Sunday, July 22, 2012

All Heads Turn When the Snake Woman Slithers By

Have you ever read a book that everyone is talking about, which everyone says you “have to read,” which is the latest international best seller soon to be a major motion picture, and you plunk down your hard earned cash and wind up wondering what all the hoopla is about? I’m not talking about 50 Shades of Grey, but an overblown piece of Southern Gothic reptilian nonsense hailed as one of the 100 Greatest Horror Novels of All Time.

And before you read any further, I must warn you this blog post contains spoilers.

All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By has been on my radar for years, but judging from the cover of the 1978 Popular Library paperback, it’s no wonder I passed this book up at the time.

My interest was really piqued in the past year when I read Will Errikson’s review at Too Much Horror Fiction. I usually feel in sync with Will’s recommendations, so I made a concentrated effort to get my hands on a copy. Starting bid on eBay for a hardback copy is $45.00 USD. Ain’t gonna do it.

Imagine my delight when I plucked it off the table at the local annual library book sale in June for one dollar. I even let out a book-nerd shriek. I dropped whatever I was reading at the time and dove right in.

Twenty-four pages later, I was ready to claw my eyes out with boredom and confusion. This is what I think happened in the opening "scene": During a swank military wedding, Clipper Bradwin takes complete leave of his senses and slaughters his bride and everyone in sight while the chapel bell silently strikes the walls of the bell tower causing the survivors of the massacre to believe they are in the middle of an earthquake. Sounds like an exciting start to a novel, doesn’t it? Farris’ writing is so lifeless and dry it took me days to get through this scene…and weeks to get through the remaining 300 some pages. After the initial excitement of finding my dream book for a dollar wore off, I couldn’t read more than three or four pages a day before my eyes would cross and I went off in search of something more gripping. Somewhere along the way someone declared this style of writing “literary” and the fanboys lined up. You call it literary, I call it boring.

The “action” (and I use the term loosely) was all over the globe but consisted mostly of ill-defined characters talking at length about pagan practices in darkest Africa. Hmmm, I wonder what the natives practice down there? Could it be…Voodoo? Of course! It’s a Southern Gothic about a family curse earned when some white guy took a wrong turn in Africa all those years ago and now the beautiful sexy Nhora turns into this sort of snake goddess and does things with horses that would incite all those soccer moms reading 50 Shades to cry “That’s disgusting!” Indeed, it is.

I have to admit that I knew going in how this book was going to end. It’s hard not to when a book is considered a “classic” and everybody and his brother has reviewed it on Goodreads. And you know what? I’m grateful for all those plot spoilers. Otherwise, if I had managed to actually finish the book without them, I wouldn’t have had a clue what I had just read. When all was said and done all we have is a book about a chick who turns into a snake wrapped up in pseudo-intellectual clothing. Literary my ass. Wasn’t this sort of thing already a cliché in the ‘70s?

This was done years early, better, and more entertainingly, by Hammer Films. The Reptile was shot in 1966, back to back by director Don Banks and utilizing the same sets as Plague of the Zombies. These two films find Hammer studios at their most Gothic and most meaningful. Both films explore the evils of British colonialism. Here, the theologian Dr. Franklyn had been snooping around the wilds of primitive places such as India, Borneo, and Jakarta. But arrogant “civilized” white men have a knack for sticking their noses in other folks’ business where they don’t belong. The primitives strike back in the form of a curse on Franklyn’s beautiful daughter, Anna.

Anthony Hinds’ script plays out as a traditional mystery, but the title and lobby card gives it away. Still, it’s a lot of fun when Jacqueline Pearce shows up in full reptile make up, hissing and fanging unwary folks in the jugular.

Hammer’s films, and The Reptile in particular, make no pretensions to be taken seriously. They’re all about over the top Gothic fun. And fun is what’s missing from John Farris’ All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By.

But don’t just take my word for it. Curious readers no longer have to drum their fingers waiting for affordable copies on eBay. Farris has just released the book in eBook format for a measly 3.99 USD. And you can’t beat that snake with a stick.


  1. Based on your description, this book doesn't qualify as Southern Gothic, which is something else entirely (think Flannery O'Connor, or Carson McCullers, who happened to write an excellent essay about Southern Gothic literature and the overuse of the misunderstood term).

    I do appreciate your "book-nerd shriek" at the book sale. I've issued more than a few of those in the past.

    Great review. Thanks for sparing me the time and bother on such a dry encounter.

  2. Thank you for the warning - I read about it in the 100 Greatest Horror Books, too, and wondered about it. Oh nuts, now I have to read it to study bad writing.

  3. When you do, please tell us whether is is an overblown Southern Gothic or simply an overblown Gothic set in the south.