"Snakehandler" by Ronald Kelly

Cemetery Dance Online Exclusive Fiction
Ronald Kelly

Unlike the others of his congregation, Old John wasn’t all that shocked and surprised when the preacher just up and quit the way he did.

“I know this is sudden,” the pastor had told them at the end of the Sunday service. “But I feel like I’m being led by the Lord to greener pastures. Please, don’t take this as a reflection of you folks. Your faith has been steadfast and true, and I appreciate that. I’m sure you’ll find another man of God – perhaps a better man than I – to preach the gospel from this pulpit soon.”

Then he shook hands with the members of Cedar Peak Pentecostal Church, piled his wife and children into their Ford station wagon, and hightailed it down the mountain, heading toward Knoxville. While the others stood around, looking puzzled and talking in low, suspicious tones, Old John walked around back of the little, two-bedroom parsonage without being seen. Just as he’d suspected. The preacher and his family had been in an all-fired hurry to leave… so much so that they’d abandoned their possessions. Peering through the windows of the house, he found their furniture and the kids’ toys left behind. The closet doors and bureau drawers stood open, as though they had quickly packed a few choice things shortly before Sunday school had began at nine.

Later that afternoon, after he’d changed from his Sunday best into his overalls and work boots, Old John took a walk in the forest. He made his way carefully – he was 83 years of age, after all – down into a shadowy hollow choked with mossy boulders and kudzu. He took a dead branch from a hillside birch and, approaching a deep cleft between two broad slabs of gray flint, poked around in the darkness gingerly, ready to retreat if need be. But nothing gave him cause to do so. The den of timber rattlers that had occupied the cave for seven years were gone now. Like the preacher and his family, they had abandoned their home and fled.

Out of curiosity, he leaned in and placed his right hand in the hole. Inside it was colder than moonlit ice on a January night, and here it was the longest and hottest of August days.

Old John departed the hollow and climbed to the uppermost point of Cedar Peak. As he sat there smoking a briar pipe packed with Borkum Riff, he peered across the misty backbone of the Smokey Mountains. It was quiet up there. Too damned quite. No cawing of a carrion crow or nary a mockingbird or jay. And the cicada chose silence as well. It was downright eerie, especially for the high country. Not that Old John was disturbed by the quiet. The same way he hadn’t been surprised by the empty snake den.

For an hour or so, the elderly man sat and smoked. He absently caressed his left hand as he thought. Old John remained there until the dusk of evening, when the crickets should have began their nocturnal song, but did not.

Yes, the signs were ripe. They would be getting themselves a preacher, that was for certain. And sooner than they suspected.

He showed up at Tucker’s General Store the following Saturday morning. He took no car, nor bus, and no one saw him walking on the road up from the valley. One minute the board steps of the store were empty and then, the next, he was sitting there, red-faced and sweating, mopping his broad face with the sleeve of his black coat.

Old John stepped out of the store and leaned against a porch post. He tamped a wad of Riff into the bowl of his pipe with his thumb, then fired her up with a sulfur match. “Howdy,” he said.

The man was a big one; average of height, but upwards of three hundred pounds. He had soft, pink hands, a ruddy face thick of jowl and plentiful of chin. His eyes were dark gray and small, sunk deep within his fleshy eyesockets. He was clean-shaven and sported black hair with a touch of gray at the temples, newly barbered from the trace of fine hairs on the sweaty nape of his neck. He wore a black suit of the finest material, a starched white shirt, and a long tie that was dark green and textured with tiny diamond patterns. A matching set of gold cufflinks and tie tack graced his attire, sporting tiny crosses on each. His black dress shoes gleamed like dark glass in the sunshine. Nary a scuff or speck of dust shown upon the leather or the edges of the soles. If he’d walked all the way up Cedar Peak, there was scarcely a sign to show it.

“Howdy, neighbor!” said the fat man with a smile. He extended a pudgy hand. “Name’s Harlan Breedlove. The Reverend Harlan Breedlove, to be exact. But you can just call me Brother Harlan.”

Old John leaned down and shook the man’s hand. It was oily and hot to the touch, like reaching inside a freshly-butchered hog and fondling its innards. “John. John Tisdell.”

“Hot day, now ain’t?” said the good reverend.

