Fiction – paperback; Text Classics; 224 pages; 2012.
Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright, first published in 1961, is a true Australian classic.
Billed as the first outback horror story, it brims with menace and suspense. In the introduction to this new Text Classics edition, Australian crime writer Peter Temple says it “probably set Australian tourism back at least twenty years” for the picture of outback life depicted here is a hellish and frightening one.
It tells the story of a young school teacher who travels to a rough outback mining town called Bundanyabba (or “The Yabba” as the locals call it) and gets trapped there for five horrendous days.
It all starts with a simple ice-cold beer in a pub. This soon descends into a drunken escapade involving a gambling den and before he knows it John Grant, a teacher at a one-man outback school six hours up the road, has lost everything except the clothes on his back and eleven cigarettes. His plan to fly to Sydney, 1200 miles away, to spend six weeks by the sea before the new school term begins, is suddenly thwarted.
All right, now it had to be faced: what was he to do?
He had nobody he could borrow money from, certainly nobody to whom he could explain that he had lost all his money gambling.
And, in any case, how much did he need to borrow? Just to stay alive until his next pay cheque was due would cost at least a hundred pounds.
If he got to Sydney there was just a chance that he could spend elongated periods with somewhat dim relatives, but what a chance with two and sevenpence to spread over six weeks.
And, in any case, how to get to Sydney? The train fare one way would be about ten pounds even if he felt like facing a forty-hour journey without any money for food.
And so begins a torturous and transformative journey into the unknown for Grant. While the strangers he meets over the next few days save him from the unpleasant prospect of sleeping out on the street, they present new, untold dangers, the likes of which he’s never confronted before.
For all his “sophistication” and education, Grant is now out of his depth. He is a “coastal Australian, a native of the strip of continent lying between the Pacific Ocean and the Great Dividing Range, where Nature deposited the graces she so firmly withheld from the west”, and now he’s living among Barbarians, macho Australian men who spend all their time hunting, drinking and gambling, in a hot, inhospitable landscape where it hasn’t rained for a year and the “sun had withered every living thing except the saltbush”.
Dealing with them on their terms — and not his — is a somewhat claustrophobic ordeal for Grant, who has to constantly readjust his opinions and expectations. In one horrific chapter, out of his mind on beer and benzedrine, he gets caught up in a sordid orgy of violence and destruction that seems without end.
But when he eventually escapes — gun in hand — he’s reduced to an almost primitive state: the veneer of civilisation has quickly been shed and you can’t help but fear for his safety and sanity. The moral of the story, it would seem, is don’t drink beer in the outback.
A compelling tale of suspense
Wake in Fright is not so much a horror story, but a suspense tale brimming with a dark, almost Satanic menace. It’s terrifying, but not in the same way as Cook’s Fear is the Rider is terrifying. It’s terrifying because it taps into our fears of what happens when you leave the safety and security of your known world — in this case, the so-called civilised Australia — and enter a foreign land where the people are crude, uneducated and brutish.
Its power to disturb is helped in part by Cook’s uncanny eye for detail, for the way he breathes life into the colourful people Grant meets, the distinctive landscapes he traverses, the way he makes the heat-haze practically shimmer off the page. Indeed, you can almost feel the beads of condensation dripping down a glass of beer. And yet the prose is not weighed down by literary flourishes — it’s fresh, clean and effortless. Coupled with a super-fast narrative pace, it makes for a compelling, page-turner of a read.
Finally, Wake in Fright was adapted into a feature-length film (also known as Outback) in 1971, then remastered for a contemporary audience in 2009. It stars Donald Pleasence, Chips Rafferty and, in his first screen role, Jack Thompson. It is widely acknowledged as one of the seminal films in the development of modern Australian cinema. This Text Classics edition includes an afterword about the movie written by film critic David Stratton.