Some might say the most fearsome creatures in the Sunshine State are the human ones, but John Henry Fleming lets us off the hook (maybe) in his whimsical bestiary Fearsome Creatures of Florida.
Fleming, a professor of creative writing at the University of South Florida who will be a featured author at the Times Festival of Reading on Oct. 24, writes of critters mythical and real — and some that blur that border. Wild things still prowl Florida even if it is encrusted with gated subdivisions "with vigilant, uniformed guards charged with improving upon the gatekeeper of Eden, who, after all, couldn't keep out the snakes."
Among his subjects is that giant Everglades python, split open after gobbling a gator — a real animal, but Fleming gives its future a discomforting spin. He writes of another real animal, the beautiful and endangered Key deer, spinning an eerie legend of deer amassing on the road through Big Pine Key during hurricanes to blockade evacuating motorists: "If I'm not getting out, neither are you."
Some of his more cryptozoological subjects are familiar, like the lonesome skunk ape ("the infamous artist of stink") and the links sprites, jocularly blamed for missing golf balls but perhaps up to much worse.
Others are less familiar, like the Okeechobee flatwhale and the were-panther. There is only ever one were-panther; it reproduces itself by attacking humans while they're driving at least 75 mph on Alligator Alley, crashing through their windshields to create an "unblessed union of species."
An environmentalist's heart beats behind these stories, but instead of lectures Fleming artfully draws us into the kind of campfire tales we almost believe. As he writes in his disclaimer, "Any resemblance of these creatures to the one now standing behind you is purely coincidental."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.