Gumberoos and squonks
Posted on July 8, 2009
This week I've been having a bit of fun throwing all sorts of ghastly monsters at Hal and his friends. I'm on Chapter Seven of Labyrinth of Fire (the sequel to Island of Fog) and the young heroes have just entered a forest. This isn't a major part of the plot so I'm not giving anything away here, but during their travels they come across some very strange beasties indeed.
Apparently, in real life, lumberjacks and forest workers have their own catalog of mythical creatures, or Fearsome Critters. Among them (and there are plenty!) there are gumberoos and squonks. Gumberoos are bear-like creatures with no fur; instead their skin is black and leathery. Many stories say they have comically large feet. Anyway, you can shoot at gumberoos, but arrows and bullets bounce right off. Worse, the arrow or bullet will likely bounce right back at YOU. Only fire can kill these critters.
Squonks are the sort of things you joke about around a camp fire. They're incredibly ugly, with wrinkly skin covered in warts and moles. Squonks are so aware of their ugliness that they cry all the time. You can actually track squonks by following their trail of tears, but if you catch one in a sack, it's likely that you'll get back to camp with nothing but a patch of damp and some bubbles, because the squonk has dissolved into tears.
Now, I'm not trying to make my book comical by including such creatures in the story. Quite the opposite, in fact; I tend to take these creatures and darken them so that they're kind of creepy or scary, perhaps more realistic, but still rooted in legend. Legends often come from something real, but are distorted and embellished over centuries to make the story-telling more exciting. In Ye Olden Days, there were no books or historical records – only stories around the camp fire and tales passed from one generation to the next by word of mouth. So it's not surprising we have a plethora of mythical creatures!
For instance – Cyclops, the one-eyed giant, might have been based on the finding of a dwarf elephant's skull on one of the Greek islands. At the time, Greeks were unfamiliar with elephants and this ancient skull was a curiosity because it was twice the size of a human head and appeared to have one large eye in the center (the elephant's nasal cavity). The elephant's eye sockets were around the side and might have been mistaken for ears. So, the story of a one-eyed giant might have started because of the discovery of an ordinary elephant's skull.
Everyone knows about gryphons, or griffins, fabulous creatures with the head, front legs and wings of an eagle, and the body, rear legs and tail of a lion. One possible origin of this creature (that I happen to like) is one of many discoveries of a protoceratops dinosaur skeleton. This particular dinosaur is about the shape of a lion, but its head has a large beak like a bird. You can easily imagine how a superstitious traveler, thousands of years ago before we knew of dinosaurs, might stumble upon this skeleton and make up wild tales of a fantastic creature. A gold digger in the Gobi finding such a skeleton might assume the beast once guarded the gold, hence the traditional idea that griffins guard treasure.
As for the wings... well, bones shift around in the ground, and maybe, during its long burial, some of the smaller bones broke apart and shifted away from its head and frill, and ended up lying scattered near the backbone. An active mind might assume they were once wings.
I'm pretty sure there are plenty of creatures that are just completely made up on the spur of the moment by some drunken lumberjacks around the camp fire. But most of these mythical creatures were based on something, however mundane.
Either that, or these creatures really did exist and the so-called elephant's skull actually was the bones of Cyclops, and there was no such thing as a protoceratops but griffins once roamed the earth. It's a thought.
How in the world do you know such things? Gumberoos and squonks... I must say I've never heard of them!
Very dark beasts they must be, from the sound of them.....
Hehe! I have a couple of encyclopedias about mythical creatures. There's traditional "worldwide" myth and legend, such as dragons, centaurs, griffins, sphinxes, Cyclops, and so on, and then there's "local folklore" which obviously varies from place to place. Gumberoos and squonks happen to be part of North American folklore, which also includes Sasquatch (a.k.a Bigfoot).
But every country has its own list of beasties. Look at the Yeti (a.k.a. the Abominable Snowman) in Tibet, the leprechauns in Ireland, the Loch Ness Monster in Scoland... to name but a few! I have an excellent book called The Monster Spotter's Guide to North America, which lists literally hundreds of creatures in the U.S. alone.