“Hotter than a sinner’s barbecue in hell,” Old John replied.

Brother Harlan chuckled. “True, my friend. So true.” He looked up at the old man for a long moment. “You a church-going gentleman?”

Old John drew blue smoke into his nose then expelled it out his nostrils. “Yes, sir. A believer and follower of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. A deacon of Cedar Peak Pentecostal Church for going on fifty years now.”

Brother Harlan stood up and beamed. “Then you’re just the feller I’m looking for. I’m to be your new pastor.”

Old John eyed him with an expression bordering amusement. “Oh, is that a fact? I’m on the nominating committee and we haven’t even called a meeting to get started yet.”

“Well, now, once you hear me pontificate, you’ll take a vote right on the spot,” Brother Harlan declared, almost pridefully. “I’m the best orator of hellfire and damnation preaching you’ll ever lend eardrums to. Don’t like to brag, sir, but I’m full of the Holy Ghost, I am.”

You’re full of something, thought Old John. “I reckon we could put you up in the parsonage till Sunday. Then we’ll see if you were Heaven-sent or not.”

The reverend smiled. “Oh, I was sent, all right. But it’s the folks of Cedar Peak I’m concerned about. Not sure if you’re up to my brand of soul-redeeming faith or not.”

Old John sauntered down off the store porch. “I reckon we’ll see. Where’s your luggage? We’ll toss it in the truck and be on our way.”

“Down at the far end of the porch, Mr. Tisdell,” said Brother Harlan. “But be careful with the wooden crate.”

Next to a large tanned leather suitcase stood a wooden crate, three feet long, by a foot wide and a foot high. It sported a sturdy metal handle for carrying and the slats of the sides were speckled with dozens of drilled holes. One end had a single hinged door with a padlock firmly in place.

Using the only good hand he had, Old John set the suitcase in the bed of his pickup truck, then turned and lifted the peculiar wooden crate. Something shifted inside… of its own accord. Old John got an uneasy impression of knots tying and untying themselves.

“Careful, Mr. Tisdell,” said Brother Harlan. A benevolent smile curled amid his plump jowls, but his eyes were as cold and hard as bits of gravel. “You wouldn’t want to damage the instruments of the Lord, would you?”

The elderly man simply shook his head, hefted the heavy wooden crate, and set it carefully, almost tenderly, in the truck bed next to the suitcase. “No, sir. Wouldn’t want to do nothing to raise the ire of the Almighty.”

Soon, the two were heading up the winding mountain road to the white clapboard structure of the Cedar Peak Pentecostal Church and its neighboring parsonage. Despite their talkative introduction, the two were quiet on the ride up. Once Old John glanced over at his passenger out of curiosity. The Reverend Harlan Breedlove was staring straight ahead with that malignant grin on his chubby face. There was an expression of anticipation in his eyes… and something else that was a mite harder to discern.

The preacher must have felt John’s gaze upon him, for he turned his head and studied his driver for a long moment. His interest settled on the old man’s left hand. The sun-burnished flesh was sunken and shriveled upon the bone. “An injury?” he asked, eyes almost twinkling. “Birth defect? Disease?”

Old John kept his eyes centered on the road. “Got bitten when I was a young’un,” he said. “Bitten by the devil.”

Brother Harlan merely shook his massive head and chuckled. Then continued to stare past the windshield.

They were nearly to the top of the peak, when Old John’s attention was drawn by two things. The preacher’s green tie – if only for a instant – seemed to writhe and pulsate, its diamond pattern gleaming like sunlight on reptilian scales. And the golden cufflinks had somehow shifted, the uppermost points of the crucifixes now hanging downward.

Old John noticed all these things, but uttered nary a word about them.


The following Sunday morning, the churchhouse was packed to the rafters. There wasn’t an empty pew in the place and folks even stood along the walls, shoulder to shoulder. The sunlit colors from the stained glass windows dyed their bowl-shaped haircuts and beehive dos garish hues of blue, red, and green.

The elderly Oakley twins, Maude and Millicent, played “Washed In The Blood of the Lamb” on the piano and organ, while the congregation of mountain folk sang along in well-rehearsed harmony. Afterward, the ones who could sit down, did so, while the others leaned against the walls, shifting from one foot to the other. A long stretch of silence, peppered with nervous coughs and the whining of babies filled the structure. Then Brother Harlan left his spot on the front pew, stood with his head bowed in prayer for a long, pregnant moment, and then made his way to the pulpit.

