JOHN FARRIS – Sacrifice. Tor; paperback reprint, June 1995. Hardcover edition: Tor, September 1994.

   It has just occurred to me that John Farris has one of the longest careers of any mystery writer still active. His first novel, The Corpse Next Door, was published by Graphic Books, a small but solid line of mostly paperback originals, in 1956. Farris was born in 1936, so if the book wasn’t published until he was 20, the odds are the most of it was written when he was still nineteen.


   He switched to the pen name of Steve Brackeen for his next few books, typical Gold Medal thrillers, except that Gold Medal didn’t do them. One of them, Baby Moll (Crest, 1958), will be reprinted by Hard Case Crime later this year under his own name, a mere 50 years later.

   Farris eventually became the author of the “Harrison High” books, which sold in the millions, and he became an even bigger seller once he started writing horror fiction that was invariably tinged with the supernatural. Books like The Fury (1976) and All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes (1977) are as close to classics in the field as you’re going to get, and yet … even though Farris has averaged close to a book a year since those two books, unlike Stephen King, Dean R. Koontz and mystery-wise, Ed McBain, who came along about the same time he did, it is as if no one’s ever heard of him. Nobody knows his name.

   (As a special note, back when Mystery*File was a print magazine, Bill Crider did a column on John Farris’s early career for me, and you can find it online here. You should go read it.)

   Even though his later books veered convincingly away from standard mystery fare, there’s enough criminous element in them that most of them are included in Crime Fiction IV, Al Hubin’s bibliography of the field. Sacrifice is listed marginally, for example, but in Part 24 of the online Addenda to the Revised CFIV, the dash before the title has been removed.


   Rightfully so. One of the characters is C. G. Butterbaugh, a detective on the trail of the mysterious Greg Walker, who tells the first part of the story, and whose miraculous recovery from a gunshot wound to the head simply amazes the doctors on his case. When Walker and his daughter Sharissa then disappear into the mysterious interior of Guatemala from their sleepy town in Georgia, Butterbaugh needs all of his reading of Sherlock Holmes not to be shaken from the case.

   Nor to be overwhelmed from what he discovers. Take the title of the story, Sacrifice; the fact that Sharissa, although a high school senior, is still a virgin; and the Guatemalan jungle – and what does that add up to you?

   I won’t say, but every reviewer on Amazon will tell you, and as a matter of fact, so does Farris, long before this 379 page novel is halfway over. The question really is, how to we get to the ending from where we are, and who among the sizable cast of characters will survive?

   I doubt that anyone could call this great literature, but once picked up, this is a book not easily put down. There might be something deeper going on, if you were analyze the all of the various relationships, many of them sexual in nature, that develop and entangle each other in this tale – the ending being particularly observant and poignant –

   I’ll take that back. There’s no “might” about it. What this book demonstrates is why Farris has survived as a writer, and those who wrote most of the novels published during the horror boomlet in the 1980s and early 1990s have not. There’s some food for the mind in his fiction, at least this particular example, not just a slug to the gut.