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Squonk

Old Pennsylvania legend, it is written, tells of a creature called the squonk (lacrimacorpens dissolvens).  The squonk lives in the woods and is very hard to track down, though its cries are often heard, especially around twilight, when it’s said to wander about the hemlock trees.  It is elusive, and it wants to be.  The reason for this is that the squonk is one of the homeliest creatures in the world and it knows it.  Its skin is ill-fitting, covered with warts and moles.  It doesn’t like being so ugly, so its cries and tears are said to be caused by its weeping over its lot in life.


Skilled hunters, it is said, can track the squonk by following the trails of tears it leaves.  Even so, the squonk is very hard to catch.  In fact, only one squonk is said ever to have been caught.  This feat was accomplished by a hunter called J. P. Wentling, who lived near Mont Alto, Pennsylvania.  He caught the creature by mimicking it and luring it into a sack.  His success is attributed to the fact that it was a cold night, which slowed the creature’s movements.  The squonk was not happy to be caught--indeed, the creature never seems to be happy about anything--and wept powerfully as Mr. Wentling carried it home.  On his way home, he felt his sack suddenly get lighter.  Promptly he looked inside and saw that the squonk had not escaped but had rather dissolved into a pool of tears and bubbles.


The squonk of course does not exist and never has, not even in folklore.  In fact, the legend appears to have first appeared in a 1910 book called Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods by William T. Cox.  Cox devotes a whole page to this cryptid that he apparently invented, and his book provides an illustration, as well.

An illustration of a squonk in its natural habitat from Cox’s 1910 book.


A 1939 book called Fearsome Critters by Henry H. Tryon gives a little more detail of the squonk, reiterating that they will dissolve into tears when surprised, and giving a history of the squonk’s fossil record.  According to Tryon, the squonk had originally been a desert creature, but was driven to the marshes as the terrain around it changed.  By Tryon’s telling, this caused the species to evolve into a creature that had webbing on its left feet, due to a peculiar habit of circling the lakes of its newly developed environment.  (The fossil record of Pennsylvania predates the Cambrian Era, which means that due to the erosion of prehistoric mountains there, no dinosaur bones can be found in the state.  Aside from no evidence of the squonk, there is also no evidence that any part of the state was ever desert.  It’s possible; a lot can change over 485.4 million years, but we don’t know.)


Tryon’s squonk


Perhaps the best-known author to reference the squonk was Jorge Luís Borges in his 1957 book Manual de Zoologica Fantástica.  In it, Borges copies Cox’s description wholesale and reprints it.  Borges explores all sorts of creatures from ancient mythology, the Bible, literature, and folklore.  Having been well known already, Borges is probably more responsible than any writer for spreading awareness of the squonk.  


All squonk references trace back to Cox’s fanciful 1910 book.  Cox definitely didn’t draw on extant folklore for this invention.  As a Pennsylvania native, I have never seen or heard of anything like a squonk, or even heard anyone talk about them.  The squonk appeared in popular music in Steely Dan’s Any Major Dude Will Tell You on their 1974 album Pretzel Logic, where it gets a brief mention: “Have you ever seen a squonk’s tears?  Well, look at mine/The people on the street have all seen better times.”  The first reference I knew of it came from the song Squonk, on Genesis’s 1976 album A Trick of the Tail.  The song tells the whole sad tale of the squonk’s life, particularly the captured squonk mentioned in Cox’s book.  A more cheerful version of the squonk appears in Julia Jarman’s 1989 young adult novel Squonk.  Kevin Paul Saleeba’s 2014 novel The Squonk and the Horned Beast was conceived as a salute to the aforementioned Genesis song, but by the author’s own admission it developed into a story of a misfit creature trying to find its place in a world where it always felt awkwardly wedged in.  A century ago, an author dashed off a few paragraphs on a sparsely described creature that sprang from his own mind.  Perhaps all the squonk needed was time to find a place in culture.




The squonk and the hunter who caught it from Genesis’s 1976 album art by the design group Hipgnosis.


Steely Dan - "Any Major Dude Will Tell You"

Genesis - "Squonk"





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