The scenario suggests the depraved, shockabilly plot of a Flannery O’Connor story: One humid autumn night, a snake-handling preacher drunkenly forces his wife at gunpoint to reach into a cage of deadly rattlers. A snake handler herself, she gets bitten, but survives. He gets a 99-year prison sentence for attempted murder.
A native son of the region, Covington sympathizes and identifies with his subjects, so often denigrated by outsiders as white trash. He finds himself attracted to their fiery, orgiastic worship, which—besides handling poisonous snakes—features electric guitars, spirit possession, and speaking in tongues. Eventually, Covington even
Unfortunately, Covington’s focus on his own story—a reformed drinker in midlife crisis searching for his snake- handling roots—overshadows the
Indeed, it is not Covington but a handler who best articulates the practice’s enduring appeal: “It makes you feel different,” explains Darlene Summerford, ex-wife of the would-be murderer. “It’s just knowing you got power over them snakes.” For these disenfranchised people on the fringes of modern America, this blunt philosophy of empowerment (however fleeting or life-threatening it may be) speaks more eloquently than Covington’s middle-class soul searching.
Covington sheds little light on the saga’s most interesting character, the Rev. Summerford, the enigmatic leader of the Church of Jesus With Signs Following, who impressed his flock not only with his snake handling but his ability to drink strychnine and stick his fingers into electrical sockets—and somehow remain unscathed. The motivations for Summerford’s murder attempt on his wife remain mostly unexplored, along with the implications of the bizarre, sadistic crime itself and what it may reveal about snake-handling culture. (Unmentioned too are Summerford’s serpentlike facial features—he’s a ringer for the pug-nosed rat snake—evident in one of the book’s accompanying black-and-white photographs.)
Covington notes that at least 71 people have been killed by poisonous snakes during religious services in the U.S., but his book fails to convey the very real dangers that handlers face every time they open a box of rattlers. A disappointing anticlimax, Covington’s entire snake-handling “career” lasts just a few seconds, featuring a pair of vipers about as aggressive as oversize garden hoses; in fact, he doesn’t witness a single snake-biting incident in all the services he attends, relying instead on handlers’ numerous—and perhaps a bit far-fetched—war stories.
This absence can’t help but defang the book, and Covington’s recent appearance on NBC’s Dateline—complete with video footage of handlers in action—seemed less like a gospel-spreading mission than an opportunity to flog his book. Nevertheless, Salvation on Sand Mountain stands as an honest account of the oft-maligned world of snake handling.