“My brothers and sisters,” the reverend began, “I am sure, by now, that you know who I am and my purpose for being here today. But, first and foremost, I have been sent as a messenger of God.” Brother Harlan paced back and forth upon the hardwood stage, his tiny eyes directed skyward, as though looking past the barriers of pine rafters and tarpaper shingles to the angel-laden clouds above. “You must ask yourselves a question this morning. You must ask yourselves ‘Why did our beloved pastor depart in such haste?’ You must wonder ‘Was it due to something that we did as individuals or as a congregation?’ Oh, I am sure what he said was soothing to you all. That he was led by the Lord to leave. Believe me, he only said that to be polite, to not offend or embarrass you. The truth of the matter is, your pastor abandoned you because you abandoned him first. Not in body, but in spirit. A spirit withered like a dead rose, once beautiful and pleasing to the senses, but now fragile and brown with decay.”

Old John – who sat in his usual spot on the second row – glanced about him. Some of his fellow churchgoers looked angered by the pastor’s words, while others showed heartfelt remorse. He looked over at his fellow deacon, George Halliburton, who occupied the opposite side of the center aisle with his wife and two daughters. The man sat as usual, tall and proud, rock-steady and harder to read than newsprint in pitch darkness. Exactly what he thought of all this, John had no earthly idea.

“It was your abandonment of the Holy Ghost that drove your good pastor away, kind folks of Cedar Peak,” Brother Harlan continued. “You became listless and weak. Your pastor grew disgusted. As Jesus once said, a believer must be either hot or cold. You were lukewarm and your shepherd had no choice but to spew you from his mouth.” The reverend stretched his thick arms wide. “But you need not remain so, my children. Once again you may feel the fire of the Spirit burn within. It may take some doing, some changing, on your part… but it is possible.”

“What do you mean… changing?” This question came from Deacon Halliburton himself.

“You have all grown too comfortable in your religion,” he answered, stalking the length and breadth of the stage like a hungry cat among mice. “You have forgotten the true Pentecostal way. The ways embraced by your parents and your grandparents before them. Back then, faith was proven not by the heart, but by the flesh. Or the testing of flesh.”

It was at that moment that the Reverend Harlan Breedlove reached behind the pulpit and lifted the long wooden crate, toting it to the very edge of the stage. All eyes were focused on that pinewood box, all breaths held as if in death. When Brother Harlan released the handle and let the box fall, bringing a loud bang like a cannon shot, everyone in that churchhouse jumped a good two inches. Everyone but Old John.

As the echo of the fallen crate rang throughout the sanctuary, a dry brittle noise came from with the hollow of the box. A rhythmic rattling that caused many to gasp and many to cry out. And more than a few to raise their hands in the air and cry “Amen!”

“Listen to this, my flock,” the preacher fairly whispered as he crouched down and ran his plump hands almost lovingly across the long, wooden container. He laid the side of his head to the boards, his ear filling with the symphony of brittle buttons. “Yes, listen closely. For this is your wake up call.”

After that Sunday came a great revival that burned across the mountains of eastern Tennessee; a revival unlike anything seen since the 1920s. And leading that renewal of faith and conviction was the Reverend Harlan Breedlove. A man who had appeared out of the wilderness of nowhere and, within the span of a single Sunday morning service, captured the hopes and fears of a single township and took ownership of them. Brother Harlan was voted in as the new pastor of Cedar Peak Pentecostal Church almost immediately, but not unanimously. Only one member voted against him and that was John Tisdell.

For six days, Brother Harlan packed the house. He preached and prayed, spouting fire and brimstone, pointing chubby fingers of blazing accusation and leaving the uncertain souls of the congregation scorched and smarting. Toward the end of the sermon, folks would get caught up in the Spirit. They would leap and dance and shout to the heavens, admonishing Satan and praising the Lord. Many would speak in tongues, a phenomenon that had not taken place at a Cedar Peak service in decades. Some would even scrawl strange symbols in the timbers of the walls with their fingernails, leaving the tips of their digits bloody and torn.

