Florida Tales & Legends
Fearsome Creatures of Florida by John Henry Fleming, Illustrations by David Hazouri
(Pocol Press, Paperback, 88pp., $14.95)
Reviewed by Jamie May
“A Bestiary,” according to the website of the Aberdeen Bestiary, “is a collection of short descriptions about all sorts of animals, real and imaginary, birds and even rocks, accompanied by a moralising explanation. Although it deals with the natural world it was never meant to be a scientific text and should not be read as such. Some observations may be quite accurate but they are given the same weight as totally fabulous accounts.” In the Middle Ages, manuscripts like the Aberdeen Bestiary were often presentation volumes for noble patrons, copied on expensive vellum, lavishly bound, and illuminated with gold leaf and precious pigments.
John Henry Fleming’s Fearsome Creatures of Florida doesn’t immediately look the part. No vellum, no bespoke binding, and the illustrations by David Hazouri are pen-and-ink drawings, not illuminations. Well, blame the price of gold leaf. It may not have the elaborate accoutrements, but make no mistake: Fearsome Florida Creatures is a bestiary in the fullest sense of the word.
In these pages, Key Deer and Everglades-dwelling Burmese Pythons—real Florida fauna—rub haunches and scales with well-known folktale monsters like the Chupacabra and the Skunk Ape. Add some creatures surely dreamed up by Fleming himself, and the menagerie is complete. Fleming’s inventions take their shapes from Florida’s landscapes, both natural and man-made: The Okeechobee Flatwhale, shaped like a giant flounder, which surfaces from the shallows of Lake Okeechobee once a day to take a single, gale-force breath; Links Sprites, responsible for lost golf-balls and the untimely deaths of those who track their shots too far into the rough; the Were-Panther, native to the habitat around Alligator Alley, known to hurl itself through the windshields of speeding cars because it “may only reproduce itself by piercing the flesh of a human traveling at least 75 miles per hour, passing away even as it passes on its mutant genes.” Even those entries concerning animals the reader is more likely to have seen are filtered through his sense of place. I’m skeptical about the reports he cites of Key Deer blockading US1 and dooming anyone trying to flee at the last minute from hurricanes. But then, this book was never meant to be a scientific text, and shouldn’t be read as such.
The moralizing tendency proper to a Bestiary is here too. Okeechobee Flatwhales give Fleming the opportunity to discuss water management in Central and South Florida; the entry on the Were-Panther meditates on the way the interstate system insulates travelers from the natural world they pass through. But it’s not just environmentalism that animates the author. His Chupacabra is the kind of illegal immigrant that might appear in a xenophobe’s nightmares, both an evocation of horrifying otherness and a call to reconsider our relationship with the other: “Hey, Chupacabra, you goat-sucking intruder, where did you come from? You dog-paddled across the Florida Straits. You stowed away in a freighter’s hold. You dug a hole under the fence and squeezed your ugly dog-snout through, giving the rest of us a bad name. And then, like us, you were free.” Fleming’s goal, as stated in his introduction, “is to make at least some readers — those not settled too comfortably into the lanai of their prefab paradise — turn their heads to the man-monster’s shadow next time, to suppress for a moment the instinct to deny. Entertain instead the possibility that what you see may be real after all.” He wants us to see Florida as the snarled, fraught place it is, not the endless vacation it’s made out to be.
No doubt some readers will react to this moralizing with the same disappointment they felt when they realized C.S. Lewis had slipped a religious allegory in with the fantasy of the Narnia books (themselves repositories of some marvelous beasts). Take Fleming’s entry on the Hanging Trees, oaks that lure unwary Floridians into their clutches with shady bench swings, then choke them to death while whispering about lynchings and the KKK. It’s edifying to be reminded of the state’s history of racist terrorism, but the didactic note in “The Hanging Trees” is so insistent that the piece can’t really work as ghost story, horror, or anything but a lecture. It’s possible to be too on-the-nose with moral lessons, no matter how good those lessons are.
That said, there’s plenty of good writing here, as when Fleming imagines a python’s life as a pet before it’s released into the wild: “For a time, the boy basks in the notoriety of his storybook pet. New friends line up out the door to watch the Saturday afternoon feedings, when a live rat tunnels head-first to its death.” That rat may be my favorite creepy-crawly of the whole book: at its best, Fearsome Creatures of Florida shows how similar gnawing out a home for oneself can be to being digested.
For a further taste of Fleming’s book, visit www.fearsomecreatures.com. Readers can view the Aberdeen Bestiary and find out more about its history at http://www.abdn.ac.uk/bestiary/.
Jamie May is a Contributing Editor for The Florida Book Review and the Reviews and Features Editor for Gulf Stream Magazine. Known habitats include the FIU Creative Writing Department, where he is a candidate for an MFA in Fiction.