Having never read anything by John Farris, I stumbled upon his 1977 novel All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By after seeing David J. Schow‘s very laudatory remarks concerning the book in Jones & Newman‘s overview volume Horror: 100 Best Books (1988). In his essay, Schow calls it a “unique horror novel; the strongest single work yet produced by the field’s most powerful individual voice,” as well as “the first modern sexual horror novel yet written.” All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By was hardly an early work for Farris; indeed, he had seen a full 20 books published before this one, including his breakthrough novel, The Fury (his 19th), in 1976. (As of this date, by my count, the author has released 43 novels for his huge fan base.) All Heads Turn does turn out to be quite captivating, and while my enthusiasm for the book cannot match Schow’s, I did quite enjoy it nevertheless.
The novel starts with a ghastly and memorable horror set piece indeed, as “Clipper” Bradwin, the youngest son of the Bradwin clan of Dasharoons estate, goes homicidally berserk on his own wedding day in 1942. Two years later, a mysterious English doctor, Jackson Holley, escorts Clipper’s older and war-wounded brother back to Dasharoons, in southeast Arkansas, and becomes involved with the estate’s mistress, Nhora Bradwin, who was widowed on the day of that earlier tragedy. But, as it turns out, the wedding-day catastrophe of 1942 is only the beginning of a string of awful happenings soon to be visited on the seemingly accursed family. Farris blends into his tale a remarkable amount of historic detail (the sense of time and place is extremely well brought off here, whether Farris read up on the area or got his details from growing up and going to school, in the 1940s and ’50s, in Tennessee), cultural tidbits (anyone remember who Dorothy Dix was?) and voodoo lore. And the author is revealed here to be a really terrific writer, whether employing a first-person narrative in journal form, the omniscient and detail-obsessed observer, or a more impressionistic style. Farris sure does have a way with a tossed-off description, too, as when he writes that a character had “eyes the color of spit on a sidewalk.” His book is filled with uniformly interesting and unusual characters, and is a true horror piece not just as regards subject matter, but because something horrible happens to virtually every character in it. The novel ultimately gives us just enough information to connect our own dots, but some readers, I have a feeling, may be left wanting more. Still, that withholding of full explication only enhances the sense of voodoo mystery pervading Farris’ work. And that double whammy of an ending…talk about coming full circle!
All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By, good as it is, is certainly not a perfect book. Farris’s plot is way too dependent on coincidence — better make that double coincidence — to be fully satisfying, and the author is even guilty of an occasional glitch here and there. For example, Nhora says, after the May 1942 slayings, that a character named Early Boy had long been dogging her, and that she could never forget his smile; later on, she says that she had FIRST seen him in May ’42. A lantern that is said to be “burned low and…flickered out” on the porch of Old Lamb is somehow alight and ready to be extinguished six pages later. But these are quibbles. As I mentioned, I truly did find Farris’ novel to be engrossing, gripping and oftentimes horrifying. As for that unusual title, I really cannot explain it, unless it refers to an 11th century letter that one of the book’s characters glances at, and which mentions “horrid centaurs, the wild men, the blaring huntsmen….” Just another mystery, I suppose, in a book filled with many. To sum up: as Schow so rightly tells us, this is far from a “‘feel good’ horror” novel, but those game for some truly shocking thrills may find it quite a ride.