Brian Ball – The Venomous Serpent (Horror No. 3) ( July 1974)
The Venomous Serpent
The brass in the little-used Derbyshire village church has such delicate detail. Sir Jocelyn and Elizabeth Fitzalan stand together, at the side of the man a lion, and beside Elizabeth – a fanged dog. And the face of Elizabeth, is obliterated, despite the clear detail elsewhere. But Young Sal takes a rubbing none the less.
She hangs it in the bedroom, but at night the moonlight makes the straightforward take on other meanings, and static objects begin to move – and writhe. The simple rubbing begins to take on a life of its own, and to do so it must suck the life force from elsewhere. Life becomes a nightmare, and Sal is powerless to stop the evil that has grown from such innocent beginnings.
Review by Steve Goodwin
It was a dark and stormy night…
It was also the first time the priest of the little parish church at Stymead had ever seen a woman naked – the ivory skin, the deep black hair, the red lips, the sensuous curves, the exquisite breasts, the taloned fingers… the fangs.
So, exquisite breasts or not, it was probably best that the priest wasn’t alone with the Lady of Stymead, beautiful but venomous wife of the gallant knight Lord Humphrey. Probably best that some stout-hearted men of Stymead – masons, smiths & carpenters to entomb her and ensure she stayed entombed, the swine-killer with his broad-bladed knife… were also in attendance.
And something else… some small, sleeping thing curled at his lady’s feet beneath the grave-wrappings.
The night creature.
And the next thing you know it’s 1974.
Sally and Andy are art school drop-outs living in a converted barn in the Peak District with a large mongrel dog and two fluffy little kittens. They have a craft shop that does a reasonably brisk trade in garish candles, reclaimed Victorian scrap, one-guinea watercolours and garden gnomes, and an ovine local farmer for a landlord who wants them off his land – not taking too kindly to their co-habiting, tinned spaghetti-eating, beardy ways.
If they’d stuck to the plaster gnomes everything may have been OK, but Sally makes a fateful error – she dabbles in one of the black arts… brass rubbing.
Soon faceless, beckoning spectres are forming in the moonlight. Sheep and various small, furry animals are being found completely drained of blood. Mysterious dank-haired men with bad skin take to hanging around the craft shop full of ominous foreboding. And Sally’s not quite herself.
I enjoyed The Venomous Serpent so much that I read it in just two sittings (and I’d have probably finished it in one go, if it wasn’t for annoying distractions such as work). This is unusual for me – even for a hundred and twenty-odd pager – as being both fickle and easily distracted, I’ll almost inevitably have my head turned by some other eye-catching cover or well-turned blurb…
While not exactly a page turner, I still found myself well and truly drawn into this tale of diabolical Derbyshire which reads almost like a long short story (most of which takes place either in the converted barn, the ruined church or the brooding High Peak village of Stymead – “like a village underwater”).
The characters for the most part are fairly stock, but there are a few colourful extras brought in to considerably liven up the proceedings. Foremost among them is local eccentric clergyman, I. C. J. Cunningham, M.A.
I’ll say one thing for the New English Library, they certainly gave good vicar.
Running him a close second is Arthur “sodding townies” Meggitt, toothless, large-trousered landlord of Stymead’s only pub, ‘The Black Nigget’ (it’s an Old English word for a witch’s familiar in case you were wondering).
“I’ll have a pint of shandy.”
“Bloody fancy town drinks!”
As is usually the case with these things, the 70s period detail adds much – I was particularly struck by how much of his time our woolly-jumpered protagonist Andy spends drinking and driving.
Eerie rather than blood-spattered, I was strangely unsettled by some passages for reasons I couldn’t begin to explain;
She looked down at the kitten on the duvet and poked it with her finger.
It looked at her, mewed and then, quite deliberately, spat in her face.
This is good old-fashioned seventies British horror. Where else would you find a couple who, facing nameless nightcrawling terror – their mortal souls in imminent peril of eternal damnation, would decide that their best course of action was a pie and a pint in the local pub?
Maybe it’s a Derbyshire thing.
The book also references both of Brian Ball’s other NEL horrors of the time, Lesson For The Damned and Devil’s Peak.