The Dutch equivalent of “like molasses in January” is “als een slak op een teerton,” or “like a snail on a tar-barrel.” In As You Like It Shakespeare describes “…the whining schoolboy…Creeping like snail/Unwillingly to school.” And of course, with the advent of email the conventional posting of letters became known as “snail mail.”
All of which is to say that snails are slow, both proverbially and in fact. Thus the little creatures just aren’t a natural fit with the hyperactive, quick-cut, short-attention-span idiom of contemporary pop culture.
Yet it’s shaping up to be a higher-profile-than-average year for gastropods. The animated fantasy Epic, opening this weekend, features a comic-relief snail and a slug. And slated for July is Turbo, another animated feature, this one about a snail with racing ambitions. Then there’s this distressing development.
Here are 13 other notable snails:
13. The Doorkeeper Snail in Pinocchio
“Snails are never in a hurry,” says this domestic of the Blue Fairy in Collodi’s classic children’s novel. She makes an exception in Pinocchio’s case: it only takes her nine hours, while he waits outside in the rain and cold, to come down four flights and let him into the house. When he asks for something to eat, it’s only a few more hours before she returns with a tray for him.
Apparently she was too slow to make it into Disney’s 1940 film version; however there’s a charming statue of her in The Pinocchio Park (Parco di Pinocchio), a tourist attraction in Tuscany.
12. The Racing Snail in The Neverending Story
Ready, set, Es-car-GO!
This speedier-than-usual snail specimen, with its sweetly expressive face, is the mount of the Teeny-Weeny (the ever-taciturn Deep Roy) in Wolfgang Petersen’s well-loved 1984 version of Michael Ende’s fantasy. Snail racing is a real, if facetious, pastime, by the way, particularly popular in the UK; the next World Championship is slated for July, in Norfolk.
11. Gary the Snail
The house pet of SpongeBob Squarepants, Gary is a modest sort, whose passive, plaintive “meows” conceal a dynamic and capable personality. Even his facebook page seems to consist, mostly, of meows. But he has a beautiful girlfriend, named Snellie, who wears a pretty bow on her shell.
Gary’s showcase turn on the series was probably the Season 4 episode “Have You Seen This Snail?” Weary of SpongeBob’s neglect, Gary (voiced, like SpongeBob himself, by Tom Kenny) runs away from home, leaving SpongeBob bereft, and providing montage space for a heartfelt song, cleverly titled “Gary’s Song,” performed by Stew, and including lines which admirably rhyme the words “roam,” “metronome” and “poem” (pronounced “pome”).
10. The Great Pink Sea Snail
One of the title Doc’s patients from Dr. Dolittle, this enormous mollusk has a roomy, airy shell in which the characters catch a ride back to civilization. This 1967 musical of the Hugh Lofting books was famously ill-fated; it’s claimed that during the film’s notoriously troubled, budget-exploding production, native children at the St. Lucia location had recently been made ill by eating freshwater snails. This made the big pink prop unpopular, and a target of vandalism.
All the same, the film received an Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration. Presumably the Great Pink Sea Snail had some part in this (along with some intense studio campaigning).
9. The Randy Limpet
On Monty Python’s Flying Circus, John Cleese, as a presenter inexplicably performing a live nature documentary on mollusks for a suburban couple (Graham Chapman and Terry Jones) in their living room, finds himself losing his audience’s interest. So he switches to the subject of sex: “The randiest of the gastropods is the limpet. This hot blooded little beast with its tent-like shell is always on the job. Its extra-marital activities are something startling. Frankly I don’t know how the female limpet finds the time to adhere to the rock face.” The couple’s interest is instantly much more engaged.
8. Flail Snail
Snails seem an odd choice as menacing creatures, but as we’ll see from now on, they have often been cast in such roles. This classic Dungeons and Dragons denizen, which appeared in the pages of the first Fiend Folio in 1981, sports six (or sometimes four) spiked mace-balls between its antennae – in lieu, it seems, of a head.
This may help to explain why, according to the Creature Catalog, the Flail Snail is “Immune to mind-influencing effects.” And like Switzerland, the Flail Snail’s alignment is always neutral.
7. Jellybean the Snail
In this 1966 episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, Rob Petrie, thinking he and his writing partners Buddy and Sally are about to be unemployed, interviews for a writing gig with a new show starring a puppet snail, Jellybean, operated by a pleasant fellow named Claude Wilbur (voice-acting great Paul Winchell).
