This is a book about the snake-handling cults of the American southeast. The first one started in 1910 as an offshoot of the Holiness church, in turn an offshoot of the Pentecostal church. The snake handlers from many states know each other and many are inter-related by marriage, but there is no overarching organization: each local church is separate and autonomous and interprets the Bible in its own way. But all believe fiercely in the Holy Spirit, and strive mightily to attain the altered state of consciousness that comes with possession by the Spirit and with the handling of snakes and fire and the drinking of poison. In varying degrees, the believers feel that the Spirit protects them from danger while handling snakes. However, at least 71 of them have died from snakebite and the current handlers all seem to have lost close relatives to the copperheads and cottonmouth moccasins and—especially—the timber rattlers which they handle with reckless abandon when possessed, sometimes taking up as many as half-a-dozen at a time. One reason so many have died is that they refuse medical treatment—they don’t believe in doctors and count on the Spirit to save them. If they handle when not properly “in the Spirit” they may get bitten—to some this indicates that their time has come and they’re being called home to God.
Dennis Covington, novelist and teacher of creative writing, got involved with the handlers while covering a murder trial. It seems that one of the snake preachers had tried to get rid of his wife by way of rattlesnake bite. The preacher got 99 years and Covington got hooked on handling. Initially he merely witnessed the ritual and then, after a long buildup in which he felt more and more kinship with these people who shared his ancestry, he himself started “handling” (and witnessing, and—ultimately—preaching). His motives seemed mixed: he mentions a possible genetic proclivity, a love of danger, the out-of-self ecstasy of the actual handling, perhaps a tinge of self-destructive madness; and there may well be another motive he neglected to mention—exhibitionism. And perhaps still another: the desire to spice up his book.
Who are these snake handlers? For the most part, lower class Southern whites of Scotch-Irish ancestry, whose people came originally from the highland border between England and Scotland (“border people”), home of fiercely independent clans who fought against each other and all authority. Those who emigrated to this country did so not to escape religious persecution but to improve their standard of living; too rude and crude for the cities of the East coast, however, they soon headed inland and ended up in the mountains, poor, independent, ill-educated and irascible, and very slow to migrate into the growing inland cities with their regimented employment and straitjacket lifestyles. Many called (and still call) these mountain people poor white trash or hillbillies.
Why do these folks handle snakes? Their justification comes from Mark 16:17-18: “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover!” So the handlers are merely following the Word. That’s the cover story, anyway. It’s apparent that handling also serves many psychological needs; it’s a way of: getting an incredible high; feeling powerful and spiritually superior (most of the handlers are still working-class and ill-educated, low on the socioeconomic ladder); showing off and parading male macho; belonging to an exclusive (though outcast) group; and simply socializing, with many exciting things to talk about, like who drank strychnine or got snakebit last week. Covington seems to think there’s also a suicidal impulse at work.
This is a very well-written book (as one would expect from a novelist) about an unusual and interesting subject that doesn’t get much coverage. Here’s the author’s description of how it felt to handle a rattlesnake for the first time:
And it was exactly as the handlers had told me. I felt no fear. The snake seemed to be an extension of myself. And suddenly there seemed to be nothing in the room but me and the snake. Everything else had disappeared. Carl, the congregation, Jim—all gone, all faded to white. And I could not hear the earsplitting music. The air was silent and still and filled with that strong, even light. And I realized that I, too, was fading into the white. I was losing myself by degrees, like the incredible shrinking man. The snake would be the last to go, and all I could see was the way its scales shimmered one last time in the light, and the way its head moved from side to side, searching for a way out. I knew then why the handlers took up serpents. There is power in the act of disappearing; there is victory in the loss of self. It must be close to our conception of paradise, what it’s like before you’re born or after you die.