By James Calemine
“This descent into himself will, at the same time, be a descent into his region. It will be a descent through the darkness of the familiar into a world where, like the blind man cured in the gospels, he sees men as if they were trees, but walking.
Mystery and Manners
Salvation On Sand Mountain personifies rare southern literature. A National Book Award Finalist, Salvation On Sand Mountain, tells author Dennis Covington’s story about Glenn Summerford, a pastor of the Church of Jesus with Signs Following, convicted of trying to kill his wife with poisonous snakes.
Covering this eerie story, Covington descended into the strange holiness of snake-handling in the hills of Appalachia. Covington, a native of Alabama, wrote: “Snake handling, for instance, didn’t originate back in the hills somewhere. It started when people came down from the hills to discover they were surrounded by a hostile and spiritually dead culture. All along their border with the modern world—in places like Newport, Tennessee, and Sand Mountain, Alabama—they recoiled. They threw up defenses. When their own resources failed, they called down the Holy Ghost. They put their hands through fire. They drank poison. They took up serpents…”
Covington outlines the South’s slow burn beginning in the Civil War, epidemics, floods, industrialization, Northern colonization, the Civil rights movement and the South’s fall from grace. Salvation On Sand Mountain finds Covington in a rural church handling copperheads and rattlesnakes. Covington details the provenance of snake-handling, and its environs as well as the people he met during this dangerous time period in his life.
The writer documents the music and sermons of this rare-breed of folk. Covington participated in these perilous rituals with the locals, in an isolated terrain where marijuana is a major cash crop, and cockfighting still reigns. Covington reported a federal drug enforcement official once said, “Sand Mountain is a law unto itself.” In other words, these folk don’t take kindly to strangers in any shape or form. To get the full perspective of the story, and earn their trust–evaporating distrust between journalist and subject–Covington participated in their bizarre congregations.
Covington’s biography of each individual—preacher Glen Summerford and his wife Darlene, Aunt Daisy who spoke in tongues, Singin’ Sister Bobbie Sue Thompson, the legendary Punkin Brown, Brother Carl, Brother Bob Stanley, the McGlocklins, handler Rayford Dunn, Dewey Chafin—proves more interesting than most literary characters since Harry Crews wrote Feast of Snakes, a fiction portrayal of what Covington experienced on several levels. This unforgettable book reveals hideous snake-bite stories, hard drinking and weird fables of faith during this stranger than fiction trial.
Covington writes of his own personal journey that led him to the point where this story transpires. Covington even visited snake-handling churches in Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia for research, but primarily this story is told in Georgia and Alabama. Covington even discovered there were snake-handlers in his extended family.
Covington describes different snake species—including venoms and areas indigenous to each variety—as well as the history of snake handling in the United States. At one point, Covington describes handling a serpent: “And I could not hear the earsplitting music. The air was silent and still and filled with that strong, even light. And I realized that I, too, was fading into the white. I was losing myself by degrees, like the incredible shrinking man. The snake would be the last to go, and all I could see was the way its scales shimmered one last time in the light, and the way its head moved from side to side, searching for a way out. I knew then why handlers take 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, what it’s like before you’re born or after you die.”
Salvation On Sand Mountain details “war stories” of people who lived to tell of their poisonous snake bites, and of those who did not survive. Covington describes what led him to abandon snake handling during a wedding in Kingston, Georgia, where the writer discovered there’s a fine line in the world of snake-handling between faith and suicide.