Environmentalists and well-educated children have explained to me that snakes are nothing to fear, but that wise counsel can’t quell the spike of alarm whenever I spot one slithering through the yard. Like Emily Dickinson, I have
never met this Fellow
Attended, or alone
Without a tighter breathing
And Zero at the Bone.
Sadie Jones exploits that deep-seated apprehension in her deliciously wicked fifth novel, “The Snakes.” It’s the perfect antidote to a relaxing summer’s day. Her title practically hisses the story’s symbolic implication, pricking those ancient warnings embedded in the Garden of Eden and the face of Medusa. And the novel’s contemporary setting exhibits the markings of Gothic terror, with wry allusions to Frankenstein, Edgar Allan Poe and even Stephen King. But Jones coils all these old elements around new anxieties involving race and class — and then constricts until fresh panic sets in. Although the wizardry here never breaks the bounds of ordinary reality, this is suspense written in parseltongue.
At the opening, a young British couple decides to take a long road trip. Bea, who is white, is an earnest psychotherapist determined to live as moral a life as she possibly can. Her husband, Dan, who is mixed-race, is an artist trying to make ends meet by working as a real estate agent. Driving around Europe for three months will exhaust their meager savings, but they hope the excursion will give them time to reassess their lives back in London.
Things do not go as planned — not anywhere close.
Jones is a patient sower of dread. The tiny seeds of concern she plants along the way germinate and blossom in lurid hues. The initial tension between Bea and Dan about their itinerary and family obligations feels like an ordinary marital disagreement, but it sets a path toward doom.
At Bea’s insistence, their first stop is a visit with her brother, Alex, who manages a hotel near a small town in Burgundy, France. Several years earlier, Bea and Alex’s father bought this hotel for Alex so that he’d have something productive to do after rehab. That’s the first of many family stories that initially sound plausible but then curl into dubiousness. When Bea and Dan drive up to Alex’s hotel, it looks abandoned. Bea makes a nervous joke about “The Shining,” but when Alex appears, he’s delighted to see them — almost giddy, so full of theatrics that Dan thinks that “being with him was like watching television, or a play.” For Bea, who knows her brother’s desperate history of drug abuse, the situation is more alarming:
“Alex,” said Bea calmly, “where is everyone?”
“Everyone?” he asked innocently.
“Aren’t there any guests?” she said. “Where are the staff?”
“Oh. We’re a bit quiet at the moment.”
This would seem like a good time to check out, but Bea is wholly devoted to her brother, and she’s unsettled by his manic behavior. She isn’t reassured when she notices that he’s labeled each of the rooms with the Seven Deadly Sins. Then she finds the hotel guest book full of fake names and comments all written by Alex. That night, he invites her to help him clean out the snake traps in the attic.
“He banged the trapdoor with his fist. Dust fell as it popped up,” Jones writes. “The smell was liquid and familiar, as if the smell of corpses was not new, and had only to be recognised.”
Take me to the Hilton!
Much of the ghoulish fun of this novel comes from following Jones as she winds through the canon of classic horror. In her telling, Alex’s hotel is decorated with crepe paper left over from half a dozen other macabre tales. Is that Jack Torrance? Norman Bates? Roderick Usher? Jones flicks her tongue toward each of those demented hosts, but she’s pursuing a wholly original story about the repercussions of trauma. As you might imagine, actual reptiles are the least terrifying creatures in “The Snakes.”
It quickly becomes apparent that all the creaky floors and spooky cobwebs are merely a shadow of what’s really haunting this family. Bea and Alex are the children of two repellent parents: a fabulously wealthy real estate developer and a shockingly narcissistic woman. While Bea broke away from them years ago, Alex is still caught in their toxic embrace.
And who should arrive at that very moment to complete this supremely dysfunctional family reunion? Why, it’s Mummy and Daddy with all their adamant bullying, malignant politics and faux affection.
The disaster that unfolds is like something Shirley Jackson might have spun from “Meet the Parents” and “Snakes on a Plane” — which is such an absurd description that I suspect Jones’s special venom has already coursed its way to my brain. But that’s the effect of this clever writer who undulates so eerily from phantasmal excess to psychological realism.
Dan has never entirely understood Bea’s decision to refuse all contact with her parents, and when they suddenly appear at the hotel, he realizes the full extent of what she’s given up. Houses! Airplanes! Offshore tax shelters! Why should he and Bea struggle to make ends meet while her racist father is willing to give her everything? Why must they pay the price for Bea’s self-righteous rejection of her father’s dirty money? In this rich atmosphere, Dan’s greed inflates like a pair of gasping lungs.
“The Snakes” eventually sloughs off its spookier elements, but the criminal story that emerges grows more shocking because of the rare quality of brutality in Jones’s prose. Of course, we’ve no shortage of gruesome writers, particularly in the thriller genre, but that’s not Jones’s technique. She excels, instead, at drawing us into tender sympathy with her characters even as she coolly subjects them to the most monstrous treatment. The result is hypnotic — like staring into the serpent’s eyes just before it strikes.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Sadie Jones
Harper. 448 pp. $26.99