Snakes on a plain: the gloriously eerie boglands of The Essex Serpent

From Celtic mythology and the malevolent, sheep-eating Lambton Worm of Durham to Bram Stoker’s Lair of the White Worm and Ken Russell’s outlandish film adaptation, the serpent has a potent mythological status that is deeply embedded in British and Irish folklore. In The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry harnesses the power of this unknowable creature to drive a novel that is a fitting addition to the genre.

Reviewers of her 2014 debut, After Me Comes the Flood, noted Perry’s strict Baptist upbringing, during which her formative cultural intake was limited almost entirely to the Bible and classical literature – but it is in her second novel that these core influences are given free rein. Lest we forget, Gilgamesh loses his power of immortality to a snake, while the hissing hustler of Genesis tricks Adam and Eve into exile from the Garden of Eden. Even if she didn’t have access in her youth to the schlocky folk-horror films of the 1970s, for Perry, it seems that the figure of the snake was unavoidable.

Set in the 1890s, The Essex Serpent writhes amid the confluence of conflicting modes of thought that made that era so fascinating and forward-thinking. The enlightened, late-Victorian strand of thinking is slowly embracing myriad theories posited by the recently departed Charles Darwin and Charles Lyell. Butting up against all this reason and pragmatism is a dusty old English take on Christianity that is mindful of God and the threat of the serpent to His order. And beneath it all is something far more insidious and inexplicable: persistent rumours and sightings of a winged serpent out in the moiling salt waters and sparse marshes of the Blackwater Estuary…

 

Read the full review here.

 

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