When I was very young, my mother’s uncle from Kentucky convinced me that there were long-fingered creatures that lived in the dark in closets. They were called, he told me with great seriousness, garments, and they were definitely real. For years afterward, I would open closets and wonder if there really was some sort of lemur-bat like thing huddling amidst the outdated winter coats, or buried in the miscellaneous and unknowable sock box. By the time I discovered the boring polyester truth about garments, I was more impressed than anything else at my great uncle. It was a good bamboozling. He was also following a great North American tradition: entertaining and disquieting gullible children by telling them about improbable monsters. I was both entertained and disquieted, and I never stopped liking monsters.
I had one of those strange Proustian moments the other day: I was thinking about the Appalachian mountains in the context of something I have already forgotten, and then I remembered that I once had this book about the mythological creatures of North America, and it had made a peculiar impression on me, and – as is the way of these recollection – I desperately wanted to see it again. Not that I could remember the name of the book. I could just remember that it was, like all the children’s literature that is great, both interesting and unsettling, with just-too-detailed drawings, a tiny bit more of a surrealist tinge than is usual in books catering to the small. I did remember it had an animal in itcalled the Splinter Cat, and something about a HideBehind. Good enough for Google.
The Internet has made these incandescent, incessant childhood memories much more accessible than they used to be. I guess my elders must have had to resort to rummaging around in field markets in hope that something will jog their memory. Me, I go to the Internet Archive, where I found the book in approximately 2.5 seconds. It is called “Kickle Snifters and Other Fearsome Critters,” and it was written by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Glen Rounds. It is a book of strange animals collected from American folkore, and while they are described as “fearsome,” that’s really an overstatement. There are a few actually-horrible creatures in the book, like the omnipresent and awful windigo, but the vast majority are more ridiculous than anything else. There’s the Hugag, a creature that leans on things to sleep, and the Kickle Snifters themselves, which reside in old men’s beards and only emerge when you happen to be getting tired. Schwartz describes the monsters in a distinctly un-straightforward, mysterious way, as befitting their nature. The book would have no magic if it simply straight-up described the monsters with detailed color illustrations and made-up biological statistics, as some children’s books on fantasy animals do. The book retained the sense of unknowable mystery.
Consider my favorite animal from the book, the sea serpent. Schwartz gives us a perfect two-paragraph long short story about it. There’s a professor, he’s picking plums (for some reason), and this creature emerges from the ocean. It speaks, for some reason, in English, and it feels wistful about things. It has retreated onto land, for some reason that we are not to know. It could be anywhere. It could be right outside your door. It might also be that you’d like to get to know it. This is not a sea serpent of a scary story: it is a sea serpent of a surreal story, which I always liked much better.
Schwartz and Rounds constitute a sort of dream-team of inappropriately creepy children’s literature, which probably explains why Kickle Snifters has so effectively installed itself in my brain. Schwartz is the deeply sick individual behind the “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” series. Gazillions of American children have have been successfully traumatized (and delighted) by these books since they came out in 1981. I was among those children who both loved and feared them, who’d stare for a long time at Stephen Gammell’s hideously detailed and tendriled illustrations of floating skeleton-children and dogs with human hands and face-erupting spiders: Schwartz was probably responsible for many children’s first visceral perception of their own fleshy mortality.
Knickle Snifters was not illustrated by the infamous Gammel, but in some respects, I found (and still find) Glen Round’s illustrations just as pleasingly unnerving, albeit in a more subtle way. Glen Rounds has one of those great 20th century biographies: he was born in a honest-to-God sod house in South Dakota in 1906, and then moved to Montana as a child in a covered wagon. Later, he worked as a mule skinner and a carnival artist (whatever that is) before he became a full-time children’s illustrator. He eventually wrote and illustrated 150 books, and while I have not read his entire oeuvre, it is probably more familiar to you, if you are of a certain age, than you might realize. His version of the 3 Billy Goats Gruff, with its aggressive, ascetic illustrations appears to have found its way into every elementary school library in the 1990s.
Rounds had a particular gift for drawing underfed and menacing animals: there are a lot of lean hound-dogs and scrawny ponies and bony-romped cattle in his drawings. Rounds also had a bit of a gift for the bleak, the desolate, which is probably the sort of thing that happens to you if you are born in a sod house in South Dakota. Anything that Schwartz and Rounds collaborated on was destined to get a little off-kilter: and so it is with Kickle Snifters. Kickle Snifters is in fact just one volume in Schwartz and Rounds series on American folklore and tall-tales. I haven’t read the others, but I’m half-inclined to hunt them down to see if the weirdness of Kickle Snifters persists.
