By Kenneth Cook (Text Publishing; 2016)
A newly discovered manuscript, adapted from an unfilmed screenplay, by Australia’s late Kenneth Cook (1929-1987). As with most posthumously published fiction, FEAR IS THE RIDER is far from perfect; there was clearly a reason this book, which reads like Cook’s legendary debut novel WAKE IN FRIGHT crossed with Steven Spielberg’s DUEL, never saw publication during its author’s lifetime. It is interesting, however, as an example of a horrific chase narrative stripped down to its absolute essentials. It also contains a great deal of Cook’s celebrated descriptive power, although that’s ultimately about the only thing FEAR IS THE RIDER really has in its favor.
The setting is the Australian outback, a region no writer ever described better than Kenneth Cook. John Shaw, an architect, is on a sojourn in a particularly untamed portion of the outback, where the temperature is beyond sweltering and the surroundings are anything but welcoming. He meets up with Katie, a journalist looking for inspiration for future articles. It’s she who attracts the attention of a bush-dwelling maniac who may be supernaturally endowed, and who for some reason grows bound and determined to wipe John and Katie off the face of the Earth.
The maniac, an ax-wielding personage whose features are left nearly as indistinct as his motivations, ends up commandeering Katie’s well equipped land cruiser, while Katie and John are stuck driving his crappy Honda Civic, which is woefully unequipped for the outback terrain. A number of innocent people lose their lives during the ensuing chase, which takes our heroes through a network of underground tunnels, a crumbling hotel and an especially arid patch of desert.
Cook succeeds in delivering a gripping and suspenseful account with some genuinely shivery set-pieces, but he clearly never got around to properly fleshing it out. We learn next to nothing about the protagonists or their pursuer outside the fact that they’re good and he’s bad, with all the dialogue being purely expository (sample exchange: “Have you got any matches?” “No.”). I’m all for minimalism in thrillers, but this one is plain undernourished.