All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By in the summer of 1989 - just out of high school - but recalled virtually nothing of it, so it was one of the first vintage horror paperbacks I bought again for this blog. Even though I was thoroughly unimpressed with John Farris's 1976 bestseller The Fury, I was keen on revisiting All Heads Turn. Good decision; I could hardly put it down this past weekend. This is mainstream bestselling horror at its finest: wholly entertaining and gripping, a horror fiction melange of classic adventure tales, multi-generational family sagas, Southern Gothics, and even those horribly dated plantation novels, all to great effect. Even more astounding, perhaps, is that this Popular Library 1977 paperback cover is actually representative of events in the novel. The 1986 reprint from the Tor horror line, however, is one big spoiler. So do not Google it (but do check out this encomium from David J. Schow, who chose it as his entry in Horror: 100 Best Books).
Farris settles in and moves his story along, writing smoothly and professionally, always a welcome surprise in what looks to be another junky horror paperback - albeit one with an oddly poetic and tantalizingly obscure title. Farris's prose is even impressionistic at times, once the delirium of horror and bloodshed begin. Which is, thankfully enough, just a few pages in, careening out of the gate with a blood-drenched military wedding ceremony in Virginia. Hot damn!
Set during World War II, Farris has threaded together the fates of two great families, one from the States and one from England. The Bradwins are one of those wealthy Southern families made by generations of virile military men - and their servants barely more than slaves - plagued by arrogance, entitlement, brilliance, lechery, and charm in maddeningly equal measures. The Holleys are a British family who travel to Africa to administer health care to the remotest regions of that continent. Their unbelievably tragic back-stories are the most richly imagined parts of the book.
They are linked by the beautiful Nhora, a woman who, as a child, was kidnapped by a cannibalistic African tribe beholden to the superstitions of voodoo, that twining tight of the Christianity of the west and the native beliefs of Africa. So cultural imperialism figures large, the privilege and entitlement that people can feel when dealing with others they think may be beneath them, even when the others are members of one's own family. But all people are weakened by fear and greed and superstition - especially when that superstition turns out to be the truth.
All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By just might fit that oft-sought category of a forgotten classic; Farris is that successful both in concept and execution. From the endless tormenting rains in the wilds of Africa to the sultry evenings on a Southern plantation, from a near-madhouse in the English countryside to the hideous visions of symbolic dementia, Farris never falters in bringing it all to palpable life. Characters, even minor ones (the fingernail-less bomb expert Luxton, self-regarding patriarch Boss Bradwin, Boss's illegitimate half-black highly educated son Tyrone), arrive fully-formed even if flawed or broken. Especially if flawed or broken.
Farris's evocation of the supernatural, a sort of Freudian/voodoo stew of myth, monsters, and magic, is wonderfully tasteless, primeval, and exotic; his depiction of fathers and sons beleaguered by ego and ignorance, believable. The attentive reader will notice an aside to several writers and poets (Haggard, Keats, Ovid) that explains much. And if some think this all gets wrapped up a mite quickly, then I have to say I prefer that to an ending that goes on for 50, 75, 100 pages and exhausts the reader. The story comes to a screeching shuddering halt at the climax, a climax that speaks of the truly poisonous nature of obsession, desire, and fear. Oh, and snakes. Why'd it have to be snakes? You'll see.