“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring: he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)
Many of us are fearful of snakes, even relatively harmless ones. They share our vertebrate heritage, but lack the cardinal four limbs that mark them as “family”. We may share our home with a cat or a dog or even a rodent—any creature that vaguely resembles our young. But usually not a snake, unless the owner is making a statement about his or her mental health.
Lacking arms and hands, the serpent’s feeding habits are necessarily indelicate. Even its manner of obtaining food is grotesque. Either it paralyzes its prey with a toxic bite, or sneaks up and asphyxiates the unlucky creature, literally crushing the life out of its victim. To be fair, a snake is basically just a head with a long tail trailing behind it, and little else. Table manners are awkward and frustrating.
Have I mentioned that a snake is able to slide seamlessly out of its own skin, and leave this ghastly relic behind to mark its passing?
Even among fellow reptiles snakes stand—or rather—slither—apart. Turtles are humorous because of their ridiculous anatomy. Alligators are threatening, yet picturesque. Lizards are just ugly birds, wingless and featherless, that dash about on four feet. All of these critters are familiar, if distant relatives—except for Serpentes.
Yet snakes frequently appear in ancient religious texts, in timeless stone ruins, in mythology, and in our nightmares. One such nightmare is depicted in Robert E. Howard’s The Dream Snake, a story he published in the February issue of Weird Tales in 1928. His story appeared along with H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu, among others. Robert E. Howard went on to create his famous character of ‘Conan the Barbarian’, who was featured in many of his stories from the early 1930s on.
In The Dream Snake, several friends are sitting on a porch at night, watching a full moon rise over some mountains. A breeze begins to blow, which ruffles the long, uncut grass and makes it undulate in “long sinuous waves.” The sight of this startles and frightens one of the friends, a man named Faming. Clearly it reminds him of something, and his reaction is intense and conspicuous. Fearing his friends will think he is crazy, Faming proceeds to explain to them the reason for his odd behavior.
The narrative takes the form of a campfire story: the listeners are outside in the dark, there is a full moon, and there is a mystery to unfold—but the teller does not intend to finish with a prank or practical joke. He is really describing his impending doom.
Faming has been having recurrent nightmares since a very young age. The dream is always the same, except for incremental changes near the end of it. He dreams that he is somewhere in Africa, climbing a hill up to a little bungalow. He observes an unusual and irregular path in the grass, as if it had been crushed by the dragging of an immense weight across it. He carries a rifle, but it is broken and useless. He has a sense that he and his Hindoo servant are both fugitives; the dream contains an element of guilt or retribution. The sun is going down and will soon set.
The narrator is struck by the clarity of the dream and how closely it resembles reality. Howard pauses a moment to offer his thoughts on dreams, a view very similar to Lovecraft’s: “I tell you it is so vivid, so complete in every detail, that I wonder sometimes if that is not my real existence and this is a dream!”
Inside the bungalow he finds that his Hindoo servant is missing and that the house is in disarray. Furniture has been knocked over and broken. He quickly connects the chaos inside with the wide sinuous path outside, and realizes it is the work of a giant serpent. He cannot flee because it is too dark, so he swiftly secures the doors and windows and waits. He can hear the sliding of the beast through the grass outside, and is panicked when the hinges of the door creak as the monster pushes against it. He keeps the lights on.
We have all experienced this scene in countless stories, movies and TV shows: people barricaded inside some makeshift shelter while a marauding predator is just outside the door seeking entrance. It is almost always effective because it touches a primal nerve—that part of our brain built for “flight” as opposed to “fight”. Though he never actually sees the snake up close, Faming is certain he will lose his mind if he does.
Dawn eventually comes, and Faming is able to escape the bungalow, and run towards the coast. All day in the light he runs frantically until the sun sets again. But looking behind him, across a moonlit grassy veldt, he can just see the grass sway as the serpent pursues him in the distance. And then he wakes up. But each night, “the thing has been getting closer—closer…” The men all go to bed at this point, but no one sleeps well, least of all Faming.
Howard’s story effectively captures the tone and rhythm of a nightmare, and the horror is ably foreshadowed even in the first few paragraphs. Some may be tempted to apply some sort of Freudian analysis to the imagery of this dream story, or perhaps talk about Jungian archetypes involving serpents and what they signify. In my view, Howard is affecting his readers on a much more basic level: fear and self preservation in the face of a large predator. It may be that ‘the oldest and strongest kind of fear’ is not ‘fear of the unknown’, as Lovecraft has said. The oldest and strongest kind of fear—for any creature—is fear of being eaten.