The Snake Handler by Cody Goodfellow and J. David Osborne
Genre: Crime/Noir/New Weird
Published by: Broken River Books
Release Date: July 8, 2017
The Snake Handler tells the story of Reverend Clyde Hillburn, an old school preacher with a penchant for snake handling. He spares his flock the evils of the modern world all the while thriving off their drug addiction. Starting off the novel, he goes to check his mailbox, and a snake bites him which begins his hallucinatory journey in the underbelly of the rural, tiny town of Palestine, West Viriginia. There are too many big fishes to contain in this small pond, and it all comes to a head against a competing church, Mexican Cartels, and the Dixie Mafia.
I know this sounds like a run of the mill crime story, and it’s anything but. This short novel broaches a broad rang of topics, such as: big pharma, the West/Souths’ opioid addiction, the financial crisis in that region of the US, a family’s history, and faith. Some are told explicitly so, such as the impact big pharma had on poor and disenfranchised counties and towns, and some more subtler passages such a Rev. Clyde’s relationship with his family and their past:
“I’m surrounded by my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, standing on a cliff of curdled clouds besides a rushing river of souls. Daddy wears the suit he was buried in and the crude prosthetic hook they swapped for his hand in Vietnam. Granddaddy wears the overcoat he wore when he disappeared, his pockets still bulging with rocks, his gnawed down to nub by catfish and buckshot. His father holds the hand-carved cherrywood box of rattlers he used to stick his hands into, the ones that bit him to death.”
For what it’s worth, I think Clyde Hillburn is an incredible preacher. Goodfellow and Osborne did a great job with that aspect of his character. There’s passages in the novel that are too long to quote, but he does make a convincing argument for his flock. Might be the venom talking, though. The novel ventures into New Weird territory with Clyde’s gnawing addiction of snake venom. As his blood turns orange, his hands blackens and rots, he seeks for the bite that will lead him to salvation. He seeks the Devil to find salvation, or will he find nothingness?:
“The Snake entwines around me, squeezes out my breath. “No one gets what they paid for, O Man. You get what you make. You’ve taken much. And how do you aim to pay for it? If all of this is God’s plan, then you were born to belong to me. And if all of this is one of God’s little mistakes, then what fucking good is God?”
As I said before, the novel tackles big pharma. They come into small rural towns like the one depicted in the novel, push out the dealers in the area to bully their way into the market, and feed addicted communities another drug, a stronger drug to ease the pain of not having a job, or working whats left of the back breaking mining jobs. It’s an interconnected system of fucked up shit, but and I think nothing sums up the novels criticism quite like this:
“I hear the politicians say these businesses are people now, which I guess is progress, though it makes the rest of us too small to see with the naked corporate eye. When corporations die, do they go to Heaven? Are their souls bigger, brighter than ours? Are you so dazzled by them that you can’t see us anymore?”
Cody Goodfellow and J. David Osborne have written a great, pulpy adventure that has a lot more to offer than what’s on the surface. The novels violent moments were poetic in their grisly realism, and that’s a testament to their writing skills. They dive into seedy depths, and come with a style that few can pull off.