Thursday, 3 October 2019

Galleries of darkness, for October - Week 1

Okay, something a bit different now that were into the month of October. Its a time of year thatalways associated with spookiness. Regular readers of this column will probably think: “So what’s different there? Everything you talk about on here is spooky or scary or dark or disturbing.”

Well, yes … that’s true. But rather than blathering on throughout October about books, films or whatever I happen to be writing at the time, and doing my level best to persuade you that it’s the scariest thing since His Satanic Majesty’s escape from Hell, I thought I’d take a more visual approach this month – and hit you where it frightens the most, showcasing artwork rather than verbiage.

I’ll also this month, in my review section – again, because it’s October – be looking exclusively at horror novels or anthologies, starting today with John Farris’s legendary ALL HEADS TURN WHEN THE HUNT GOES BY.

Now, if the John Farris piece is all you’re here for, no problem. As is usually the case, you can scoot on down to the lower end of today’s blog, where you’ll find the review and discussion in the ‘Thrillers, Chillers’ section. However, if you’re interested in seeing what else I’ve got to offer first, then stick around and check out some …

Dark Arts

Not many people know this, but I’m actually a lover of fine art. I adorn my home with paintings (whenever I can afford them), and I’m never more relaxed than when I’m wandering around an art gallery with plenty of time to absorb and enjoy the treats on offer there. (I don’t go as much for sculpture; sadly, that wouldn’t be possible in our house, as we have two whirlwind springer spaniels with a lifelong mission to demolish every ornament in their path).

When I say I’m a lover of the arts, you may assume that, because I’m also a scare-meister when it comes to my writing and reading, that this means I’m mainly interested in artists who specialise in the grim and ghoulish. Well … that’s not true. I love quality paintings, whatever the mood they evoke. That said, for our purposes this month – October, remember, that spookiest time of the year! – I’m going to be focussing on those artists who’ve dabbled in the darkness.

I’ll thus be hitting you each Thursday this month with a gallery of 20 painters or illustrators, offering several samples in each case of their more twisted imaginings, the whole thing culminating on Halloween itself.

Now, before we get going, I should point out that, even featuring 20 a week – which overall this month gives us a nice round 100 – I’ll barely be scratching the surface of this subject. So many visual creators have thrown nightmares onto canvas, and not just those of a recent vintage. 

Check out the image at the top of this column: a close detail from Fall of the Rebel Angels by Luca Giordano, created in 1666. Have you ever seen such a depiction of horror and terror? No less disturbing, you’ll also see in this opening section (in descending order) Death and the Miser by Hieronymus Bosch (1494), Saturn Devouring His Son by Peter Paul Rubens (1636) and Flaying of Marysas by Titian (1570). 

I won’t wax lyrical on the subject of these old masters. Firstly, because I’m not qualified to do so – I'm an art buff, not an expert. Secondly, because they largely speak for themselves.

That’s also the approach I’ll be taking with the weekly galleries I’ll be presenting to you. In nearly all cases I’ve done my research but haven’t learned anything like enough about the painters themselves to discuss them. In some cases, I don’t even know the names and dates of the pictures themselves; that’s the problem with the Internet – you find this great stuff floating around online but finding credits and background information is much harder.

However, in each case I’ve created a link, which will take you through to that particular artist’s page or site, from where you can hopefully learn all you need to know, and maybe even buy some prints. (You’ll notice that most of these artists are current, so it may even be possible to acquire some originals).

So, without further ado, I’ll stop gabbling and  get on with our …


As I say, don’t be looking for detailed info on here; I simply haven’t got it – just follow the links and with luck that will be sufficient. (And here’s a quick, last-minute WARNING: though I’ve consciously tried to avoid anything that is simply revolting, I’ve gone all out for the disturbing and terrifying. So, be aware, these artists do NOT hold back).


Part II follows next Thursday ...


An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

In 1942, officer and gentleman, Charles ‘Champ’ Bradwin, takes leave from his unit and heads home to Arkansas to attend his younger brother, cadet officer Clipper’s wedding. It is a grand occasion. Everyone who is anyone is present; most members of the aristocratic Bradwin family, including demagogic patriarch, Boss, though not oldest brother, Beau, who left the district many years earlier. But it still ends in disaster, because when the church bell inexplicably tolls of its own accord, Clipper goes mad, attacking the congregation with his dress sabre, slaughtering, among others, his wife-to-be and his father, before killing himself.

Stunned and helpless, the family retreat to Dasheroons, their vast rural estate, but there is no solace to be found there. Both Champ and Nhora, Boss’s young and beautiful French wife (his third, in fact), are lost for an explanation, while Champ’s wife, Nancy – whom Clipper particularly tried to slay, but who survived – is left almost comatose by the experience. The staff on the estate, Boss’s loyal, longstanding man-servant, Hackaliah, and his educated but surly son, Tyrone, are equally horrified and bemused. Detailed examination of Clipper’s background reveals a hitherto concealed lifestyle of predatory sexual behaviour, but there is no indication of the homicidal personality that revealed itself during the wedding.