Schwartz and Glen Rounds did not make up these monsters out of whole cloth. They are in fact part of a great tradition of disquieting children and greenhorns, the same tradition my great-uncle with the garments partook in. We can figure out some of the influences because Schwartz helpfully included a bibliography. The book largely drew from one great source: Henry H Tryon’s “Fearsome Critters,” a definitive guide to North America’s faux natural history, meant to preserve “various legendary woods varmints in some permanent record.” It also has unsettling illustrations, of a particular and charming turn of the century sketchy style. You can read the entire thing here.
Tryon claimed in his preface that he largely picked up his tales of horrible and unknowable creatures from woods camps. It was not that the lumberjacks really believed that they were at risk of being attacked by a tripod-legged, rock shooting elephant: rather, they were intended for “the puzzlement and temporary terrorization of some camp greenhorn,” in the exact same tradition as the garments-story my great uncle told me. Many of the creatures found in Knickle Snifters are here: the HideBehind, the Hoop Snake, the Hugag, the Splinter Cat. There are other, more-on-the-nose ones, like the Axehandle Hound or “Canis Consumens,” which runs off with a lumberjack’s favorite axe handle.
Tryon himself was just one of the faux natural history chroniclers of the early 20th cetury. Lanwood Sharpe’s wonderful “Lumberwoods” website has hypertext versions of other sources: there’s Art Childs 1922 “Yarns of the Big Woods,” and a book compiling 1913 accounts of The Marvelous Critters of Puget Sound from the Seattle Star’s writers.
So why did I, and why do so many people, like these false and not-so-threatening monsters so much? What is the peculiar attraction of making up ridiculous fake animals to mess with greenhorns and tourists and small children?
Stories about monstrous animals of dubious realness are certainly ancient and they are everywhere. There’s the aforementioned windigo, which shows up in the mythology of a number of Algonquian groups, none of which one entirely agree on what it looks like or what it does, beyond its extreme horribleness. We have the man-eating uktena serpent described by the Cherokee in the Southeastern United States, and the Athabaskan cannibal-ogre known as the Wechuge, and the Sasquatch, and the thunderbird. David D. Gilmore’s excellent “Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors” describes many of these not-real animals from many different cultures, and speculates as to why we’re so fond of them.
But most of these well-explored monsters are meant to be taken more seriously than those described in “Kickle Snifters” and “Fearsome Critters.” The monsters of Kickle Snifters who do things like hide in old men’s beards or make strange and annoying noises are largely not that dangerous, or they are dangerous in improbable ways – they’ll bite you on the leg and not let go for months, or they’ll make you bounce and laugh, or they’ll make weird noises at you. They exist in the realm of the surreal and unsettling and silly. If you made a horror movie about them, it would have to be a very stupid one. It would also be the best horror movie ever.
They largely are not physically described by the tale-teller: you’re supposed to fill in the gaps about what a goofus or a hide behind or a squidicum-squee actually looks like yourself. This is a story-telling trick that is particularly effective on children, and so it was with me: my great uncle did not actually describe what a garment looked like, after all. He merely mentioned that they existed and that they lived in the dark in the closets. I added in the stuff about the long fingers and the lemur-like appearance and enormous eyes myself. That was the fun part, although it was also the part that made me slightly terrified of closets until I hit third grade.
While the monster of Kickle Snifters and Fearsome Critters don’t really fit into the genre of horror and ghost stories, their unseriousness weirdness of these folk monsters situates them perfectly in the world of tall tales. Nancy Cassell McEntire defines tall tales as “an informal, fictionalized narrative, created out of increasingly absurd exaggerations that begin in the ordinary world and depart from it through hilarious descriptions.”
These stories, as McEntire says, “may start out with a foundation of enough credible details to situate it in the real world, but it soon begins its exaggerated journey, stacking one impossibility on top of another to form a perpendicular lie.” This particular sort of tall tale is described by Carolyn S. Brown as a distinctly white male sort of thing, rooted in the “bragging contests” of the early frontier. (Well, perhaps, though one wonders if this is more an effect of what sort of tall-tales get documented and which do not).
Brown emphasizes the importance of deadpan and the pretense of truth in these stories: the tale-teller had best be entirely sincere in their delivery, completely convicted in the belief that they came across a snake that folds itself up into a hoop. This does not meant that they actually believe it (which is how “bullshit” has been so famously described). It means simply that the humor comes from the fact that they’d like us to believe it. It’s BSing, but of a sort that is meant to be more amusing and good-natured than cruel or genuinely threatening. It is meant to do nothing more than to make kids mildly dubious of closets, not to paralyze them with fear.
Why tell these stories at all? Why this benign sort of lying? Story-teller Don Lewis, quoted by Carolyn Brown, thinks that the stories are “an attempt to make some kind of sense or maybe a joke or do away with a little bit of the threat of a disorganized universe.” This ppeals to children, who are faced with a world they do not understand and have little influence over. It also appeals to me in 2018, where I feel approximately the same with more tax obligations. May the Fearsome Critters persist forever. May we continue to harmlessly convince children and the gullible of strange and nonexistent creatures.