Then Brother Harlan would get down to business. Flinging his jacket and tie aside, he would go to the long, wooden crate and, taking a key from his vest pocket, unfasten the padlock. The crowd would rejoice as he pulled a couple of timber rattlers, each a good four feet in length or more, from the dark recesses of the cage. Himself speaking in tongues, the reverend would hop and leap, waving the deadly serpents about him. He would rub them upon his sweat-slickened flesh, glare at them, eye-to-eye, nose-to-nose, taunting and tempting them with the closeness of his presence. He even opened his mouth and allowed their heads to probe inquisitively inside as he screamed and shouted, caught up in the Holy Ghost.

Once or twice during that week, the rattlers lashed out and bit him, sinking their fangs into fatty flesh. Despite the rapture they were caught up in, the congregation waited for the preacher to fall, his face turning blue, his limbs swelling and his body convulsing upon the boards of the floor with a palsy wrought of poison. But it never happened. No matter how much venom the snakes pumped into his veins, he always escaped unharmed. To the congregation, it was an act of faith, pure and simple, that protected Brother Harlan from the serpent’s poison. God’s merciful and mighty hand protecting His prophet from injury and death.

All that time, Old John sat there, solemn and unmoved, watching. One peculiar thing about Breedlove’s theatrical sermons struck him. At nary a service was there a Bible present upon the podium. In fact, he had never seen the Good Book in Brother Harlan’s possession. It seemed that that the pastor put his faith more in the serpent than in scripture.

Then, following a week of preaching and praying and the handling of snakes, the reverend ended his Saturday night service with a statement that filled the majority of the congregation with hope and elation, but one particular member with dread. “My friends, my beloved sheep, we have made such progress this week!” he told them, locking the snakes back into their den of wood and steel. “Your growing faith has sustained me, has woven a cocoon of protection around my worldly body, insulating me from the evil of the serpent’s bite. For that I rejoice, brothers and sisters. God has heard your prayers and acknowledged your righteousness and, in turn, blessed me with the ability to walk among the snakes of the earth without harm!”

The congregation shouted and shrieked, rattling the glass of the windows, caught up in the Spirit, unashamed to vent their emotions loudly. In the second pew, Old John’s heart thundered in his chest, while his right hand rubbed the shriveled flesh of his left.

“But we have work still to do, brethren!” said Brother Harlan. “You must still prove yourselves worthy by walking the same fire that I have. We must let God know that you are, indeed, brimming with the faith forged by the blood of Calvary!”

As the crowd dispersed that night, few understood precisely what their new pastor was referring to. But Old John understood. Above all the others, he understood the best.


Morning brought a brilliant summer sun cresting over the pinnacle of Cedar Peak and the folks of the township of the same name flocking to the little white church in droves, dressed in lace, pinstriped broadcloth, starched linen, and glossy patent leather. Most sat in the pews, filled with anticipation, eager to learn how further their faith could be tested. They fidgeted through a half-dozen songs, fingering dog-eared copies of the King James Bible, feeling a shout upon their lips, their hands aching to lift skyward in praise.

Finally, Brother Harlan took the podium, all smiles and dimples. He beamed down upon the congregation, then canted his massive head skyward, eyes closed. “Jesus once told us that to enter the kingdom of Heaven, one must come to him with the trust and faith of a little child, for there is no truer and purer innocence that of untainted youth. Some interpret the scriptures differently than others, believing that the reference is more symbolic than literal. They believe that he was speaking of an adult’s necessity to surrender their earthly guard and submit to the Holy Trinity with the unconditional faith of a child.”

The pastor lowered his head, regarded the congregation sternly, and gripped the sides of the pulpit until his knuckles grew pale with the strain. “But, that assessment, my flock, is a false one. Christ was, indeed, talking about children and the extent of their faith. That is why our accomplishments this past week are all for naught if we simply leave it at that. No, we must march forward and let Him know that we are prepared to honor Him with not only our sacrifices, but those of our children.”

A hush settled over the crowd as the reality of what he was saying sank into them.

“So, who’s child shall it be?” asked Brother Harlan. “Who’s offspring shall approach the alter and exalt Him?”

