Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Kenneth Cook, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text Classics

‘Wake in Fright’ by Kenneth Cook

Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook

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.

Reading Australia 2016

And then we came to the end of Reading Australia 2016

Reading Australia 2016

“How’s your Australian reading year going?”

“Are you sick of reading Australian books yet?”

“Don’t you miss reading books from other places?”

During 2016 these questions hounded me every time I caught up with friends and bloggers who knew I had challenged myself to read Australian literature all year.

My response was always the same. I was enjoying the project so much that even I was surprised at how easy and fun it was proving to be. I did not feel like I was missing out. If anything, I was overwhelmed by the sheer scope and range of books available to me.

Now, looking back on an entire year’s worth of reading, I can chalk it up as one of the best reading years of my life.

Depth and breadth

I read such a diverse range of books, from psychological thrillers to personal essays about eating disorders, that I never once became bored. I was discovering some great new-to-me writers and reacquainting myself with ones I knew from long ago. It made me reassess my opinion that Australian writing was dull and obsessed with its colonial past — an opinion I formed more than 20 years ago when I worked in a book store and shunned the “convict fiction”, as I’d dubbed it, to spend all my money on a steady diet of (predictable) US fiction instead.

Back then I didn’t realise there were Australian writers pumping out edgy crime novels, mind-bending experimental fiction and glorious literary fiction set in contemporary times, or that essay writing could be so intriguing and readable, or that memoirs could be so thoroughly engaging and, occasionally, jaw dropping.

Perhaps in the early 1990s, the publishing industry wasn’t publishing those kinds of books (in 1991 I can safely say that I read just two Australian books that year — Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and Ben Hills’ Blue Murder), or maybe I was too young and naive to realise there was more to the homegrown literary scene than I imagined.

Whatever the case, this past year of “reading Australia” has reignited a passion for reading books from my homeland. By year’s end I had read a total of 53 Australian books (I also read six British titles and six Canadian titles) and know that I will continue to read many more in the year to come.

Some highlights

  • I read a surprising number of memoirs (eight in total) and a surprising number of short story collections (four).
  • I read a diverse range of true crime, all of it fascinating, well researched and written in an engaging novelistic fashion.
  • I discovered Stephen Orr and now want to read everything he’s ever written.

Some lowlights

  • I did not make a very big dent in my TBR. At the beginning of 2016, the number of Australian titles in that pile was 128. It soon swelled thanks to a few review copies coming my way and the very many purchases I made (well, I had to buy the shortlisted titles for the Stella and Miles Franklin, didn’t I). By year’s end it stood at 116. Oops.
  • I did not read any pre-mid-20th century classics (I had to abandon Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children in the summer when I changed jobs and no longer had the bandwidth to cope with it).
  • I did not read any books by Kate Grenville, Alex Miller or Randolph Stow,  all Australian writers listed on my favourite authors page.

All up it was a brilliant year of reading, and I hope you had as much fun following along as I did in reading and reviewing so many fabulous books. I thought it might be useful to provide a list of everything I read, so here it is. The books marked * made my top 10 favourite reads of the year.





Reading Australia 2016

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Kenneth Cook, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Text

‘Fear is the Rider’ by Kenneth Cook

Fear is the Rider by Kenneth Cook

Fiction – Kindle edition; Text Publishing; 208 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Oh. My. Goodness. *Wipes brow, extracts heart from mouth, picks up a snifter of whisky to steady the nerves* This is possibly the scariest, most spine-chilling and nerve-wracking book I’ve read. Ever.

It was written by the late Australian journalist and writer Kenneth Cook (1929-1987), who is best known for his classic novel Wake in Fright, which was published in 1961 and was later turned into a film. This new one, Fear is the Rider, published posthumously, was written in the 1980s and recently discovered in the author’s papers.

I’m so glad I didn’t read it before I went to the Australian outback last October or I might never have been brave enough to take to those long, isolated roads. It’s the kind of story that nightmares are made of even though you know that, realistically, it could never possibly be true.

