Comic Book Review: Snake Tales edited by Mike Howlett
Ophiophobia (fear of snakes) is a common phenomenon (Hi Mom!) and has plagued humanity from ancient times, even appearing in the Book of Genesis. Even humans not afflicted with undue fear of the legless reptiles tend to distrust them, and snakes are often cast as villains or hazards in fictional stories. And thus, this collection of eighteen tales from Pre-Code comics, with luridly-illustrated snakes and serpents in every one.
As museum curator Dr. Frank T. Burbrink explains in the introduction, most of the science in these stories is dubious at best. The behavior and anatomy of snakes as depicted seldom matches real life, and sometimes the writer just made up new species for the sake of the story. “Slimy” gets used a lot, even though the vast majority of snakes are not given to producing slime.
This collection opens with “Mirror Image”, in which, surprisingly, the African King Rattler is not the bad guy, no matter what the fellow who finds it in his bed thinks. It’s more an exploration of what fear can do to a man.
“Meet Me at the Cemetery” concludes this volume with the tale of a second wife visiting the grave of her predecessor, only to find a cobra on the grounds. Her husband is suspiciously dismissive of her experience. And who’s that exotic-looking woman cadging a ride from our heroine’s friend?
In-between are tales of people who worship snakes, people who turn into snakes (or vice versa) and two different women with snakes for hair. Some standouts include:
“The Echo” is the only non-horror story, being more a pulpish tale. Ventriloquist The Echo, his brother Doctor Doom(!) and sister Cora wander America in search of adventure. In this tale, they find a snake-handling church, the leader of which has been defrauding his parishioners. Some voice-throwing tricks make sure he gets what he deserves.
“Serpent of Doom” is a combination “cursed artifact” and “deal with the Devil” story. Bud Hampton is fired by his boss, and buys a cheap necklace from a man whose face he can’t clearly see in the rain to placate his wife Lydia. Lydia isn’t too impressed, and yet the snake necklace does have an appeal. Especially when she learns that she can become rich and powerful if she calls upon Seth while wearing it–and murdering her husband! (While many of the stories feature women in skimpy clothing, this is the only one where the female lead is in actual underwear.)
Soon, Lydia is rising up in the world, through judicious application of murder. But she also starts exhibiting odd behavior and experiencing dry, scaly skin. It may be too late to avoid paying the price for her success, unless perhaps you would like to buy a necklace?
“The Pool of Eternity” concerns a man who crashlands in the jungles of the Amazon. A native snake priestess is determined to heal the handsome stranger, even if she has to resort to the title body of water. It’s said the snake goddess will grant immortality to the drinker, so it’s forbidden to taste the fluid.
Naturally, the foolish young woman breaks this taboo. The pilot is let go by the tribe, but their priestess is going to be punished. When the man realizes that he is, in fact, immortal, he returns and induces the beautiful priestess to drink from the Pool of Eternity as well. Unfortunately for them, the Jivaro have ways of dealing with immortal criminals. Disturbing ways.
This might be a good time to mention that some of the stories have racist imagery and plot points, in addition to the usual Pre-Code horror use of shocking images. Concerned parents will want to examine the book before allowing younger readers to peruse it.
The art ranges from excellent, “The Fangs of Death” to not very good, “The Snake Pit.” The writing is uneven as well, but there’s some chilling stuff in here. There’s also a cover gallery of some of the stories.
Recommended to horror fans who love them some unlikely snake stories. Check it out from your library!