Call me fickle, but I’m a huge fan of loquacious titles and have bought several books based on title alone. This is especially true for horror novels. I think we’ve all seen enough books with non-creative The [noun] and The [verb] titles, and while that can imply some kind of dread suspense about this specific [noun and/or verb] in specific, it comes across as a rather bland way to make a title. So, then, in contrast: All Heads Turn When The Hunt Goes By. John Farris was one of the key authors who helped reinvigorate and redefine the horror genre in the late ’70s, helping to usher in the horror renaissance of the ’80s and early ’90s. After writing a slew of crime novels in his youth—I reviewed one, Baby Moll, re-released by Hard Case Crime—Farris turned to the horror genre in the 1970s. His first, The Fury, was a commercial success about psychic children, and is a good example of the The [verb] school of book titles. His second was All Heads Turn When The Hunt Goes By, still regarded today by diehard horror fans as one of the genre’s high-water marks.
It’s 1942. Champ Bradwin’s on leave for his brother Clipper’s wedding, two young scions of a wealthy military family. Clipper is a promising young officer marrying a senator’s beautiful daughter, which makes it all the more surprising when, at the tolling of the old church’s great bell, he goes berserk. In a flash, Clipper has slain his fiancee and his domineering father, Boss, with his dress saber, which he then swallows. Champ is stunned by the brutal attack, sending his father’s retinue back to their sprawling Southern estate before the press arrive at the bloodied church. Champ is the last of his family line, but not the only survivor of his family; his father’s new young wife—Nhora, his third—also survived the attack. Two years later, Champ returns a shattered man, crippled from action on the Pacific Front, now accompanied by mysterious English doctor Jackson Holley. Both men become involved with Nhora, who is much more than she seems…
So begins John Farris’ epic, a sprawling Southern Gothic saga set in the 1940s but dealing with events set in motion decades earlier. Ultimately, it’s a tale about two cursed families. The Bradwins are old Southern Gentry, owning the largest mule ranch—Dasharoons—in the South, several thousand acres of prime Arkansas soil. But as Little Judge, one of the family’s mixed-race servants, points out, “[t]his house was built on the bodies and blood of Africans.” It’s a legacy that the Bradwins are unable to escape from, a moment of blood and fear which lead to white farmers massacring a black mob. The Holley family is equally cursed, a burden acquired when Jackson’s father was a doctor in Africa; both Holley and Nhora have histories on the dark continent, having run afoul of something sinister—something older, a horror from the rituals of West African voodoo, the resurgent snake goddess Ai-da Wedo.
Farris makes good use of his themes, and one of the strongest is the cultural collision; take, for example, the race relations between the aristocratic Bradwins and their black servants. Little Judge is half-Bradwin, son of Boss Bradwin and raised almost like one of his own—taught to read and allowed free access to the house library. Of course, that made him a hated target for Clipper’s cruelty. The Bradwins’ curse resonates from an attempt at diplomacy with a radical black leader that turned into a massacre, the aforementioned one-sided battle between white farmers rich with money and black workers rich in their faith. As the story progresses, dark voodoo is weaved into a multi-layer narrative, with Jackson and Nhora’s experiences on the dark continent entwined with the voodoo curse slowly eroding the Bradwin clan. The novel’s climax is a perfect encapsulation, taking place on a sunken Mississippi riverboat turned in to a decaying voodoo shrine. Not only is it rich in steamy atmosphere, it’s a rather interesting look at racism.
The prose is in a dense and dry writing style, with a measured pace that challenges the reader to slow down and digest the information given them. It’s not a fast read, giving copious amount of detail that must be sifted through and thought over, and this level of telling/exposition leads to more narrative passivity than I’d like. (The dialogue in particular can become very wooden, when most of it is one person telling family history or African myth to another.) That said, reading it is a surreal and hypnotic journey through the murky swamps of the South, with some dynamic imagery and some unforgettable twists. The characters are all complex: fully formed but flawed, with their own intricate motivations; most have their own goals, and all try to out-maneuver the others. It’s not a frightening read, having more moments of erotic passion than of outright terror or gore. But it’s the novel’s hallucinogenic quality that draws you in, a hook that keeps you reading to see how these characters and how their supernatural legacies criss and cross, counting down to a finale that ends with lightning-quick brutality.
What Farris has penned is a sprawling and ambitious epic, a horror novel capable of standing on its own two legs while crafting an atmosphere of unease. All Heads Turn When The Hunt Goes By is not a perfect novel, but it’s easy to see why it’s enshrined in the vault of classic horror novels. It’s a finely written and finely tuned book, a gripping mix of madness and mystery, voodoo magic, race relations, and macabre mutation. Also, snakes. It’s another horror novel demanding to be ingested like fine brandy, swirled around and reflected upon and not shotgunned like cheap beer. It carries a ponderous weight on every page, a relentless procession of creepy family saga up until its uncompromising ending. Not every reader’s idea of a great horror novel, but it does more than enough to deserve its place on the Top-100 lists.
Title: All Heads Turn When The Hunt Goes By
Author: John Farris
Publisher: Crossroads Press/Centipede Press
Release Date: 2012
What I Read: ebook
Price I Paid: $3.99
ISBN/ASIN: 1613470088 / B008AS8C2C
First Published: 1977