“Sal­vation on Sand Mountain” by Dennis Cov­ington. Cov­ington spoke on campus on Feb­ruary 18, 2019. Col­legian | Julie Havlak

“Sal­vation on Sand Mountain” reads like a Flannery O’Connor story come to life. In her stories, men steal girls’ false legs and lit­erally eat the pages of the Bible. In Dennis Covington’s book, snake han­dlers call down the Holy Ghost, cast out demons, and risk their lives each time they reach into the serpent boxes.

When Cov­ington goes up into the Appalachian Moun­tains, he finds himself in the midst of spir­itual warfare, with a con­gre­gation that takes up ser­pents and drinks poison to prove their faith. Church­goers sling vipers around their necks and walk barefoot on the backs of rat­tlesnakes as if on a tightrope. Some get bit a hundred times; some die of the venom.

Cov­ington enters their world as a jour­nalist when he covers the trial of a snake-han­dling preacher accused of trying to murder his wife with rat­tlesnakes. It’s a dark beginning for a spir­itual journey, but Cov­ington leads his readers on his own pil­grimage to redis­cover his roots and to unravel the mystery of the snake han­dling ser­vices.

A worse writer might have treated the han­dlers as a joke or an exotic specimen, but Cov­ington treats them as human beings, with com­passion. He befriends the church members, attends their ser­vices, and even­tually takes up snakes himself.

For Cov­ington, the snake han­dlers aren’t simply a back­woods oddity that can be dis­missed. They reveal some­thing about the vitality of the South, and rep­resent the reaction of a reli­gious people against a “hostile and spir­i­tually dead culture.”

At first, Covington’s role as a jour­nalist creates a dis­tance between himself and his subject.. His per­son­ality is hard to define. What per­sonal feelings and motives he does share, he tends to dissect con­sci­en­tiously, as though with a scalpel.

But as he begins to lose himself in the snake handler’s ser­vices, Covington’s per­son­ality begins to emerge, and he becomes a char­acter in the story himself. The boundary between jour­nalist and subject crumbles, and the book trans­forms into some­thing electric, alive with mystery and terror.

“It’s hard for me to talk about myself. As a jour­nalist, I’ve always tried to keep out of the story,” he admits in the novel. Later, he adds, “I am exces­sively cal­cu­lating, espe­cially when I appear not to be, in order to avoid being shamed…but what hap­pened in Jojo wasn’t cal­cu­lated. I had expe­ri­enced some­thing genuine, and I was awed.”

In the moment Cov­ington first takes up a serpent, a massive yellow-bellied rat­tlesnake that is “thick and melan­choly,” he under­stands why the han­dlers handle, even though they risk dying.

“I, too, was fading into the white. I was losing myself by degrees, like the incredible shrinking man,” Cov­ington writes. “I knew then why han­dlers took up ser­pents. There is power in the act of dis­ap­pearing; there is victory in the loss of self. It must be close to our con­ception of par­adise.”

Cov­ington even preached in a snake-han­dling church himself once, but he parted ways with the han­dlers shortly after­wards, declaring that he had a vocation and a family to live for. Three of the han­dlers he knew are now dead of snakebites.

“Feeling after God is a dan­gerous business,” Cov­ington writes. “And Chris­tianity without passion, danger, and mystery may not really be Chris­tianity at all.”