In Fearsome Creatures of Florida, Tampa author John Henry Fleming serves as taxonomist of Florida folklore, producing a wildlife handbook that could have been published by National Enquirer. This book breathes new life into real creatures and popular myths like the Skunk Ape and the Chupacabra. However, the beasts that stay with readers long after finishing the book are Fleming's creations, like the ghost of the monkeynaut, Gordo, trouncing along the Space Coast in his shiny suit.
From David Hazouri's sketched illustrations, I expected a Disney World version of swamp monsters. Instead I was confronted by Swiftian creatures that prey on the book's true monsters: humans. These unnamed locals and tourists are lazy drunks more concerned with stocking their liquor cabinets than evacuating from a hurricane.
The cataloged beasts are the Frankenstein monsters of modern culture. The Key Deer evolved into ruthless survivalists due to overdeveloped breeding grounds. Some animals were set loose from defunct tourist traps or pet cages, like the Glade's Python which has developed a taste for "big, slow-moving, sun-worshipers." The Mangrove Man eats land developers and the lone Were-Panther attacks complacent drivers exceeding 75 miles an hour down Alligator Alley. In the book's darkest piece, the Hanging Trees come to life. Having learned from the surprising number of lynchings in Florida between 1882 and 1930, these trees strangle unsuspecting victims then mail dismembered toes to the deads' families.
With no overarching plot, this book's devilish charm lies in the details—a mix between Carl Hiaasen's pop-culture wasteland of modern Florida and the unyielding wild of Fleming's first novel, The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman. Beer cans collect like driftwood between mangrove roots. The state's topography is like that of a "deflated life raft on a calm sea, interesting only when you get too near the edge or when a hole opens in the middle." This golf-themed Eden offers residents in gated communities limited postcard views of "sunsets and swimsuits," along with the aroma of "coconut sunblock and the freshly quaffed Bermuda grass of our finest golf courses." These contained lives aren't just blind to swamp creatures, but also the "one-armed vets God-blessing America and begging for dollars at intersections" and "vacant-eyed streetwalkers hustling for drugs."Where the Wild Things Are, Fearsome Creatures reminds us why we obsessed over monsters as children. This book is required reading for any eco-conscious Floridian. It should be shelved between stiff wildlife handbooks for your children to discover when they're old enough to explore the truth between the facts.
Fearsome Creatures' biggest flaw is its brevity. Readers will finish it in one sitting, wishing Fleming would use his lively style to animate real endangered Florida species that get overshadowed by charismatic manatees and sea turtles. Fleming could do worse than to concoct a Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings knockoff detailing battles between Mermaid Vampires and Globesuckers in Florida's mystically polluted swamps and perfectly overcrowded beaches.
Readers can't help but pick up where the book ends, cataloging evermore local species: goblins with a taste for bicycles' front tires, bloated and brainless zombies prowling the streets of bar districts every weekend; the infamous parking ticket fairy... This, after all, is Fleming's goal. He instructs us to suppress the "instinct to deny," reminding us that ignoring our imagination "is a finely honed skill, one that rewards with a flat-line existence of impenetrable satisfaction."
At least 20% of the royalties from the sale of this book and 50% of the profits from associated products will be donated to the Nature Conservancy to help protect critical natural lands in Florida. For more on Fearsome Creatures of Florida, visit fearsomecreatures.com, and check out John Henry Fleming at these upcoming readings:
-Inkwood Books, Sept. 10 at 7 p.m.
-USF Campus GraphicStudio, Sept. 18 at 6 p.m.
-Karma Bar, Oct. 23 for Writers Harvest
-St. Pete Times Festival of Reading, Oct. 24