With no option, but shell-shocked before he even gets to the battlefield, Champ must now return to his unit and fight the war, while Nhora takes charge of the palatial estate despite a strange undercurrent of hostility towards her.

Needless to say, the terror and the misery go on. Champ is dispatched to the Pacific, where his company is decimated in heavy fighting with the Japanese, and he himself suffers an horrific throat-wound (though this happens in weird, dreamlike circumstances, during which his assailant looks remarkably like a decayed version of his dead brother, Clipper). When Champ finally returns home, a shadow of the man he was, he is in the company of a doctor the Bradwin family have never met before, an Englishman called Jackson Holley, whose credentials are very good, at least on paper – but who in actual fact has a fabricated pedigree because he never completed his medical training and is now on the run from his own peculiar demons.

But this is actually a big event, because with the arrival of Holley, two cursed families have finally come together.

It seems that the wedding butchery is only one tragedy in the history of the Bradwin family; there have been others in the past, dating back to an even more savage occasion when Boss, not exactly a white supremacist but still an icon of southern gentry entitlement, led violent retaliation against a protest by local black farmers, which turned into a massacre (as one character comments, Dasheroons “is built on the bodies and blood of Africans”) – but the Holleys too have stumbled from one misfortune to the next.

Jackson Holley is lucky to be alive, as his youth, spent at a Congo mission hospital where his father was a voluntary medic, brought him face to face with all kinds of hardships and horrors: heat, illness, bizarre apparitions, and a cannibalistic tribe so in thrall to the aggressive snake goddess, Ai-da Wedo, that they were prepared to sew the seeds of their own eventual destruction by following her warlike path rather than living in peace with the ever-more covetous colonial powers.

A major coincidence now occurs in the story (at least, it seems that way at first, though all will be revealed in due course). Because beautiful widow, Nhora, also spent her youth in that steamy jungle realm – at the time classified as French Equatorial Africa – where she was kidnapped as a child by the same ferocious tribesmen. Perhaps inevitably, she and Holley hit it off when they meet – in fact, it is virtually love (and lust!) at first sight – but even though the Englishman has brought the family’s last surviving son safe home again, he doesn’t feel entirely safe; there are many menacing mysteries on the great southern estate.

What happened to Beau Bradwin?; did he really leave because he fell out with his father over the brutal methods Boss displayed in his younger days? And if so, where did he leave to? Is it possible that Tyrone, who clearly does not get on with his own father, Hackaliah, might actually have been sired by Boss, and in which case does he have his own agenda? Why is a grizzled outlaw known only as Early Boy hanging around on the plantation’s fringes? What dark power keeps so many of the family’s black servants in such a state of fear? Could the secret of all this evil lie in the apparent voodoo temple that Holley and Nhora discover in a nearby bayou?  

The answers to all these questions, and others, will only be provided if Holley hangs around for once, and tries to work his way through the layers of mystery. Nhora may help him, or she may hinder him. But one thing is certain, when the truth finally emerges it will neither be palatable nor edifying. If we thought there was horror in the Bradwins’ and Holleys’ lives previously, we ain’t seen anything yet …

There are all kinds of questions surrounding the epic supernatural saga that is All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By. First of all, the most obvious one is where the book’s ultra-oblique title came from. There has been much debate about this, with theories ranging from the eclectic to the fantastical, the author himself adding nothing to the mix by never explaining it and making nothing obvious in the narrative.

The other big mystery is why this classic horror novel and its author are not better known.

Back in the 1970s, John Farris was writing alongside such future luminaries of the genre as Stephen King, Peter Straub and Dean R. Koontz, all of whom would go on to become household names while he remained obscure. It can’t just be the case that Farris’s writing wasn’t as good as that of his contemporaries, because All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By is excellently penned, comprising beautiful prose, multi-layered characters, and richly evoked atmospheres, be they the disciplined world of the US military, as embodied by Champ, the dreamy, semi-aristocratic lifestyle found on the southern plantations, as personified by the Dasheroons estate, or the hellish environment of an isolated jungle-mission deep in the African rain forest, where superstition abounds and almost everything there can kill you. So deeply felt are these sequences that you’d swear you were actually there. You can visualise the scenery and smell the plant-life, you can feel the heat on your skin.

The same applies to Farris’s characters, who are vastly more complex than anything you will usually encounter in supernatural fiction. In some ways, he almost overdoes this, always avoiding info dump but describing them through a procession of chapters in such minute detail – physically, mentally, spiritually – noting their every movement, their every adjustment of posture, their every change of tone, mood, expression, that it leaves nothing to the reader’s imagination. It’s very fulsome, overly so to be frank, but that’s typical of its era; it’s hardly a chore to read it because it’s so well-done, but it won’t be popular across the board with modern readers.

