Romulus Zachariah Linney V saw the Pentecostal Snake Handlers for the first and only time in 1961. It was 10 years before he wrote his play "Holy Ghosts" and nearly that long before "Holy Ghosts" made it to Washington, where it opened last night at Ford's Theatre.

"What the snake handlers do is very strange," Linney said yesterday during a break from rehearsals. "It's no joke. Church members pick up diamondback rattlers and hold them in their hands. Actually, since snakes are coldblooded, they kind of like to be handled, because the heat of a human hand goes right through them. Also, they're deaf, so the shouting during the service doesn't bother them. But they don't like to be startled, and they have all their venom. Snake handling started in Locust Valley, Tenn., in 1947 and that summer 17 people died.

"My play isn't about snakes, though it's about people in the grip of religion. I'm not making fun of them at all. Their justification comes from the last verses of Mark, where it says, "They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them." There also might be a jar of strychnine on the altar, which you can drink from if you choose.

"These people believe that the power of the universe, the acutal Holy Ghost, suddenly recognizes them when they take up a snake, or dring some poison. If you have the power, you won't get bit; if you don't then maybe you will. It's a primitive ritual, sure, but it also must be an overwhelming religious experience. Even if you're losing everything else, to win that one must be extraordinary."

Linney, at 50, is a well-regarded playwright and novelist who has won many favorable notices, but has not yet, well, not yet made the cover of Time magazine. ("That doesn't bother me much," Linney said. "But of course I'd like to have a hit. Every ball team wants to win the pennant.") He has written three novels and 17 plays, and is now lodged at the Hotel Harrington here, helping Ford's to get "Holy Ghosts" underway.

From the subject matter, it would seem likely that Linney is from the Southeast, and he is: born in Boone N.C., grew up in Madison, Tenn., then to Washington for Alice Deal Junior High and Woodrow Wilson High School. He played on the Wilson basketball team of 1949, the year they lost the championship by fove points, two of which were his own missed free throws.

Now he lives in New York, pursued there, as many other playwrights and novelists have been, by the characters of his own living autobiography.

"My father was a doctor in Madison," Linney said, "just a regular M.D. But he died when I was 13, and I guess that's a trauma that's always with me. He was an outdoorsman, and he loved dogs, and I remember going with him to field trials, and falling over fising poles, and things like that. I really wasn't much like him. I guess, but he was a powerful authority figure. It was a very small town, and what saved me was the phonograph -- listening to 'Tales from the Vienna Woods.' Also, my mother was a teacher of Expression, as they used to call it in the schools.After my father's death she had the good sense to move to a large city. Washington."

Linney, a graduate of Oberlin Colege and Yale Drama School, wrote his first novel, "Heathen Valley," in 1962. After that, however, he encountered three years of writer's block. "It was probably the result of trying to write about my own family, before I really knew how I felt. I'm getting over that, now."

When his second novel turned out to contain long passages of dialogue, he realized he ought to be writing plays, and in 1967 came up with "The Sorrows of Frederick," by now his bestknown work.

"I was in a bookstore in Kitty Hawk, N.C., and I found a biography of Frederick the Great. Here's a guy whose picture was hanging in Hitler's bunker. But you know, Frederick used to sleep with dogs. Little delicate whippets, greeyhounds. And when they died -- and this is the guy who created the whole Prussian army -- he went into paroxysms of grief. For some reason this struck me very deeply. Anyway, it makes a very dramatic part, and 'Frederick' is as close as I've come to having a hit. Actors like doing it -- John Wood, Fritz Weaver, Austin Pendleton. You really get to chew the scenery up."

Linney's newest play opens in December at the Phoenix Playhouse in New York. Its title is "The captivity of Pixie Shedman."

"This is a new departure for me," Linney said. "It's a very personal play. You see, Linney is a Welsh name, and it comes from 'lean-shed.' That's something you do with hay -- to dry it, you lean it against a shed. That's where Shedman comes from. I don't have as much trouble with autobiography now as before." As it happens, a central character of "Holy Ghosts" is also named Shedman: the young husband who finds himself drawn into the snake-handling ceremony in an effort to gain back his wife, who has prededed him there.

One thing Linney's work is not, he says, is satiric. Funny, yes, he hopes. "I think satire was needed, maybe, in the 1960s, and I certainly read it with relish. But I don't write it. In the plays I like, everybody has a point to make. The humor comes from people getting themselves into binds that they can't get out of."

He believes that the theater is doing well just now, and has good people writing for it, and good audiences -- he intends to keep at his work of 30 years. He's neither rich nor broke, having found support over the years through teaching, grants, fellowships, publishers' advances "and by the fact that I have a noble wife." (She is an associate professor of drama at Brooklyn College). In earlier days he found writers' colonies a compatible environment, but now he plugs away in a little studio two blocks from his apartment near 76th Street and Broadway in New York City. And if Romulus Linney isn't yet a household name, he seems ready and willing.

Yes, he'd like to have a hit, but no -- he has not thought of trying to knock off a Neil Simon imitation. Short cuts can be dangerous. Don't pick up the rattler unless you're pretty sure you have the power.

"Art is inexorable -- you get found out if you're not on the level," Linney said. "But sometimes the Holy Ghost anoints you -- and then you can write." s