Reviewed by Jill
Kenneth Cook’s Fear is the Rider was originally written as a television series. Cook subsequently rewrote it as a short novel. It does not have the finish, the depth and complexity of his later novel Wake in Fright, but can be just as uncomfortable to read. In the right hands, it would make a fine action film. The storyline is very simple. Two people are pursued through the harsh terrain of Central Australia by someone determined to kill them. They do not know him. They don’t know why he is intent on violence. Cook offers no reasons for the demented chase.
Shaw, a newly graduated landscape architect, is heading to Adelaide in his shiny Honda, taking time along the way to look at new country and desert vegetation. The police see him as a naive traveller whose car is ‘like a spaniel puppy’ amongst wolfhounds—the trucks, four-wheel-drives and huge utilities of the local drivers. Cook maps out a physical and sensory terrain—the irritation of a motorist’s dust, distant towns made inviting by a shimmer of heat haze, an unrelenting sun, and the dramatic warnings to motorists of the road conditions ahead.
Katie, journalist and photographer, is travelling the outback in a Land Cruiser. She is a confident remote area motorist, driving a robust vehicle, carrying substantial supplies of water, fuel and food. The remote Obiri track is her destination. She and Shaw share a moment over a quick drink in a hotel. Shaw thinks it might be pleasant to see her again. He has time to spare. He decides to travel some of her path.
He does meet her again as a terrified girl racing out onto the road. Cook gives only her observation.
Silhouetted against the sun, standing over her, was the shape of a man. Or something like a man, huge, naked to the waist, bearded, body black with the sun, and hairy. It was the trousers, filthy and torn, that made it human. The stench was animal.
We learn no more than this. Cook sketches an attempt at rape, and Katie’s futile attempts to injure her attacker. She runs. A dust plume announces Shaw’s car. Shaw forces his Honda over rough gibber, trying to outrun and outmanoeuvre the attacker who has commandeered Katie’s 4WD. Thereafter, the pursuer becomes ‘the Man’. The dangerous road conditions of the 600 kilometre Obiri track seem pathetic compared to the horrors that the pair are facing
The hunt is the story. It takes up almost the entire novel. The action is continuous so we have no sense of time. Probably no more than twelve hours pass, but it seems interminable. Shaw and Katie are running on adrenaline. Their short bursts of talk reflect the staccato reactions of rabbits on the run, caught in headlights. They make a plan and just as quickly abandon it. The tenuous camaraderie of the hotel bar seems a joke now, lost in bickering and accusations. Shaw wishes he hadn’t met her. It is all her fault.
Think. For Christ’s sake, what there to think about? Ahead was the long impossible run to Obiri. Behind was the creature in the Land Cruiser. A spasm of hatred for Katie shook Shaw. If the stupid bitch had turned left instead of right they’d be heading for Yogabilla. They would have had a chance if they were pointed to Yogabilla. But now. To Obiri. With nothing but the deteriorating track. Christ, what was there to think about?
Katie pins her hopes on rescue. She talks of walking to the hotel somewhere on this road. Shaw remembers the sergeant’s advice—stay with your vehicle, someone will find you eventually. Yes—one of the four a week who travel this 600 kilometre stretch. The lone police officer, a laconic sergeant, will rescue them. Fear is their rider.
There are some grimly lyrical passages, drawing on imagery from the animal kingdom. As a motorbike hunter rode for his life, ‘The birds at his waist revolved with wings flapping in macabre imitation of flight.’ ‘To the east … like the inevitable presence of a carrion bird, was the dust cloud of the Land Cruiser.’ ‘The Honda’s roof glinted like the shell of some small silver beetle. … Far behind, the Land Cruiser, the larger predatory insect, (is) slowly pursuing the fluttering fugitive.’ Shaw and Katie join a torrent of animal life, flowing before fire.
This is a tightly-written story. Cook is economical with description and conversation. Imagery carries the reader along. The Honda’s journey through dust and blazing sun, over sand and rock, is testament enough to the terrain. Katie and Shaw spit out fear and actions. The hunter/prey storyline has been used by many authors, and translated into film with great effect. Most have revealed some motive—power, thrill or revenge. The ones that do not, such as Fear is the Rider, are the more chilling. Spielberg’s 1971 production Duel featured the relentless pursuit of a mild-mannered motorist, bewildered at his monstering by a truck. In that film, evil is personified through a brief view of a truck driver’s boots, tyre-kicking. Cook’s iteration is more elemental. We get no sense of age, face or thought. A rank smell, wild hair, and a demented pursuit create a mood of hunter against prey. He is top predator. He is the Man.
There are occasional elements that don’t seem right. Shaw seems to be able to determine Katie’s financial on the basis of a once-over assessment. The Man is skilled at managing the Land Cruiser, even though he is portrayed as feral. These are overwhelmed by the elements that do—merciless sun, enveloping dust, the ridges of gibber that tear at the Honda, the illusory sanctuary of scrub, the unyielding terrain, the fear, the Man. It is absorbing but awful reading.
By Kenneth Cook
208pp.; AU $19.99