Well, his birthday is not until September but the Monster Kid came to me last night and told me what he wanted for his birthday.
Specifically, he requested a book called Fearsome Critters.
“You remember, Mom, Dad had a copy for Monster Librarian. It had the Hodag in it.” (The Hodag?)
We looked it up on Amazon. There are some interesting books that come up on Amazon when you search the term “fearsome critters” but the only book of that name appeared to have been written many, many years ago. So, not one that we would have had sent to us for review. I knew the book he was talking about, so I could identify the front cover. It is not a book that appears on Amazon, or comes up at usedbooksearch.net, although the first book we found, Fearsome Critters by Henry H. Tryon, kept popping up, as well as one by Alvin Schwartz that looked pretty neat, called Kickle Snifters and Other Fearsome Critters. This, I am sure, is a children’s book, based in folklore, because that’s what Alvin Schwartz wrote (he was also the compiler for the Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark books). A book that did pop up during our Amazon search, and a much more recent choice, would be Monica Farrier’s Mysterious Beasties of the Northwoods: Creatures from North American Folklore. It’s described as an illustrated field guide, but I can’t tell whether it would be a good choice for children (illustrated=interesting to look at, as far as the Monster Kid is concerned, but I have no idea if it’s age appropriate in content) I’m not sure why she substituted “mysterious beasties” for “fearsome critters”, since “fearsome critters” is clearly the term that is most widely used.
“I need the second book, Mom, The Return of The Fearsome Critters.” Okay, more information is always good. Still nothing on Amazon, although it does look like I could get my very own baby doll “fearsome critters” T-shirt if I want to. So back to usedbooksearch.net I go. And yes! There is a book with that title by an author named Warren S. James, at both AbeBooks.com and Biblio.com, for sale from a tiny independent bookseller in Canada, Laird Books. There’s a picture of the cover, and the cover is the one I remember. This is the book! Laird Books identifies it as a children’s book, so now I just have to figure out where in the house it has wandered off to, or snag a copy from this bookstore in Canada. Problem solved.
But what is more interesting to me than the book the Monster Kid was really asking about is that there is actually an original book titled Fearsome Critters, and it was written in 1939 by a man named Henry H. Tryon, to document the tales told by lumberjacks about the creatures that inhabited the northwoods. So “fearsome critters” aren’t just the fictional invention of one man, they’re part of an entire tradition of scary stories about creatures that might have been lurking just outside the reach of the light of the campfires. Creatures that, yes, even scared burly lumberjacks. And I discovered that you can read an illustrated copy online, at lumberwoods.com, which has all kinds of interesting information about fearsome critters, including online copies of two additional books written on the same subject: Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods by William T. Cox, (published in 1910), and The Hodag, And Other Tales Of The Logging Camps by Luke Kearny (published in 1928) written on the same subject. Not only that, but a composer named Laurence Bitensky has actually written a musical score for wind ensemble, with a narrator, based partially on the descriptions found in Tryon’s book! You can listen to it here.
So there. Campfire stories to give you the creeps don’t have to come from urban legend. There is a tradition of frightening American folklore built right in to not just the present, but the past. Then, as now, there was plenty to be afraid of in the dark. Remember that the next time you pitch a tent in the woods as the sun is going down.
Or, instead, you could turn the pages of one of these guides in the comfort of your home, with your monster-loving kid sitting, mesmerized by the habits of the Hodag, right beside you.