Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 865
Nancy Shedman, a young, naïve, backwoods Southern woman. She has been married less than a year to an abusive man, Coleman Shedman. After being assaulted by him, Nancy encounters a snake-handling religious cult run by Obediah Senior. Having nowhere to turn and swept away by the church’s fanaticism, she decides to leave her husband, take half of the property, and marry the preacher. Nancy begins to waver after learning that she would become the man’s seventh wife. Weakening, she is almost ready to return to Coleman until, in an outburst of rage, he strikes her. During the hysteria of the snake-handling ceremony, Nancy remains aloof. She decides that the lifestyle is not right for her at this time and decides to attend a business school in town.
Coleman Hannibal Shedman, Junior
Coleman Hannibal Shedman, Junior, Nancy’s jealous, coarse, and abusive young husband. He is the owner/manager of Shedman’s Fish Farm, which he inherited from his father. Accompanied by a divorce attorney, he caustically accuses Nancy of infidelity and theft. Coleman is anti-Christian and is appalled that his wife has been sucked in by religious charlatans. During the church service, he curses and attacks the minister and flaunts his sexual knowledge of Nancy. He pleads with Nancy to come back to him, but during his pledge to change, he loses his temper and strikes her. In an attempt to blaspheme the religion, he defiantly partakes in the snake-handling ceremony, only to become a full-fledged convert.
Rogers Canfield, an elderly lawyer with a heart condition. He is a widower living with his unwed daughter. He emerges from retirement to handle Coleman’s divorce suit. He is an unshaven, unkempt diplomat who immediately warms up to Nancy. While at the church service, Canfield becomes enamored of Bonnie, causing him to make a fervent commitment to the cult and to resign from Coleman’s case.
Reverend Obediah Buckhorn, Senior
Reverend Obediah Buckhorn, Senior (oh-beh-DI-uh), an old, authoritative, sometimes dramatic, sometimes genteel religious cult leader. His Church of Pentecostal Snakeholders has claimed numerous lives and is outlawed by the state. Pushed to the limit by Coleman’s verbal assaults, Obediah Senior lashes back with a violent outburst, which is followed by a dramatic show of repentance. Obediah’s plan to marry Nancy after her divorce goes awry when the news leaks that he has had six former wives, five of whom died from overwork and a sixth who ran off. He is saddened by his loss of Nancy and takes Coleman’s conversion in stride.
Obediah Buckhorn, Junior
Obediah Buckhorn, Junior, the preacher’s young, handsome, cheerful, and self-confident son. Although a muscle-bound man, he is childlike and still lives with his father. He has recently procured a job as a manager of a bowling alley, somehow rationalizing that bowling and Jesus go together. Obediah Junior meets Nancy following the attack on her by Coleman and introduces her to his father and their religion.
Virgil Tides, a young boy who reads the Scripture. He becomes enraptured by the church service and begins speaking in tongues. Virgil is the first devotee to handle the dangerous rattlers.
Orin Hart, a brawny, simple-minded oaf. Once aggressive and pugnacious, he was transformed into a loving homosexual after entering the cult. He is involved with his longtime friend, Howard.
Howard Rudd, Orin’s partner. He is also tough, but not as massive as Orin. He had tried to cut his throat when his wife left him, but Orin saved him.
Bonnie Bridge, a practical, efficient nymphomaniac with traces of youthful beauty. At the church, her duties include making announcements and introducing newcomers. Her religious history consists of sexually submitting to any Christian man who would have her. After running out of men, she would move on to a new church. Once wed to a plumber, she was deserted. Always jealous of her sister, she enticed her into the cult, where the woman died of a snakebite. Bonnie’s latest sexual target is Rogers Canfield.
Lorena Cosburg, a meek, drab, middle-aged woman. She never disobeyed or displeased her husband until she started attending this church. She is overcome on her first visit and ecstatically partakes in the handling of the snakes.
Mrs. Wall, the church pianist who befriends Nancy. She is a large, impressive woman who gives a stirring religious testimony.
Billy Boggs, the young church guitarist. Angry, discontented, and guilt-ridden, he confesses to Coleman that he had to get married. After admitting to hating his wife, he sounds more suicidal than enraptured when grabbing hold of the snakes.
Murial Boggs, Billy’s young wife. She brings her newborn to the service and asks Cancer Man to be the baby’s godfather.
Cancer Man, a middle-aged man fearlessly succumbing to cancer. He is overjoyed by his acceptance into the church and is thrilled to be the godfather of the Boggses’ baby.
Carl Spector, a crazy man haunted by the death of his dog. Since entering the cult, he has had comforting visions of his deceased pet.