Or could it?

On the run from a madman

The story goes something like this. A Sydney man, with some time to fill in before taking up a new job in Adelaide, goes on a detour to the desert. Advised by police not to go further down a certain road by more than 50km and to never leave his car if it beaks down — “the sun’ll kill you in two hours” — his plans fly completely out the window when a young woman, distressed and screaming, flags him down and gets in his vehicle:

“Drive, drive away quickly!’ she was almost shrieking.
“Drive. Drive on. Drive!”
Her terror was compelling. He slammed the car into gear and drove fast along the bumpy, stony track.
“What…?” he began again.
“I’ll tell you, but get us out of here, for God’s sake get us out of here quick!”
She was still staring wildly into the scrub. Her fear seeped into his spine. There was something there, in the low trees, something terrible.

That something turns out to be a mysterious man with murder on his mind. And what ensues for the next 200 pages is an exhausting, adrenalin-fuelled car chase across some of the wildest, most dangerous terrain on the planet. No matter what the pair do, the man in the Land Cruiser is not far behind and even when they eventually abandon their vehicle and take to the gibber plains on foot, he follows them on foot too.

Wolf Creek meets Mad Max

It’s incredibly filmic — think Wolf Creek meets Mad Max — and so visceral I could feel my heart rising up in my throat as I turned the pages. It’s not exactly high-brow entertainment and it’s occasionally sexist (a product of its time, I guess), but my goodness it’s a nail-biting ride — and I loved every minute of it.

The prose is occasionally clunky, but there are some wonderfully evocative descriptions of the outback, including the people and the little towns, and the way in which the empty nature of the desert can evoke fear:

The desert is many different worlds. There is stone. Then sand. Then rock. Then the strange lines of scrub where the ancient soaks run. The only constant is the immense isolation. The isolation and the eternal killing sun.

The ending is slightly preposterous, but on the whole this book works because it taps into our basic primal fears. Just don’t read it if you’re planning an outback adventure any time soon.

This is my third book for #ReadingAustralia2016.

Fear is the Rider will be published by Text Publishing in ebook format in the UK and the US, and paperback format in Australia, on 27 January. If you are a UK-based book blogger, you can request it on NetGalley — but be quick, it gets archived on the day of publication.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Futura, Kenneth Cook, Publisher, satire, science fiction

‘Play Little Victims’ by Kenneth Cook


Fiction – paperback; Futura; 87 pages; 1978.

I first read Kenneth Cook‘s Play Little Victims as part of my Year 9 English class at school — way back in the 1980s. It was one of those quirky little books that I much enjoyed at the time and has stayed with me ever since.

Long out of print, I have searched high and low for this book over the years. Recently I found it on Amazon Marketplace for 20 pence (!!) and ordered it straight away.

Re-reading it as an adult, the brilliance of this story has not diminished in any way. If anything, it resonates much stronger now that I am more aware of my own mortality and of mankind’s road to self-destruction.

It’s basically a macabre satire about two mice that survive the end of the world. Adamus and Evemus (geddit?) start being fruitful and multiply — and multiply and multiply — until it’s quite apparent there’s an over-population problem.

An official governing body is set up, which then spends the rest of the book trying to work out ways of solving this problem. With the Word of Man to guide them — a bible and 4,268 editions of the New York Times — they systematically introduce wars, pollution, abortion, road-death, alcohol and cigarettes to stem the ever-increasing numbers of mice living in Earth’s one remaining habitable valley.

When they stumble upon the final solution — revealed on the very last page of this novella — it is more horrifying than one could possibly imagine. It makes your skin crawl and your spine shudder.

The beauty of this charming and intelligent fable is its polished brevity. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny in places, startling and morbidly dark in others. It says so much about the state of the world right now I find it amazing that Play Little Victims has never been reprinted: it would garner such an audience today. Perhaps because it is by an Australian, little known outside of his homeland, it just never gained the international attention it deserved. I’m sure that would not have been the case had he been a Brit or an American…