The congregation stood up as one, shouting, praising, calling out the names of their young, offering them in the name of the Lord. One voice thundered, deep and full of authority above them all. Deacon George Halliburton stepped into the center aisle, his work-calloused hand fisted around the wrist of a young, red-haired girl. “It shall be mine,” he declared. “It shall be my Emily Leigh.”

Brother Harlan bent down and unlocked the wooden crate. “So be it. Bring her to me.”

The girl, who was no more than five years in age, began to thrash and scream. “No, Papa! No! Don’t let it bite me! Papa, please!”

Her father’s grip was uncompromising. “You must do this for me, daughter. For us. I have heard the sincerity of your prayers. If anyone’s heart is pure, it is yours.”

They were only four feet from the podium now. Brother Harlan turned toward the father and child. In his soft hands he held the largest timber rattler anyone in Cedar Peak had ever laid eyes on. It was a good ten feet in length, as thick as a car axle, and its head was as big as that of a young piglet. Its buttons, totaling thirteen in all, buzzed excitedly and so swiftly that they were barely visible to the human eye. It was clear to all in the churchhouse that such a snake would possess enough venom to kill a dozen strong and strapping young men. None seemed to care that it was about to sink its fangs into the flesh of a small and defenseless girl.

None… except a single spectator in the second pew.

As George Halliburton brought his shrieking, struggling child toward the serpent, Old John stepped into the aisle, broke the man’s grip, and shoved the girl behind him.

“What do you do, brother?” asked Harlan Breedlove. ”Why have you blasphemed the Lord with your insolence?”  His tiny eyes sparkled with something dark and malicious.

“You’ll not poison this child, deceiver,” the old man replied. Then, pulling a revolver from his coat pocket, he fired a single round, hitting Brother Harlan square in the gut.

The crack of the gunshot sent a hush through the crowd. Then, angrily, they surged forward.

“Are you mad?” Halliburton yelled out hoarsely “What have you done?” The hands of the congregation reached out, knocking the gun away, restraining him.

“He is not what he appears to be!” Old John told them. “Look!”

The others turned their eyes upon their newly-appointed shepherd. With a smile still etched upon his broad face, the Reverend Harlan Breedlove fell backward, hit the boards of the alter floor, and burst open. The massive sack of clothing and man-flesh split asunder from belly to jowls,  like the rind of an overly-ripened melon.

From within rolled gorge upon gorge of serpents. Rattlesnakes galore; timber, prairie, diamondback, sidewinder. Copperhead, water moccasin, and cottonmouth. Brightly banded coral snakes from the swamps of Louisiana and thick-bodied boa constrictors from the Florida Everglades. And there were others that they had heard tell of, but had never laid eyes upon before. Cobras from India, black mambas from the African veldt, and poisonous sea snakes from the deepest, darkest depths of the ocean floor.

“Run!” Old John yelled at his friends and neighbors as their grasps loosened and fell away. “Get out of here… now!”

No one hesitated. They screamed and stampeded the length of the sanctuary as a writhing, slithering wave of deadly snakes rolled toward them; down the aisles, over and under the pews, hissing and striking with venomous fangs.

When the last of the congregation was outside, Old John slammed the double doors of the church closed and locked them securely. From within the structure, the thrashing and rattling and hissing grew to a deafening crescendo. Snake piled upon snake, pressing against the stained-glass of the gabled windows, their weight bowing the doors outward, causing the wood to crack and splinter.

Old John walked to his truck and pulled two five gallon cans of gasoline from the bed. George Halliburton met him halfway and took one of the containers. His long face was blanched white with fear and regret. Together, the two deacons doused the stone foundation and bulging clapboard walls with fuel, then Old John took a book of matches from his vest pocket and set the steepled structure aflame.

The members of the Cedar Peak Pentecostal Church wailed and wept as their temple of worship turned into a crackling bonfire, billowing orange flame and dense black smoke into the mountain air. As their tearful eyes watched, Old John and George walked to the parsonage and peered through a window. One of the children’s bedrooms served as a den of dark serpents. They slithered up bedposts, writhed one upon another on the frilly comforter of the mattress like reptilian lovers engaged in an act of frantic fornication. An anaconda as long as a telephone pole struggled to swallow a teddy bear, its gullet stretching out of proportion, attempting to pull the toy of fur and cotton deep into the recesses of its elongated bowels.

