Of the three most renowned authors who published in Weird Tales in the early twentieth century, Robert E. Howard was the one who adhered to the traditional Biblical perception of the serpent as emblematic of evil. In stories like “The Children of the Night” (1931), “People of the Dark” (1932), “Worms of the Earth” (1932) and some of the Conan adventures, Howard develops the theme of a subterranean race of snake-like humanoids who remain a perennial threat to humankind. Once like us, they reverted to reptilian form after living underground for millennia. In Howard’s fiction, the appearance of serpentine imagery signals the nearness of primordial evil, a force capable of bringing about both spiritual and physical corruption. It is also conflated at times with his appalling racial theories, now entirely discounted but popular during Howard’s heyday.
“The Dream Snake” (1928) is somewhat different in conception than the stories above, in that the inescapable serpentine monster may be an aspect of the doomed man’s psyche, a metaphor for his impending demise. It is less a struggle between darkness and light, evil and good, than a study of one man’s troubled psychology. Even in one of his many non-supernatural pieces, the 1929 Steve Costigan fight story “The Pit of the Serpent” (a.k.a. “Manila Manslaughter), Howard places the action in a pit once used for serpent-fighting. The frequency of snake imagery in Robert E. Howard’s fiction is one of its most conspicuous features.
Unlike Howard, H.P. Lovecraft made relatively little use of snake imagery in his stories, which is surprising given his repressed sexuality, preoccupation with nightmares, and ever present classic Freudian motifs in his work. Of the “big three”, his fictional creations cry out for psychoanalysis, and it is no accident that his unique contribution to horror literature was produced during the period when Freudian psychotherapy was in vogue.
Though phallic symbols and other sexually charged imagery abound in Lovecraft—towers, trees, tentacles, tunnels—snake imagery does not. Is it possible, with his extreme self-consciousness that Lovecraft may have edited out such a common and vulgar symbol? And yet, there is this notorious passage from “The Dunwich Horror” (1929):
Above the waist it was semi-anthropomorphic; though its chest, where the dog’s rending paws still rested watchfully, had the leathery, reticulated hide of a crocodile or alligator. The back was piebald with yellow and black, and dimly suggested the squamous covering of certain snakes. Below the waist, though, it was the worst; for here all human resemblance left off and sheer phantasy began. The skin was thickly covered with coarse black fur, and from the abdomen a score of long greenish-grey tentacles with red sucking mouths protruded limply.
Lovecraft often seems less restrained and self-conscious in some of his collaborations with other writers. In most cases these lesser lights—with the exception of Barlow, Whitehead, and Price—owed the success of their meagre attempts to his intervention. In the context of snake imagery in horror fiction, “The Curse of Yig” (1928), a story he wrote with Zealia Bishop, is over the top.
The tale is preposterous: a married couple suffers gruesome supernatural vengeance after the dutiful wife kills the offspring of a local snake god. She does this to spare her husband the trauma of encountering a brood of recently hatched rattlesnakes—lately he had become increasingly spooked by Native American legends concerning the snake god Yig. The ensuing wrath of Yig involves a considerable amount of castration anxiety and penis envy, with the wife eventually transformed into an embodiment of the “great snake” she is trying to save her husband from. Is it possible Lovecraft was making a statement about matrimony as he experienced it?
Not surprisingly, occultists have a different view of snake imagery, and often see the serpent as a symbol of wisdom. In The Black Arts (1967), a survey of occult history by Richard Cavendish, the author notes that the snake, the scorpion, and water, because of their association with dark, subterranean, hidden places, symbolize the depths of the human personality, especially the unconscious. In alchemical imagery, the snake that guards the temple entrance may represent humankind’s animalistic nature, a hindrance to spiritual progress and enlightenment or conversely a step towards greater understanding if it can be mastered and comprehended.
This seems to be the tack taken by Clark Ashton Smith, probably the most psychologically stable of the “big three” at Weird Tales, though he also struggled in life. In his poignant story “The Last Incantation” (1930), the wizard Malygris consults a demon “in the form of a coral viper with pale green belly and ashen mottlings.” (In “The Death of Malygris”, published in 1934, this same viper aids the magician in wreaking vengeance on a group of would-be assassins.)
Advanced in years, Malygris wants to conjure the spirit of his beloved Nylissa, who perished in his youth. He asks the viper whether this is wise to do, but the world weary snake is conservative with the truth. Malygris goes through with his necromantic plan. Instead of a joyous and ecstatic reunion with his beloved he instead encounters a painful truth about the nature of time and memory. “Why did you not warn me?” he asks the snake. The latter explains that the lesson is most effective when experienced directly by the student.
Here the serpent is beyond good and evil, beyond the Garden of Eden, and also beyond mere carnal appetite. The snake acts as an agent of wisdom, a vector directing the seeker to knowledge, perhaps “forbidden” only temporarily to the naïve, but necessary and inescapable.
Snake imagery in horror and fantasy has been featured in numerous earlier posts. Interested readers may want to investigate the following:
Robert E. Howard
Clark Ashton Smith