John Farris sold his first novel the summer after he graduated from high school, in 1955. By 1959 he had his first million-seller, at age 23, with Harrison High -- which spawned five sequels. (Farris was writing about students planting bombs in high schools in 1962).
He is revered by a legion of best-selling names, and his admirers span whole eras of popular fiction, from Bloch to Matheson, King to Straub, Benchley to Garfield, and such divergent high-profilers as Louis Untermeyer, Paul Erdman, Thomas Fleming, Larry Bond, Walter Wager, Richard Price, Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child, Barbara D'Amato and Jon Land.
So why isn't John Farris a household name?
Is he a recluse? "Let's put it this way," said Farris. "If Anne Rice has a book signing, she lines them up around the block. Stephen King has a huge staff just to deal with the 10,000 letters he gets a year. I have a book signing, I get 25 or 30 people. So I don't go on book tours. My books sell just as well without them."
You could call him a suspense writer, a blacksmith of ironclad thrillers. But that would overlook the magical aspect that informs the point of view in most of his work. You could call him a horror novelist, but that's just a launch footing for his mordant sociopolitical observations. He works labyrinthine intrigues better than nearly anyone writing, but to categorize him into a single genre would overlook the fundamental basis of his fiction -- the complex characters that he tinkers together from the ground up, and his efforts to realize each book as an entity whole and apart from the preceding book. One-liner descriptives fall short for the simple reason that he is sui generis.
Broadly, you could say that he uses the superstructure of suspense to attack nearly any subject matter. Yet he is comfortable describing some of his books as "thrillers with occult overtones." This handily thumbnails the novel for which is he is best known, The Fury (1976), an adventurous, intricate page-turner which is as much about black ops, assassins and bureaucratic dirty tricks as it is about psychic twins, telekinesis and human evolution.
But The Fury was not Farris' first watershed book. That distinction would have to go to When Michael Calls (1967), a taut mystery with supernatural teases, strictly in the then-popular Ira Levin vein. He followed this with a straightforward kidnapping drama, The Captors (1969) and then ventured into Psycho territory, via a homicidal killer named Pretty Joe, in Sharp Practice (1974). These three books form a kind of triptych -- termed "baby steps" by Farris -- with their themes of hidden agenda, unanticipated plot twists, puzzle structure, and what Farris called "strange states of life." When he fused these concerns with the game-form of his earlier novels -- The Long Light of Dawn (1962) and King Windom (1967), correctly summarized by Stephen Gallagher as "popular mainstream (whose) common angle of approach was a kind of heightened, erotically-charged contemporary realism" -- the result was The Fury.
The Fury was the basis for the 1978 film directed by Brian DePalma; Farris wrote the screenplay and had courted the cinema ever since adapting When Michael Calls (a film version of Michael was released in 1969, though Farris did not write the script. It is also known on video as Shattered Silence. Take a look if you'd like to see a youngish Michael Douglas get hit in the face with a pie ... twice).
(The Fury also spawned a psychic twin in the 1980 Stephen King novel Firestarter, which clones the bones of the Farris book even to the specification of a hitman character who is an American Indian.)
In 1973, Farris wrote and directed Dear Dead Delilah, at about the same time Tobe Hooper was changing the complexion of horror cinema by ruminating on chainsaw massacres down Texas way. Delilah is almost a "lost" film in the pantheon of 1970s horror movies and the new wave they engendered, in much the same way that everyone knows Halloween (1978), but far fewer know Black Christmas (1974). (The movie version of When Michael Calls also featured an eerily prescient murder in a Hallowe'en spookhouse, as a body smashes through a display of lighted jack o'lanterns.) Delilah was screen dame Agnes Moorehead's final picture.
"The actors mostly worked for nothing, including Moorehead, who could have destroyed me if she'd wanted to but instead was extremely supportive and helpful. I didn't know until months after the shoot that she was terminally ill. She gave me everything she had, and a short course in what film acting is all about."
Farris recalled his script for Delilah as being "a lot better than the movie. But then, I only had $200,000 to make it."
The early-to-mid 1970s were a period of rejuvenation for the horror novel. The upside was a seller's market for scary stories; the downside was a flood of tawdry Satanism and possession books in the wake of The Exorcist. In 1977 Farris cut loose with an unqualified horror classic: All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By. (Rather than rein in my admiration for this astonishingly layered work of fiction, click HERE to read my full writeup, as published in Horror: 100 Best Books [ed. Stephen Jones & Kim Newman, 1988; currently available in a revised edition from Hodder & Stoughton].)
Stephen Gallagher observed: "Farris isn't one for finding a comfortable spot and then sticking in it. Many authors would stop dead at such a point of success and get into the cloning business. (In his work) I can't identify any pattern other than a restless wandering around a recurring set of themes. I don't believe he's a writer who actively courts the market ... I do think that his concerns, the stories that he likes to tell and the manner in which he likes to tell them, all touch base with the market at some point, and when all three do it together, then he has a hit."
