Archived Reading Room

Carden’s new book depicts Appalachian bestiary

By Newton Smith • Contributor

Gary Carden, local bard, playwright, host of the Liars Bench and reviewer for The Smoky Mountain News, has once again come up with a surprising publication. 


Appalachian Bestiary, written by Carden and whimsically illustrated by Mandy Newham-Cobb, will become a treasure for anyone serious about Appalachian folklore or for anyone hoping to frighten young children into better behavior or pull the legs of credulous tourists. The book is a compendium of wondrous beasts that once were sighted in the southern mountains and other places, each described delightfully by Carden and imaginatively depicted by Newham-Cobb.

You will find such creatures as the Fur Bearing Trout, the Galoopus, the Fruit Bearing Deer, the Hugag, and the Whirling Whimpus among others. Learn about Milk Snakes who love to milk cows. When farmers became distressed about their cows being dry, they hung the milk snakes head down and milked them instead. 

There is the Squonk, a melancholy creature whose skin is so misshapen and morbid that in shame it weeps uncontrollably, hiding in hemlock forests. If hunters manage to capture them, when they get home all they have is a wet sack because the Squonks have cried themselves to death.

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Some of the creatures that lurk in the hills are fantastic snakes. The Hoop Snake was part of my growing up in South Carolina. When we saw a black snake, we ran because it could have been a Hoop Snake that had a poisonous horn on its tail. It could grab its tail in its mouth and roll so fast it would catch even the fastest of us. 

Or it could have been a Coach (whip) Snake, which was known to seek out children who have been wicked and bite their lip and with the rest of their body whip the child within a hairbreadth of their lives. Another species of the Coach Snake sought out adults who fished on Sunday or broke other moral codes. This species combines the “worst traits of rattlesnakes, hoop snakes and … will bite, sting and whip its victims to death.” Unfortunately, these snakes are rarely seen no matter how much we might wish they were still doing their work. 

Many of us have been the victim of a Snipe hunt, pursuing what Carden describes as, “a small bird (two or three inches long) with a white spot in the center of its back.” He goes on to describe his own experience: “Armed with two candles (some folks use a flashlight) and a burlap sack, I sat in the dark and whistled. I’m not too embarrassed about that since you probably did it too.” He adds, “The snipe hunt has become a ‘kind of initiation’ for many Boy Scout troops.” If you want to pull that trick on someone, the notes at the back of the book provide a detailed description of how it is done. 

For those interested in Cherokee folklore, Carden and Newham-Cobb have included some of the creatures rarely seen in these mountains today. These include the Uktena, a snake with horns that eats children; the Tlanusi, a leech-like creature living in the Hiwassee river; the Tlanuwa, a divine hawk that come from the “world above” to live with the Cherokee; and the Dakwa, a great fish who swallowed Cherokee warriors like the whale in Jonah. 

For me, one of the most impressive of the creatures in the book is the Saw Hog, “usually a sow, that can actually be used to saw wood,” according to Carden. The illustration shows how fierce these creatures were. Farmers had to buckle their jaws to keep safe.

Newham-Cobb’s illustrations are fantastical and add to the vividness of the stories. One of my favorites is the Cabbage Snake, a deadly viper that lives inside cabbages. 

Carden, who received the North Carolina Award for Literature in 2012 and the 2006 Brown-Hudson Award from the North Carolina Folklore Society, began writing this book 15 years ago and has been researching the folklore about imaginary creatures that have inhabited parts of the country since. Some of the references Carden has unearthed go back to John Larson’s, A New Voyage to Carolina, in 1714.

Newham-Cobb is an illustrator of children’s books and a member of the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Editors. She received her MFA at UNC Greensboro and lives outside Philadelphia. She also works as an illustrator at Smoky Mountain Living.

The book is available at neighborhood bookstores and will be sold at Mountain Heritage Day by the Mountain Heritage Center. 

(Newton Smith is a professor emeritus of English at Western Carolina University who specializes in Appalachian literature and technical writing.)

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