widespread. It is common to find a lack of consensus on a specific fearsome critter, if not clear contradictions. To illustrate, the wampus cat differs widely between Vance Randolph’s ‘We Always Lie to Strangers’ and Henry H. Tryon’s ‘Fearsome Critters,’ with Tryon describing a cat with pantographic forelimbs and Randolph portraying it as a supernatural, aquatic panther.

Examples of fearsome critters include the agropelter, a beast which amuses itself by hurling twigs and tree branches at passers by; the axehandle hound, which reputedly subsisted on axe handles left unattended; mentioned in Jorge Luis Borges’ ‘Book of Imaginary Beings;’ the ball-tailed cat, a feline similar to a mountain lion, except with a long tail with a bulbous end used for striking its prey; the cactus cat, feline of the American southwest with hair like thorns that intoxicates itself by the consumption of cactus water; the dungavenhooter, a crocodile creature with no mouth, instead having huge nostrils (it uses its tail to pound loggers into a gas, which it then inhales for sustenance); and the glawackus, a fierce brute resembling a combination of a panther, lion, and a bear.

Others include the gumberoo, a rare hairless bear-like creature with skin that is nearly invulnerable, repelling all attacks except fire which will cause it to explode; the hodag, a favorite varmint of the Wisconsin swamps affixed with horns and spikes, complemented by a maniacal grin; the Jersey Devil, a predatory creature said to terrorize livestock in the pines of Southern New Jersey (often described as winged and bipedal, and sometimes connected to witchcraft and devil worship); the sidehill gouger, a beast legged for hillsides having legs on one side taller than the other, thus always traveling in a circular path; the snallygaster, a dragon-like beast said to inhabit the hills surrounding Washington and Frederick Counties of Maryland; the splintercat, a legendary cat in the Pacific Northwest that uses his incredible speed and stiff forehead to smash into large trees, knocking the branches off and withering the trunks; the squonk, the most melancholy of creatures (because of its deformed countenance, it refuses contact with all life and will dissolve in its own tears if ever gazed upon); and the teakettler, a small vermin which makes a noise like the sound of a tea kettle.

One Comment to “Fearsome Critters”

  1. The tendency to description of behavior without image is used to eerie literary effect by Manly Wade Wellman in employing a number of fearsome critters in his 1952 science fiction folk tale “The Desrick on Yandro,” as well as commenting specifically on the lack of physical description for one of the beasts: “The Behinder flung itself on his shoulders. Then I knew why nobody’s supposed to see one. I wish I hadn’t. To this day I can see it, as plain as a fence at noon, and forever I will be able to see it. But talking about it’s another matter. Thank you, I won’t try.”

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