Thursday, February 22, 2024

Book Review: Sunshine State Monsters

Sunshine State Monsters: Cryptids & Legends of Florida  

Eerie Lights, 2022: 300pp. 

This is a wondrous book for a Floria-raised naturalist and cryptozoological researcher to peruse. I know of three other books on the topic, but this is my new favorite. It's also the best of Weatherly's state-by-state cryptozoology books I've read so far. 

From Pinky the sea monster (wonderfully rendered by Sam Shearon on the cover) to skunk apes to giant octopuses, Weatherly has collected all the stories and uncovered new ones. His work shows a great deal of research. I would have been more skeptical in recounting some of the stories, but this is not a deep scientific analysis: Weatherly is a storyteller, and a very good one.

Weatherly of course covers all the most famous cryptids. He has the most thorough account I’ve read of the Saint Augustine globster, aka Octopus giganteus.  On the Brian McCleary “sea serpent” tragedy, he tries to be very fair to McCleary, but the sole witness was a terrified, nearly drowned 14-year-old in pitch darkness: you can’t prove there was no sea monster, but there’s no evidence there was. I have some nitpicks on his coverage of the “giant penguin” tracks known as Old Three-Toes. He correctly points out discrepancies between the tracks as reported by Ivan Sanderson and his inability to reproduce the tracks vs the iron shoes of confessed hoaxer Tony Signorini. However, he overlooks the fact Sanderson was a serial exaggerator. He also, like seemingly every other writer, misses the fact that Thomas Helm reported the hoax in this 1962 book Monsters of the Deep.   

He mines the state’s folklore for enjoyable tales of giant alligators, sharks, birds, snakes (not much of an exaggeration these days), and – one I’d never heard of – armadillos.  He mentions Scott Marlowe’s report of seeing a dead gator 24 feet long being removed by authorities. This is a bit of an aside, but I’ve never known what to make of this. I knew the late Mr. Marlowe and had no reason to think him a liar, but the gator simply could not have been that large – authorities would immediately have called the news media, the people involved in the removal would have gone on TV as soon as they clocked out, and the thing would have been hauled to a university and be on display. (I have email correspondence claimed n a 30-foot gator was killed and left in a swamp, but I’ll just leave that here.) I hadn’t heard much about Two-toed Tom, a gigantic gator blamed for a host of depredations at the north end of the state. Weatherly includes a claim of a 20-foot rattlesnake: I heard a similar story secondhand when I was a kid.

There are tales of dinosaur-like creatures, sea serpents, a mermaid or two, an alligator man, and much more! For cryptozoologists, Florida is the gift state that keeps on giving.

When it comes to Bigfoot-like critters, most writers lump them under the title Skunk Ape, which seems to be a primate a bit smaller and a lot smellier than its Pacific Northwest counterparts. As Weatherly shows, however, there is a confusing myriad of reports of everything from monkey-size animals to those more on the order of baboons or chimps, to wildmen, to apes of genuine Bigfoot proportions. Florida’s well-earned reputation as a haven for all sorts of escaped or released wildlife, including primates, can explain some of the smaller creatures, but the Skunk Ape endures.

The book includes the search for endangered or presumed extinct wildlife, including the ivory-billed woodpecker, Carolina parakeet. Concerning the Florida panther, the story is complicated by claims of black panthers, lions, and other exotics. Just for fun, Weatherly throws in stories of werewolves, El chupacabra, and similar unlikely beasts.

As in all Weatherly’s books, there is a short bibliography and nothing more in the reference section. He does, however, do a very good job of listing the sources for individual accounts in the text, and that largely makes up for it. The lack of an index is irritating when modern software makes it fairly easy to generate.  I certainly would have liked more maps and photos, although I know photos can jack up the cost for a small publisher.

This is a most enjoyable romp through the lore of a state that must have more types of cryptids than any other.


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