The Snake’s Progress
by Tristan Travis
Warning: If you want to read this gripping tale
of horror and police procedure then please be
warned that the following review will contain spoilers.
I don’t know who Tristan Travis is. Nor do I know who R. Keating Bolen is, whose name rests in the copyright notice of this book. Presumably the first is a pseudonym of the other but, since I can find no other claims to fame for either of them, it kind of begs the question why someone would want to use a nom de plume anyway. This writer is a complete puzzle to me.
All I know for sure about him is that in 1983 he wrote a truly great novel called Lamia and, when the paperback came out a year later and caught the eye of this 16 year old teenager, I was so taken with the cover and blurb that I bought a copy and read it. And then, within the space of a few years, I read it at least a couple more times. It was a well thumbed paperback and even though I was going through the usual, excessive period teenage boys tend to go through when it comes to devouring trashy and not so trashy horror novels by the gallon... this was a time when I was discovering the likes of Stephen King, James Herbert, Dean R. Koontz, Guy N. Smith, Shaun Hutson, John Halkin and John Farris... I still found time to revisit this epic doorstop of a novel at least twice more after the initial read through. Guess I must have really liked it.
Moving on to around ten years ago, I was on holiday and looking through a second hand book stall at some kind of small National Trust property when I came across this beautiful hardback, UK first edition of the novel. It had a slightly different cover in that the title character pictured didn’t have the forked tongue sliding out of her mouth but it was only £2 and I figured, well this would be a really nice edition to hold on to one day, if I ever looked to revisit it. So here we are, bang up to date... I revisited it. And I was not disappointed.
The book, set in 1967, has two main protagonists... black cop John Valjohn (which I can only assume is some kind of reference to Jean Valjean from Les Miserables although, I honestly couldn’t see the metaphor) and nurse Crescent Eisabeth O’ Leary (once Libby for short, after her middle name and possibly also as an oblique reference to Libya in the legacy of the title creature). The two characters are extremely interesting and, like pretty much every character in the novel, very well written and thoroughly explored. Honestly, even if a character is only there to be ‘Lamia-fodder’, you will usually get a few long sequences in the book where the writer puts you right into the head of those characters.
And yes, if you’re still wondering, the Lamia of the title is a variation of the mythical killer snake woman who has run through literature, poetry and art for a gazillion years... in different variations and permutations. This is.. another work which draws on some of the elements of those that the likes of Keats and Coleridge (amongst others) have written about over the centuries. There’s a moment in the novel where Valjohn gets himself clued up about the mythical character which will fill the reader in about some of that stuff but, you could always type the name Lamia into the Wikipedia and see what result you get.
Now Valjohn is going through all the racial problems you might expect from a mulatto on the force in 1967 America but he also holds a kind of minor celebrity with the newspapers because he also makes fine art collages using evidence purloined from the cases he’s working. I’ve never, ever been able to figure out why he’s allowed to do this, mind you but, there you have it. Various things are assembled and painted into a piece in an aesthetically pleasing manner and... as in one chapter... he sometimes looks back at an old piece of work based on one of the murders in the long crime case he is working and it will suddenly help him make a connection or a breakthrough on, what in this novel are called, The Reaper Murders.
Okay, so let me put that on hold for a second and turn to the other big main character, Crescent. She’s drop dead beautiful but, as John finds out when he marries her, unwilling to engage in sexual encounters. This is a big problem for Valjohn and the reasons are hinted at when we glimpse into her back story... and written quite overtly at the same time. That’s because, although Travis (or whoever he is), writes her as a heroine of sorts, he makes no bones in terms of more than hinting that she is, indeed, both the fabled Lamia of the title and also, it would appear, The Reaper. It’s no real surprise, perhaps, that when Valjohn takes her to an art gallery, she becomes fixated on the painting Full-Orbed Moon by Arthur B. Davies (pictured above right).
So, although it’s clear right from the early quarter of the book, even when Travis indulges in writing some lethal red herrings of characters to confuse the plot and give the reader some small doubts, at least, that she could perhaps be considered an antagonist in the novel too... it’s hard not to be on her side because, well... let’s look at the murder scenes...
All the people murdered by The Reaper, who Valjohn finally twigs is female at some point due to secretions from vaginitis, are sleazy murderers, rapists and child molesters who prey on vulnerable women and children. This, of course, also includes the odd ‘non civilian’ or two such as men at the periphery of politics or, you know, fellow police officers. Their bodies are found twisted and splintered with extreme genital mutilations which are sometimes rearranged to show the killer has a sense of humour. And in terms of the sexual angle, well let me quote directly from the novel so you get the picture...
“Though the amount seemed incredible, it was found that in every victim examined, the spermatozoa reservoirs - the vas deferens, the tubules and retia of the testes - were totally depleted. It was as though the body’s ejaculatory mechanism had jammed in the ‘on’ position, as though each man could not stop coming until the entire contents of his gonads were spent. Until there was literally nothing left.”
So, yeah, whatever triggers this response in Crescent... and it’s up to the reader to figure out or judge as to whether she’s aware of the transformations herself... it’s obviously partially triggered by male sexual energy so, yeah, like I said, the character isn’t interested in having sex. At least, not under the usual circumstances.
And as we go through the story, different possibilities and tangents keep spinning off from the case, taking Valjohn into areas which, don’t always add up or have much relevance but certainly are well explored by the writer in a way that reminded me of film makers such as Fellini or Antonioni, where not everything has to lead to the next thing and can be enjoyed as just an episode which is a part of the experience. And, yes, I am comparing Tristan Travis (or Bolen or whoever) to the likes of Fellini because, with this novel, he shows true artistry and vision in his work. This tome is a true epic work and I can’t imagine many people, if they’ve read it, disagreeing with that. It’s more than a novel, it’s an experience and I can’t recommend it enough, I think.
And there are very few writers who could blend pulpy horror tropes, mythical literary characters and a 1960s police procedural story into the convincing, entertaining pot pourri of a book we have here. If I live another ten years, I can tell you, this won’t be the last time I revisit this masterpiece. It’s easily within my top ten favourite novels and you won’t find many, if any, other horror novels in that list (well okay, maybe Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House but, I hold this particular novel in higher regard even than that and it’s a different kettle of fish anyway). Granted, one of the characters does refer to the music of Ennio Morricone as a “...din of exotic whistles and percussion beats” but, with a work of art as assured as this, you can perhaps forgive the writer for misjudging the composer so harshly. Lamia is so much more than just another novel... it’s a phenomenon and, I really don’t know why it’s still so little known.
So, flashback to the mid-1980s. I waited and I waited for the next novel by Tristan Travis to hit the book shop shelves. And then I waited some more. I’m still waiting. None were forthcoming. This is the writer’s only noble tome... at least under that name. And it’s such a shame because it’s a work of sheer genius. I would really like to know why another work just didn’t come along after. Was there some controversy surrounding this writer? Who knows?
Another thing I’ve often wondered is why nobody has ever bought the rights to turn it into a blockbuster film or TV show. I mean, it has action, mystery, horror and intrigue in abundance. It’s quite startlingly entertaining and surely something which would make a truly excellent movie or mini-series. It seems to me like there’s ‘gold in them thar hills’ but nobody wants to actually dig up the obvious fortune. Another mystery. At least to me.
And with that, I’ll say farewell to Lamia for a while. I don’t know why the mythical/historical character has not been used more often in TV or film in general either but, maybe people will start to take notice of her again at some point. Either way, there are still a fair few second hand copies of the novel available in various formats for very cheap prices on the likes of Amazon at the moment. If you read just one 1980s horror novel in your life, make it Lamia, would be my advice.