The two men took the last of the gasoline and soaked the walls of the parsonage down, then set them, too, on fire. As the flames grew hotter, forcing them backward, George Halliburton turned dazed eyes on his fellow deacon. “Why didn’t you tell us, John? Why didn’t you tell us what he was?”

“Would you have believed me?” Old John countered grimly. “Caught up in the Spirit the way you were?”

“No,” replied Halliburton. “I reckon we wouldn’t have.”

Bewildered, they stood and watched as both fires reached their climax, then died down and smoldered out. The following day, after the charred timbers and the mounds of dark ash had cooled, they returned to find only the blackened bones of a thousand serpents. Where the Reverend Breedlove had lain, they discovered only a couple of cufflinks and a tie tack, molten beyond recognition by the severe heat of the Sunday morning blaze.


A few days later, Old John again walked the mountain wilderness alone.

Unlike his previous trek through the woods, the trees were now plentiful with birds and insects. The pall of dread that had overshadowed the mountains seemed to have lifted away with the flight of ash and smoke, leaving the land cleansed, if only for a time.

As he picked his way through the bramble, heading for the kudzu-laced hollow, his thoughts lingered on Emily Leigh Halliburton, the child who had escaped the fate of the serpent… as well as another child, long ago, who had not. John Tisdell’s crippled hand trembled at the memory of a church service in 1934, when a seven-year-old boy’s hand was stretched out for the testing of faith, shackled in the grip of his own father. No one had come to his rescue then. He could still feel the terror that gripped him as the rattler, held by a pastor named Mangrum, flickered its gray tongue teasingly, then struck out. After all those years, he could still feel the numbing impact of the bite, followed by burning pain and twin wounds across his knuckles, leaking a mixture of blood and venom.

He had not died, but years later wished that he had. For as he broke the barrier of adolescence and crossed over into manhood, John Tisdell had come to realize that the poison remained, deep down past flesh and bone, settling within his very soul. Whiskey, drugs, whores, and gambling had been his lot for many years afterward. He became a restless man, sometimes a hunted man, rambling from town to town, ending up confined to the local jail or beaten and left for dead at the county line.

The poison of vice and corruption had eventually dissipated, but not before the best days of his life were wasted. He had abandoned his wandering, married and raised a family on Cedar Peak, and even returned to the church of his youth, despite the awful sin that had been committed there years before.

As he made his way toward the cave in the flinty bluff, he stripped a branch from a sweet gum tree and shucked away the leaves. Before he even reached the opening, he caught the sharp stench of snake.

Old John probed the darkness within and found the den full. An angry burst of rattling echoed from the shadows, as well as a hint of slithering movement. And, deep in the blackness, there was something else. Something foul and beyond snake.

The elderly man peered unflinchingly into the void. “And the Lord God said unto the serpent, because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle and above every beast of the field; upon they belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.” Old John spat in disgust and peered into the gloom. “You’d do best to remember that.”

Without warning, a coldness unlike any he had ever felt before radiated from the depths of the den, causing his aged bones to throb and ache. And something within softly chuckled.

Turning away, Old John climbed up out of the hollow, shunning the shadows and embracing the cleansing warmth of daylight.

Ronald Kelly has been writing horror tales set in the American South since the small-press days of the 1980s. His published works include Undertaker’s Moon, Fear, Blood Kin, Hell Hollow, The Dark’Un, Midnight Grinding & Other Twilight Terrors, After the Burn, Hindsight, Restless Shadows, The Sick Stuff, Twelve Gauge, Burnt Magnolia, and Mister Glow-Bones & Other Halloween Tales. His audio collection of Southern-fried short stories, Dark Dixie: Tales of Southern Horror, was included on the nominating ballot of the 1992 Grammy Awards for Best Non-Musical or Spoken Album. He lives in a backwoods hollow in Brush Creek, Tennessee with his wife and three young’uns.

1 thought on “"Snakehandler" by Ronald Kelly”

  1. Absolutely enjoy Mr. Ronald Kelly very, very much. I do own quite a few of his novels and some short stories, but I have never read the “Snakehandler”. I enjoyed every bit of it. And an am llooking forward to more of Mr. Kelly’s works. Thanks for putting this out there to read. I also do subscribe to you newsletter and have purchased a few books from you. Thanks again!!

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