By David Osborn (The Dial Press; 1974)

Here’s a perfect case study in how a bad movie adaptation can tarnish the reputation of a really good book.  This isn’t the only such occasion by any means (anyone out there reading Marc Behm’s stunning EYE OF THE BEHOLDER in light of the shitty Isabelle Adjani and Ashley Judd flicks made from it?  How about the old HOWARD THE DUCK comics?), but this particular case is especially grievous, since I consider David Osborn’s OPEN SEASON one of the absolute finest, not to mention darkest, suspense novels I’ve ever read.

To be fair, the movie made from this book, a cheap Spanish lensed affair with Peter Fonda and William Holden, is quite obscure in its own right.  It definitely hasn’t helped matters, though, that the book has become inexorably tied to it.  Apparently the screen rights were snapped up before the novel was even published, precipitating a title change from its original moniker THE ALL-AMERICANS, and packaging (in the paperback edition) that made it seem like a tawdry novelization.  Nor has it been reprinted; once the movie faded from view so too did the book.

OPEN SEASON centers on three well-to-do businessmen embarking on an annual hunting trip.  Ingeniously constructed, the narrative parlays the details of the trip gradually.

Each year the men commence their trip by stopping off at a hotel and hiring a bunch of call girls.  They then kidnap a young couple and, once ensconced in their secluded hunting lodge, continue the sex and sadism via a three-way orgy with the woman.  After this the real portion of the trip gets underway: the men hunt the couple MOST DANGEROUS GAME style through the surrounding forest.

This is how it’s gone for our “heroes” on each trip for the past seven years.  This time around, though, there’s an added element: an unidentified man is hunting the hunters.  He’s got a beef with them, the particulars of which we don’t find out until late in the book.

The story is unfailingly exciting and suspenseful, and quite plausible to boot.  If there were any major plot holes I missed them, and the characterizations are all quite solid for a novel of this type.

But the book also contains a deeper, more resonant dimension.  It doesn’t begin like your standard revenge thriller, but with a young woman recovering from a vicious gang rape.  The description of her suffering is hard-hitting and realistic, and suffuses the remainder of this bleak tale, in which the violence is unusually strong and graphic.  Yes, the girl and the rape have a definite connection with the three businessmen and their deranged hunting trip, but I’ll leave that for you to discover on your own.

Be advised that OPEN SEASON is very much a product of its time.  Moral ambiguity was all the rage during the early seventies, and positively suffuses this novel.  Nearly all the characters are amoral scumbags, from the three businessmen (who come off like the evil flipside of the protagonists of DELIVERANCE) to the couple they victimize (both of whom reveal themselves as self-centered opportunists before the hunt is over) to the guy hunting the hunters (who callously waits until his charges have committed their deadly crimes before taking his revenge).

Thus we have a thriller that really thrills, but with an added dimension worthy of most “serious” literature–not to mention a profoundly dark, disturbing angle that nearly edges it into horror territory.  I urge you to track it down, though by all means skip the movie!