Fear is the Rider by Kenneth Cook
Kenneth Cook doesn’t beat around the bush – from the opening lines of Fear is the Rider, the reader is thrust headlong into the baking heat and choking dust of the outback, and into the terror and thrill of survival. Written in the early 1980s but never before published, Fear is the Rider is a posthumous thrill-ride from the master of the Ozploitation genre, most famous for the cult classic Wake in Fright.
In true thriller fashion, the protagonists’ backstories are largely perfunctory, and dispensed with quickly; budding architect John Shaw, driving from Sydney to Adelaide in a small hatchback, meets freelance journalist Katie Alton in a tiny outback pub. The next day, as he explores a remote desert track, he sees Katie, running out towards him, chased by a strange and terrible creature. So begins a tense and desperate game of cat-and-mouse as the terrified travellers try to outrun and outsmart the Man, who has Katie’s axe and her LandCruiser, and will destroy all in his way – locals and tourists, black and white alike – in his deranged pursuit of Katie and Shaw.
Transplanting the medieval myth of the ‘Wild Man’ into an outback that is itself mythologised in the Australian imagination, Fear is the Rider is a schlocky, old-school thriller in the best possible way – Cook’s writing is bare-bones and no-nonsense, light on metaphor and linguistic flourish, reflecting a harsh and brutal landscape that is just as deadly to Katie and Shaw as the creature hunting them. Watching Shaw and Katie grapple with their own incredulity and hubris as they try to outsmart the relentless Man is an exquisite frustration. As a kind of literary Mad Max, a master class in Ozploitation, or simply as a short, sharp burst of literary adrenaline, Fear is the Rider is a hell of a lot of fun.
Alan Vaarwerk is the editorial assistant for Readings Monthly.