In terms of these same characters, there is no question that we are dealing with living, breathing people, and each one, in his/her own way is fascinating, in addition to being realistically flawed.

Leading man, Jackson Holley, is basically a conman – polite and well-bred admittedly, but he should not be telling people that he’s a doctor and he most certainly should not be practising medicine. An unreliable sort, he flits here and there, breaking hearts, skipping his responsibilities and occasionally lowering himself to deal with criminals like Early Boy. But as the book’s hero, he works. He hardly had the best start in life, but managed to rise above it, he’s usually well-intentioned, he’s undoubtedly brave and you get the strong feeling that he’s owed a better life, even if that doesn’t necessarily justify his attempts to embezzle one: a typical charming rogue from the end-days of the British Empire.

Meanwhile, the Bradwin brothers are also products of their time and place: American power-elite as opposed to British. The long-departed Beau was the square-jawed guy with the conscience, and a liberal-minded friend to the local black farmers, who though the days of slavery were behind them, had still to taste the fruits of Civil Rights, which put him at odds with everything his family had come from, and soon saw him relegated to the lowest rung of Depression-era society. Champ, on the other hand, is the good soldier, the unquestioning hero who answered his country’s call, the one in whom all hope is invested for the future. Meanwhile, Clipper is the youngest and most spoiled, the one who’s been able to do whatever he wants because his declining father never saw anything more harmful in him than youthful exuberance (and maybe even recognised his gross appetites as a direct inheritance). Lastly, there is Tyrone, the mixed-race half-brother, the one who had to fight for everything, and as is such the most cynical, the most cunning and by far the most dangerous.

Then, of course, we have Nhora, the French-born widow whose apparent innocence of the world (not to mention her own overwhelming allure) may conceal a calculating schemer, because after all, more so even than Holley, Nhora is a stranger in a strange land here, and once Boss is dead, scheming may be the only way she is going to survive.

But it isn’t just the leads that this degree of detail applies to. There are many characters in All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By, an entire support-cast of secondaries and walk-ons, almost all of whom have crucial roles to play and as such are drawn in unforgettable detail.

And yet this depth of writing doesn’t just extend to characterisation. The entire narrative unravels in a cascade of steady and vivid exposition, which at the same time is wry, humorous, sensual, every scene exquisitely written and presented – the undercurrents as much as the surface stuff – every page (even when nothing important is happening) shimmering with tension and atmosphere. John Farris’s ‘Southern Gothic’ background shines through repeatedly and intoxicatingly.

The only real trade-off with regard to this – but it is a trade-off – is the loss of pace.

Without any doubt, this novel is a slow burn. That’s not always a bad thing. I have no concerns about an author who takes his time to set the tone, to evoke mood, time and place, to build the world in which his story will explode. But I do worry that in this particular case it may go a little too far. It doesn’t help that various characters, including those of lesser importance, don’t just commence their journeys on separate continents but in different time-zones, chapter after chapter rolling by as they follow their individual paths and still none of them meeting up, but that was very much the style of the ‘holiday horror novels’ so popular in the days when this book was written, with huge amounts of what might now be seen as extraneous detail cheerfully shovelled in. But no matter how picturesque the prose, it may be a little bit too much for most modern tastes.

But at the end of the day, I’d argue that this is still a great book and a valid horror read, especially as quality supernatural fiction – particularly in that traditional demonic / voodoo / mythological vein – is so thin on the ground in the 21st century.

The other big plus with All Heads Turn When the Hunts Goes By is that it’s meaningful.

This is no lightweight gore-and-sex fest, as specialised in by certain horror authors of the 1970s. I mean, it’s dark and disturbing stuff (because, trust me, literally everyone suffers in this book), but that’s only because Farris doesn’t stint on exploring his numerous mature themes in the most visceral and unforgiving way: class, caste, race, heroes and villains, historical guilt, sexual politics, cultural imperialism, the repercussions of revenge, obsession, desire, lust and so on. But it’s not a lecture either. Everything is woven into the run of events so that, in the fashion of true high-quality fiction, you absorb it subliminally as you read.

For all these reasons, this book is a forgotten classic. Anyone who enjoys an uncompromisingly dark and intriguing read and is willing to exercise a little bit of patience, you need to rediscover it right now.

As always, I’m now going to cast what I think would be an ideal TV horror series in this age of no-holds-barred adult television, were anyone (HBO?) to take a chance on it. Only a bit of fun, of course (no casting director has ever listened to me with my own stuff, so why would they start here?), but anyway, here are my picks for the leads in All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By, the TV show:

Jackson Holley – Henry Cavill
Nhora Bradwin – Audrey Tautou
Charles ‘Champ’ Bradwin – Misha Collins
Hackaliah – Danny Glover
Tyrone – Michael Ealy
Nancy Bradwin – Katheryn Winnick
Early Boy – Anson Mount

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