Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 199 pages; 1994.
Don’t be fooled by the cheesy, romantic-looking cover on Douglas Kennedy’s debut novel, The Dead Heart, for this is a tale that is as shocking as it is terrifying.
Set in the Australian outback and narrated in the first person by an American tourist, it’s a bit like the bastard love child of Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright and the 2005 horror film Wolf Creek. There’s a thriller element to it, but it would best be described as dystopian horror — with an emphasis on the horror.
The story will stay with me for quite some time — and not necessarily in a good way. If you’re planning an outback adventure soon, then steer clear. Honestly, I reckon the Australian Tourist Board should probably ban this book.
A foreigner in a foreign land
When The Dead Heart opens we meet newspaper journalist Nick Hawthorne, a confirmed bachelor who’s so enamoured with a second-hand map he bought in a Boston bookstore that he has headed to Darwin for a holiday, taking his $10,000 life savings with him. It’s supposed to be a chance to blow off some steam in a foreign land before starting a new job in Akron, Ohio.
But no sooner has Nick arrived than he has second thoughts. Darwin is a bit too “wild west” for him. Perhaps if he bought an old Volkswagen microbus and drove himself to Perth, more than 4,000km away, he might have more fun.
Two hours out of Darwin — and driving in the dark (despite being advised to avoid the roads at night) — he hits a kangaroo. He spends the night on the side of the road and in the morning is greeted by:
…a world rendered red. An arid red, like the colour of dried blood. A non-stop vista of red clay and red scrubby bush. It stretched across a plateau of incalculable dimensions. I walked away from the van, stood in the middle of the road and turned north, south, east, west. No houses, no telephone poles, no billboards, no roadsigns…no hints whatsoever (bar the strip of tarmacadam I was standing on) that man had ever been acquainted with this territory. Just hard barren country under a hard blue sky. Measureless in its dimensons, hypnotic in its monotony.
He manages to nurse his already worn out (128,000 miles on the clock) VW to the next biggest town, Kununurra — “a prefabricated collection of shops and greasy spoons and bars: a scruffy little gasoline alley in the middle of the bush” — more than 600km away! After a 10-day layover, he heads out on the road again, where a chance encounter with a woman called Angie changes his life forever.
Saying much more about the plot will spoil the enjoyment for first-time readers, but let’s just say Angie uses her feminine wiles to entrap Nick in a situation from which there is no escape — except death.
Stuck in Angie’s home town of Wollanup, an old desert mining town (population 53 and, I suspect, based on Wittenoom, the deadly blue asbestos town that was abandoned in the late 1960s), 1,400km from the nearest village, Nick becomes subservient to a society that is backward, cruel and horrifying, with its own archaic rules and way of life. Everything about it challenges his own morality and world view.
The story is propelled forward by Nick’s attempt to flee the clutches of Angie and her demented family. As a reader, you cheer him on, hoping he’ll be able to survive the heat, the isolation, the torturous rituals and never-ending sex (there’s a lot of sex in this book, it has to be said) and somehow get himself back home to the States out of harm’s way.
Let’s face it: The Dead Heart is rather silly. It’s a romp, a fun and sometimes scary one. It’s preposterous on so many levels and every time I picked it up it made me feel dirty. I’m not sure there’s any message to the story other than to be careful when travelling in a foreign land and to be very wary of the outback and the people who live in it.
That said, it’s a very “white” book and has a colonialist’s mindset, but it’s a rip-roaring read and nothing quite like I expected from the cover art alone. It really does tap into the fear one experiences when out on the open road, surrounded by nothing except desert terrain, isolated and alone. Read it if you dare.