A while back, I received an E-mail from a reader telling me how much he enjoyed my most recent Matt Davis mystery, Broken Promises. I wrote him back and asked how he found my book. It turned out that he lived in the very community I moved from about nine and a half years ago, located less than a quarter mile from my present home (he read a review of the book that appeared in the Hendersonville Times-News.) Reading the book sparked his remembrances of Roscoe, NY, the book’s setting, and his connection to the area. Recently, he wrote me again, only this time it was to discuss the third book in the series, Twice Bitten, the plot of which revolves around snake-handling preachers. It turns out that he had a connection to its subject matter as well. But, rather than me telling you what it was, I decided to have him tell you in his own words.
“I grew up about two miles from Jolo, in the West Virginia coalfields. In the early 1950s, while still in high school, I had a weekend job at the Payne Brothers Market in Jolo. Having no other means of transportation, I walked to and from the job. Many an evening, on the way home, I would stop at the “ Snake Handlers “ church in Jolo. It was just an old converted store front. Some nights, I would step inside the door but, usually I watched through the windows. It was fascinating to a boy of sixteen, almost like going to a movie. Though seldom in a coat and tie, most of the men wore white shirts. The women were very plain, [sic] with long hair, no make-up and simple long dresses. The music only a guitar and tambourines.
I remember the shouting as members, one by one, would begin speaking in tongues, waving their arms and writhing as though in an epileptic fit. It was as though they had a language of their own, a special and private dialogue with their Savior. At the end of his sermon, the preacher would reach into a glass box and remove the snakes. He would wrap a snake around his neck and encourage the members to take one into their own hands. Soon, the snakes were passed around from the preacher to member after member. The snakes were copperheads and venomous timber rattlers. The congregation danced as they passed the snakes.
I never witnessed the drinking of strychnine, although I heard that was common practice. I usually observed the ritual for thirty minutes or so then continued my long walk home perplexed by a question. Since most of the congregation were coal mining families, I wondered how those with such a hazardous occupation could find peace and salvation in such a dangerous religion?
Oh, well, just boyhood memories. So, can you imagine my surprise to see Jolo,West Virginia and the Pentecostal movement as the central theme in Joe Perrone Jr’s excellent novel, TWICE BITTEN. He captured the scenario almost exactly as I remembered it some sixty years ago. A great story that I heartily recommend.”
—D.F. (Hendersonville, NC)
If you’ve never seen snake handling, here’s a video out of Jolo, WV, that will give you a feel for this practice. Snake handling video
NOTE: Joe Perrone Jr is the author of the highly-successful Matt Davis Mystery Series: As the Twig is Bent, Opening Day (a 2012 Indie B.R.A.G. medallion winner), Twice Bitten, and Broken Promises. All four are available in paperback and E-book. As the Twig is Bent and Opening Day are also in audiobook, with Twice Bitten and Broken Promises soon to follow.
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