Book review: The Serpent and the Rainbow

The Serpent and the RainbowThe Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Zombies! Death! Mystery! Haiti! THE UNKNOWABLE! All of these are perennially interesting to the whitest of the white – me, for example – and Davis’ book, a tale of the search for potions to make and unmake a zombie, is no exception. It’s interesting, but dryness (and occasional self-insertion) can make it tough going.

The cover of this edition is not a design which offers confidence in the book’s contents. It features a screaming Bill Pullman and a coffin, a tie-in with the frankly shithouse film of the same name. The film that’s loosely based on the source in the same way that I can loosely be called a virtuoso because I can play a three-chord banger as long as it doesn’t involve odd barre positions.

Contents-wise, the book is pretty far away from the Craven flick. This is a well-referenced, yet mostly dry recounting of the author’s experiences as he and companions investigated stories of apparent death and animation, most notably that of Clairvius Narcisse, a man who had sickened, apparently died (and was buried) and was later found wandering about, having been freed from servitude by the murder of a zombie overseer.

Davis’s background in ethnobotany informs the bulk of the book: it’s a cross between a student days memoir and an attempt to explain psychoactive anaesthetics to the layman. It’s written with a bit of flair; while there’s plenty of Linnean names to go around, there’s also enough personal anecdote to keep it interesting. There’s a bit of talking-up going on – a horserace cum dick-measuring contest is a bit too on the nose – but for the most part, it’s a good read.

I had read a bit of the voodoo literature Davis refers to in the book – Maya Deren and Alfred Métraux titles – and so I wasn’t that lost when it came to the description of the hierarchy of the loa. I’d also a little background on Haitian history thanks to the Revolutions podcast, so I knew a bit about Macandal and Toussaint L’Ouverture. I suspect that if I didn’t know a little bit about these two things in advance, there’d be a bunch of wandering focus or yawning, as the passages explaining these items can be a bit dry, and possibly confusing.

Is it all a load of shit? Critics have failed to find evidence of the toxins Davis namechecks in the book, and there’s been no further supporting evidence offered. At this point it probably doesn’t matter if it’s a load of shit: in the days of postmodern fiction, it could well pass for a well-researched tale, indistinguishable from the real thing. I certainly found that the book agreed with other non-fiction I’d read, so even if there’s some gilding of the lily, it all seems to make sense in the politicised, occasionally fatally religious setting of Haiti.

I was left with a sort of dissatisfaction at the end of the book – there’s a bit of “and then stuff happened but we can’t tell you about it” occurring – but I’m glad I read it. If you’re interested in voodoo or zombies but don’t know much beyond Hollywood tropes, this would be a good introduction, without being quite as hardcore as other texts.

My Goodreads profile is here.


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