In 1981 Farris returned to one of his favorite themes, blurred identity, in a straight-up mystery, Shatter. Oddly, Shatter reads very much like a re-fit of All Heads Turn, with the supernatural elements rinsed out, yet is an exciting and satisfying tale on its own terms. Farris frequently organizes his narratives around specific color palettes, and the preponderance of blue in Shatter reflects the similar arrangement of reptilian, decayed greens and golds used in All Heads Turn.
By 1981, he had also tried his hand at a epic retelling/update of King Solomon's Mines with Catacombs, just as Michael Crichton was doing the very same thing with Congo -- though less audaciously, since Catacombs is shot through with occult paranoia and ancient cat-gods still wielding dangerous powers. (Much like Crichton, Farris also broke ground in publishing with a number of pseudonymously-rendered hardboiled mysteries.) Then came one of Farris' personal favorites of his own books, the subtly-rendered ghost story The Uninvited (1982), which permitted him to import his painting experience as a character foundation. (Incidentally, the novel is not related to the 1944 film The Uninvited, which was based on a novel by Irish author Dorothy Macardle, originally titled Uneasy Freehold.)
"It's not easy to evoke a scare in somebody. It's not easy to take tried-and-true material and make it fresh ... At this point, it's simply a case of talent coming into play; some people can do it, some people can't. It's like the difference between Julius Irving on a basketball court and some kid in high school. Dr. J has the moves, and the kid doesn't have them. He can try to emulate them; he can do a pretty good job of dribbling. But going one-on-one with Dr. J, he's going to get killed. And there are very few writers who've got the moves." *
By the mid-1980s, Farris had struck a deal with Thomas Doherty & Associates, via editor Bob Gleason, for an energetic consolidation of his new books and backlist through new-kid-on-the-block publisher Tor Books. One immediate benefit was the reissue of older books long out of print -- everything from The Captors to Shatter. Another gift was the one-two punch of two of Farris' most brilliantly-realized "horror" novels, Wildwood and Nightfall, one supernatural, one not. Farris has a knack for salting both little time-bombs and great explosions of revelation into his fiction. Here's a choice one, from Nightfall, appropriate here because it's not a spoiler:
(LaDonna Morales, a nursing graduate, is making rounds at Silver Birches, an exclusive asylum, and putting up with a snotty attendant named McSwain.)
"I had a Puerto Rican old lady once," McSwain said when they had left the room. "She was only about four and a half feet tall, but she made good chimichangas. You know how to make chimichangas?"
"That's Mexican, not Puerto Rican."
"So what do you know how to cook?"
"Maybe I'll let you make me up a mess of those sometime. I've always been partial to Spic food."
"Such an honor," LaDonna said, too bored to put much of a delivery behind her sarcasm. She had eight and a half minutes to live.
Farris is deft enough to pull off this sort of misdirection time and again. There's a casually-written "reveal" about a third of the way into Sacrifice that will knock you flat and leave you gasping. You think: Oh, no, this changes everything! And you must then teach yourself anew how to deal with unpredictable storytelling. A major nuke of this sort is tucked away without comment in the midst of Wildwood, the kind of exposition that will rack your bones straight out and force you to read it again, just to be sure of what you've seen. (To read Stephen Gallagher's glowing overview of this book, click HERE.)
Farris has not done much short fiction, but nearly all of it has been in the horrific vein. His 1988 collection, Scare Tactics, also reprinted his long-lost 1964 novel, The Guardians.
Drafts of two short stories originally intended for Scare Tactics formed the basis for The Axeman Cometh, an hallucinogenic, stream-of-consciousness short novel written in 70 days flat. Then Farris brought forth Fiends, apparently a revisionist vampire novel, but more crucially a painstaking piece of brand-new mythmaking. Readers caught in the grip of Anne Rice fever during the early 1990s were too befuddled to chart new waters, and overlooked some of the more subtle achievements of Fiends -- for one, it was deliberately set period 1970s, something few contemporary writers would dare at the time; for another, the style in which the novel is written makes it a genuine modern Southern Gothic, a term invoked yet rarely delivered by the crowd-crush of languid soap opera concerned more with ripping bodices and sucking blood, or just plain sucking.
After Sacrifice, as Tor morphed into Forge Books, Farris delivered a trio of highly cinematic action/suspensers, Dragonfly, Soon She Will Be Gone and Solar Eclipse. His newest work hearkens back to Fury territory with three direct sequels, The Fury and the Terror (2001) The Fury and the Power (2003) and the forthcoming Avenging Fury (2005), which is inteded to wrap up the whole 20-years-later opus.
Called "one of the giants of contemporary psychological horror" by Peter Straub, John Farris is not only a "writer's writer," but a shape-shifting talent most worthy of your attention. Asked how he got started writing, Farris replied, with a most typical dryness of tone:
"One, it was something I liked to do. Two, it entertained me. Three, I found out I could make a living at it. That's ideal as far as I'm concerned ... I'm still progressing. I think I still have something to say, and I like the way I say it. Until that dies, I'll continue to do it. I do it for my own amusement."
If you haven't read him yet, try not to think of how far behind you already are.
-- David J. Schow
* Quoted in Dark Dreamers: Conversations with the Masters of Horror (ed. Stanley Wiater, Avon, 1990.