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Book Review - Fear is the Rider

Fear is the Rider
Kenneth Cook
The Text Publishing Company

fear is the rider

Published in 2016 – but written in 1982 – Fear is the Rider is a cracking Aussie novella written by legendary author/scriptwriter and film-maker, Kenneth Cook. He died in 1987, but not before writing over 20 books, one of which (Wake in Fright) was made into a film. This little gem was only recently discovered in papers of his estate.

Fear is the Rider is a crime thriller set in outback Australia on the Obiri track, a desolate road stretching between Yogabilla and Obiri, somewhere between Sydney and Adelaide. The track is almost uninhabitable because of the “gibbers” which – in layman’s terms – refers to the rocks and stones that make up the Great Stony Desert. It’s big, four-wheel-drive territory only.

So when protagonist John Shaw decides to venture down the track in search of a girl he’s just met, Katie Alton, you know the story is not going to end well. And the young landscape architect (on his way to start work in Adelaide) seems to lose his mind thinking that he’ll get far in his small Honda sedan. But the girl he just met in the pub – and who drives a large 4WD – has something about her that attracts him. So he sets off.

It’s not long up the track that he comes across her – it’s the inciting incident for the novel – running and scared for her life. She’s been attacked by a madman with a distinct smell, who’s stolen her jeep, her axe and now has her scent. Of course, Shaw collects her in his tiny front-wheel drive and heads off towards the next town, 550 kilometres away. It’s a journey the little Japanese car can never make over the dippers, sand and damp (where the artesian water seeps through).

Part Wolf Creek, part Stephen King’s Christine, Fear is the Rider takes the reader on a thrilling journey and is an exciting outback Australian adaptation of a crazed animal’s hunt for its prey. Cook’s portrayal of the harsh and unforgiving desert of south Australia is the backdrop for the hunt by, presumably, some type of half-man, half animal bush creature intent of killing everything it comes across. The reasons, however, are unknown but the story appears to follow some type of ancient indigenous/religous/medievil mythology.

The two protagonists make their escape from the man-beast after several close calls, including trying to escape down an opal mine shaft, where they go close to being entombed. They later make it halfway up the track to a closed hotel, where they get a less than enthusiastic welcome from the elderly couple. They end up dead too, killed by the pursuing madman. Forced out into the red sandy desert, Shaw and Katie escape a deliberately lit bush fire and being sucked into the giant sand dunes before luring the beast himself into them. He’s killed by an avalanche of red sand cleverly contrived by Shaw. The cops never find the psycho killer, presumably buried so deep under the dunes.

Fear of the Rider is a cleverly constructed story, although sometimes is a tad repetitive in plot and language. The writing is good, appropriate for the 1980’s and there are many examples of compelling narrative by Cook. His writing had a simplicity to it, while also being wonderfully descriptive and engaging/exciting for the reader.

Protagonist Shaw landed in Yogabilla, on the edge of the desert where he met Katie:

“He thought about seeking a cup of coffee, abandoned the idea as ridiculous and drove off down the dust road towards Adelaide, two days away”.

Later, while being pursued by the madman down the dusty, rock-maiden track:

“Shaw took one moment to look around him. The sand ridge ran from north to south, from horizon to horizon. To the west the plain spread like a giant half-plate. The sky, white with heat, lay clamped over the earth like a vast lampshade, the light in its centre the impossibly brilliant, burning lethal sun”.

There’s no doubt that Cook has a way with words and can craft a great thriller. Fear of the Rider is definitely worth the read if Australian crime stories are your interest.

It would have made a great movie.

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