Close Encounters of the Serpent Kind

In early October of 1932 Howard sent a set of rattlesnake rattles to his friend and correspondent H.P. Lovecraft. Here HPL is thanking Howard for the gift in a letter dated October 15, 1932:

Thanks prodigiously for the splendid set of lethal reminders – which will go under glass in my cabinet of curiosities. It will form a splendid companion piece to the mottled and sinuous glider which Whitehead captured and bottled for me in Florida in 1931. Your prose-poem accompanying the set is one of the most vivid things I have read lately, and I wish it could be published somewhere. It has a magnificently weird, haunting cadence and imagery, and seems to call up a potent atmosphere of power, death, and silence.

Here is Howard’s response in a letter to HPL, ca. December 1932:

Glad you liked the rattles. The owner got his head shot off by an acquaintance of mine, one Tom Lee, on the upper reaches of the Jim Ned, the scene of several bloody Indian fights in the past. Knowing I was anxious to procure a good set of rattles to send to you, he saved them.

An even bigger snake was bagged by a friend of mine down in Brown County this fall, but the discharge of his shotgun blew the rattles all apart and destroyed some of them. They found fourteen, and there’s no telling how many were destroyed. The snake, according to what I heard, was as thick as a man’s arm. Talking of phobias — there was a fellow with my friends when they came onto the snake, and he was shaken so badly by the incident that he trembled like a leaf, and his teeth chattered for perhaps half an hour afterwards. I’ll admit there’s something unnerving about the slimy brutes. I’ll never forget the time that I came clambering up out of a creek bed, reached up to pull myself up on the bank by a tree limb, and took hold of the tail of a water-moccasin which was sunning itself on the branch. They say you can’t do but one thing at a time, but I did, or rather my various members acted simultaneously and independent of each other. My left hand released the snake, my right drew my knife, and my legs gave way and precipitated me down the bank.

Odds are that was a Western Cottonmouth Howard had the close encounter with. Though it is rare event that a Cottonmouth is found on a tree branch, they do show up there from time to time. Howard writes in his correspondence of close encounters with poisonous snakes, notably rattlesnakes, when he was younger. They are one of the many denizens of the high plains of North Central Texas where Howard lived. Of course, he was always talking up the deadly critters that lurked in his environment and Texas in general. Howard clearly had a fascination with slithering serpents — they are a reoccurring theme in his’s stories.

It is too bad Howard did not live to see the Great Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup, which began as annual event in 1958 and has been held every year since then. Some of the events at this year’s event included: snake eating contest, beard contest, longest snake and most pounds of snakes.

Here is the text of that original letter enclosing the rattles Howard sent to Lovecraft, which first appeared in a 1937 fanzine called Leaves #1 published by R. H. Barlow, the literary executor of HPL’s estate. It is likely Barlow found the letter among HPL’s papers, gave it a title and used it in his publication.

“With a Set of Rattlesnake Rattles”

Here is the emblem of a lethal form of life for which I have no love, but a definite admiration. The wearer of this emblem is inflexibly individualistic. He mingles not with the herd, nor bows before the thrones of the mighty. Between him and the lords of the earth lies an everlasting feud that shall not be quenched until the last man lies dying and the Conqueror sways in shimmering coils above him.

Lapped in sombre mystery he goes his subtle way, touched by neither pity nor mercy. Realizations of ultimate certitudes are his, when the worm rises and die vulture sinks and the flesh shreds back to the earth that bore it. Other beings may make for Life, but he is consecrated to Death. Promise of ultimate dissolution shimmers in his visible being, and the cold soulless certainty of destruction is in his sibilances. The buzzards mark his path by the pregnant waving of the tall grasses, and the blind worms that gnaw in the dark are glad because of him. The foot of a king can not tread on him with impunity, nor the ignorant hand of innocence bruise him unscathed. The emperor who sits enthroned in gold and purple, with his diadem in the thunder-clouds and his sandals on the groaning backs of the nations, let him dare to walk where the rank grass quivers without a wind, and the lethal scent of decay is heavy in the air. Let him dare — and try if his pomp and glory and his lines of steel and gold will awe the coiling death or check the dart of the wedge-shaped head.

For when he sings in the dark it is the voice of Death crackling between fleshless jaw-bones. He reveres not, nor fears, nor sinks his crest for any scruple. He strikes, and the strongest man is carrion for flapping things and crawling things. He is a Lord of the Dark Places, and wise are they whose feet disturb not his meditations.

A tip of the Stetson to Patrice Louinet for the information on “With a Set of Rattlesnake Rattles.”