Book Review: The Serpent and the Rainbow


Now and then, I meet people at horror/sci-fi conventions who offer to tell me about their encounters with “real zombies.”  To a man, I’ve always found these folks unsettling.

It was, perhaps, with this prejudice in mind that I came to the 1985 account of the immersion of Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis into the world of “real” Haitian zombies and Voodoo, The Serpent and the Rainbow.

When I was kid, it seemed like the film adaptation of this book was airing on HBO every other evening.  Indeed, it may well have been the first zombie film I saw.  It is also, notably, one of the last major Hollywood films to portray “classic” zombies.  By this, I mean the pre-Romero, Haitian Voodoo zombie, who is suggestible but not necessarily automatically murderous (as opposed to the Night of The Living Dead ravenous reanimated corpse that can only be killed with a headshot).  I was excited to learn more about the basis for this film, and to read a scientist’s account of encounters with “real zombies.”

From the start, Davis stumbles.  Regrettably, his book begins not with a bang, but with a simpering kowtow to forces that require him to find the most politically-correct spellings of the terms he will use to describe his subjects.  Through machinations that are not worth repeating, Davis somehow determines that “Vodoun” and “zombi” are the best ways for him to spell “Voodoo” and “zombie.”

Then, as the proper narrative commences, Davis makes a remarkable shift from pettifogging academic nitpickery to an almost risibly romantic and dashing portrayal of himself.  It is not an improvement.  The tone is ridiculous and over-the-top.  You read it and think: “Is this how he actually thinks about himself?!”

Here’s what Davis doesn’t realize: Academics who are actually dashing and adventurous do not take pains to portray themselves as such.  Take Indiana Jones.  He’s just an Archaeology professor at the University of Chicago.  Yet in the course of pursuing knowledge, Indy is sometimes reluctantly thrust into situations where he must be daring and dashing…but it is never his outright purpose.

"I'm in this for the science."
“I’m in this for the science.”

After reading this book, I feel like Wade Davis is desperate to be perceived as an Indiana Jones-like figure, and to such an extent that you wonder if you can even credit what he is telling you.  The text is peppered with references to his having previously accomplished things like hunting wild moose and adventuring in the wilderness and communing with Native American shamans in Canada.  We get it.  You are “adventure-guy.”   The problem, here, is that all this derring-do does not make for a trustworthy narrator, especially in a nonfiction book.

I'm JUST like Indy...
“See?  I’m JUST like Indy…”

One of the reasons H.P. Lovecraft’s narrators work so well is that they are usually timid, rational men NOT INCLINED TO SEEK OUT THE EXTRAORDINARY AS A WAY OF IMPRESSING PEOPLE.  Thus, when their wild accounts emerge of tentacled monstrosities from beyond the ether, it is all the more impactful because it comes from such reluctant, recalcitrant narrators.

All of this is a shame, because the actual adventure Davis has is quite interesting.  He is sent to Haiti to discover the botanical underpinnings of zombification.  He meets a remarkable cast of characters– some mystical and deeply spiritual, some scallywags, some completely puzzling– and learns a tremendous amount about Haitian culture and religion.

Some of the scenes in which Davis observes Voodoo rituals are very well written, very eerie, and should connect with even the most hardcore of horror fans.  But this is supposed to be a nonfiction book.  So, did things actually happen that way, or is Davis playing up how eerie it was in the course of a desperate need to be seen as a dashing adventurer?

In the end, the correct response– I believe– is not to care.

And certainly not to recommend this book.

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