Fear Is the Rider
Time has been kind to Kenneth Cook’s career. The prolific Australian novelist, who died in 1987, is now remembered primarily for his 1961 novel Wake in Fright – itself best known for the 1971 film adaptation by Canadian director Ted Kotcheff. But in addition to writing the Urtext about the menace of white Australian masculinity, Cook also penned myriad scripts and treatments for television and movie projects. Fear Is the Rider, a “lost” Cook manuscript recently discovered amid his papers, had its genesis as one of several unsuccessful television scripts that he co-wrote with his children Kerry and Paul in 1981.
Its premise is simple but effective. Two travellers – John Shaw and Katie Alton – meet by chance in an outback pub. Alton informs Shaw that she intends to travel the infamous Obiri track, “six hundred kilometres of hell and heat” running between the towns of Yogabilla and Obiri. On a whim, and despite the warnings of the police at Yogabilla, Shaw follows Alton up the track in his hopelessly ill-suited Honda Civic, hoping for a rendezvous. He soon spots Alton running towards his car, terrified, pursued by a man who aims to rape and kill her.
From this point Fear Is the Rider unspools with a ruthless and efficient narrative logic. Alton’s nameless pursuer now has her well-equipped LandCruiser and her axe, and is hell-bent on both her and Shaw’s destruction. Shaw’s Honda is faster than the LandCruiser, but it cannot drive across the open desert to double back to the safety of Yogabilla. A white-knuckled game of cat-and-mouse ensues: as Shaw and Alton’s pursuer drives them further up the deteriorating track, the duo enact increasingly desperate and ill-fated plans to either avoid or dispatch their pursuer.
The manic rhythm of Cook’s prose gives the phrase “page turner” a new meaning – this is a book that practically reads itself, although the contemporary reader may find themselves pausing at the book’s retrograde gender politics or its troubling depictions of Indigenous Australians. There are also a few infelicities that attest to the book’s status as a shelved manuscript: in a memorable clanger, the desert sun’s heat is described as akin to “dry hot water”. Unlike Wake in Fright, Fear Is the Rider offers no insight into the white Australian psyche, but it nonetheless succeeds as a stylish, pared-back piece of literary Ozploitation. SZ
Text, 208pp, $19.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 13, 2016 as "Kenneth Cook, Fear Is the Rider". Subscribe here.