But it turns out that, a la Michael Redgrave in Dead of Night, the snail isn’t so much performed by Wilbur as he is in possession of him. Jellybean, who speaks in a cultured, snooty voice, is intolerably arrogant and abusive, whacking not only his guest but even his supposed master on the head. Supposedly it was co-writer Garry Marshall’s experience writing for puppeteer and ventriloquist Shari Lewis that inspired the story, although no similarity was claimed between Lewis’ behavior and Wilbur’s, and indeed it is hard to imagine Lambchop whacking anybody over the head.
6. Cloth of Gold
Those of grade school age in the early ’70s may remember watching, wide-eyed, the Season 4 Hawaii Five-O episode “Cloth of Gold,” in which the titular sea snail with a gorgeous shell and a sting that kills in seconds by paralysis is used to wreak vengeance on a cadre of scummy, deserving gangsters. If you looked it up later, and learned that it was indeed a real species – Conus textile – and that its venom really was that freakin’ deadly, your eyes got even wider.
5. The Doomed Snails in Crispin Glover’s What Is It?
Then again, sometimes snails are the victims. Few who have seen this Artaud-esque film, part of the bill of a touring show in which Glover also did a freaky live performance, are likely to forget it, though not necessarily for lack of trying.
Among other unsavory things – Nazi imagery, a revoltingly racist country song on the soundtrack – it’s a snail snuff film. The protagonist pours salt on the unfortunate creatures, and we’re treated to their death throes. Those of us who have enjoyed snails as an appetizer may be accused of hypocrisy for objecting to this, and perhaps fairly enough. But while there may be movies worth the obviously painful death of a few invertebrates, I’ve never seen one, and this isn’t even close.
The creatures in this toy line from the early ’90s don’t look all that much like snails, but they are, as the TV ad’s jingle repeatedly informs us, “Supersonic shell fighters,” defending their hometown of Snail Francisco from the repugnant invading Lunarticks. What they really resembled, of course, were Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but instead of the names of Italian Old Masters, they had, no less perplexingly, the names of the Presidents from Mount Rushmore. Somehow the big-time movie franchise has yet to materialize.
3. Snails by PDAmill
This 2002 game features clans of cutesy little snails – The Moogums,The Lupeez or The Nooginz – at their most warlike. Play consists of one shelled faction with ambitions toward world domination blasting away at another, with collateral damage represented by huge crescent-shaped craters in battlegrounds ranging from barns to castles to the “Great Sphinx of Glika.”
There’s something slightly messed-up about the juxtaposition of the sprightly adorableness of the characters and the horrible destruction they’re wreaking on each other and their surroundings. This effect is intentional, no doubt, but still sort of disturbing.
2. Iron Snail
This armored avenger is one of the many temporary superheroes into which Nelson Jent is transformed by the mysterious dial in the DC comics series Dial H – based, in turn, on the vintage title Dial H for Hero, in which the dial’s custodian could generate a new super-identity simply by dialing in “H-E-R-O.” Readers whose nativities postdate the era of the rotary-dial phone can ask a doddering oldster if further explanation is required (come to think of it, the conceit could work at least as easily with a mysterious cell phone found in a cave or whatever; maybe it’s time for a revival).
Anyway, as superhero names go, Iron Snail perhaps suggests invulnerability. But it doesn’t inspire much confidence where response time is concerned.
1. Blank Claveringi
Novelist Patricia Highsmith, best remembered for crime classics like Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, was also, by most accounts, a total freakin’ nutjob…that is to say, a colorful eccentric, with a snail fixation. It’s said she was known to carry them around with her in her purse. Her short story collection, Eleven (1970), includes two horror tales about snails, “The Snail-Watcher” and “The Quest for Blank Claveringi.”
Both are gems, but the second, published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1967, is a knockout, the story of the hapless, ambitious Professor Clavering, who travels to a remote South Sea island in hopes of discovering a new species of giant snail rumored to live there. He plans to give it its scientific name, Something-to-be-announced-in-Latin Claveringi; hence the title. Unluckily for him, he does indeed find it, and what ensues, told in Highsmith’s matter-of-fact, convincing prose, is a merciless exercise in the gruesome, no less tense and shuddery because it happens at a snail’s pace.
M.V. Moorhead won five Arizona Press Club awards for his work in Phoenix New Times. His reviews, essays, poetry, fiction and other writings have appeared in Wrangler News (wranglernews.com), Phoenix Magazine, USA Today, Weird Tales, Elysian Fields Quarterly, The Big Click and many other publications in the U.S. and Australia, and may also be found at his own blog, Less Hat, Moorhead ([email protected]). He's also a produced playwright, and was a talk-radio host in Phoenix for two years. A native of Pennsylvania, he lives in Phoenix, Arizona with his wife, his daughter and three Chihuahuas with five eyeballs between them.