Gabriel Bergmoser, The Hunted (2020)
Review by Lee Horsley
Gabriel Bergmoser is an award-winning Australian playwright and screenwriter, as well as a successful writer of YA fiction. The Hunted, his debut adult novel, is a white-knuckle ride through the Australian outback, a deftly plotted thriller in which, at about the half-way point, violent shocks begin to multiply and we find ourselves in a blood-soaked, nightmarish horror story. Bergmoser vividly creates a group of terror-stricken characters thrown together by random circumstance and remorselessly pursued by vicious predators.
In a recent Guardian interview, Bergmoser says he has a theory that “every small Australian town has that other town up the road that they have all those stories about, the little town on the road where you just don’t go, with the weird, crazy old guy with a shotgun.” Bergmoser’s outback of course contains far more to terrify us than a man with a shotgun, and by the time his characters go where they should never have gone, their survival is in serious doubt.
The untamed outback itself is wonderfully created. Driving along the highway it can seem unchanging and featureless, but a traveller may well encounter a more sinister, menacing land if he happens to turn off on a rough, unmarked road:
“The trees, at first a pleasant backdrop, started to feel more oppressive the deeper they went, branches stretching over them like fingers about to close tight, the knotted roots buried in bushes, leaves hanging so low in places that they scraped the roof of the car. In some places the road vanished altogether.”
The car is being driven by Simon, a callow university graduate from Melbourne who hopes that his Kerouac-style road trip will lead him to the real, untamed Australia. He finds it with a vengeance. Having taken up with a girl called Maggie, whose backpack is stuffed with banknotes, he is persuaded by her that they need to leave the highway and “head off the beaten track.” They drive until they hear the first gunshot, and then their way is blocked by a battered old ute carrying a snarling dog and three rough, smirking men out “huntin’ pigs”. One of the hunters later tells Maggie that Simon is an example of “how the cities breed ’em. What they churn out, they’re weeds. Not men. Nah. Men fight. Men protect. Men hunt and men kill. Men spill blood when they have to.”
It’s an encounter with what Bergmoser calls the dark and dangerous side of Australian masculinity. Another of his central characters, Frank, has withdrawn to a solitary life in a middle-of-nowhere roadhouse, where he tries to leave his own troubled past behind – to forget what it was like being with a band of hunters, “the way they’d all been, out in the bush, guns in hand, downing beer and rum and the other stuff, whooping and cheering” when there was a kill. His isolation, however, offers little protection from the blood lust now let loose.
Frank first knows that trouble is on the way when a stranger stumbles out of a car – “Stark against the afternoon sky, she didn’t look human. She was coated all over in what he recognised as dried mud and blood. She staggered away from the car.” The woman is Maggie, and as Bergmoser’s plot moves backwards and forwards, it gradually reveals what has happened to her in the outback and what will happen to them all now that the hunters’ quarry is at Frank’s roadhouse.
Maggie is Bergmoser’s stand-out character. He says in interview that Maggie took him by surprise. Initially just part of an inciting incident, “she very quickly took control of the book and went off in her own direction, leaving me hanging on for dear life.” This seems completely in character: Maggie’s strength of will is one of her most striking qualities. Escaping from mysterious events in her past she is searching for something else, pursuing her own obsessive journey into the darkest places in the Australian bush with only “the vaguest hope of picking up a long dead trail.” A “pretty little thing”, fine-featured and skinny, she is anything but fragile: “What mattered was that, in the midst of horrors none of them could have prepared for, she was still willing to fight.” Her reserves of toughness are about to be tested to their limits: “fear and revulsion had to take a back seat to survival.”
The Hunted is a riveting novel and we look forward to being terrified by Bergmoser’s expert storytelling for many years to come. We’re delighted to know from his Guardian interview that he has now written a second novel about Maggie, “more like a noir thriller” than a horror thriller. It promises to delve back into her life before The Hunted – and may answer the question of how she ended up on the road with a backpack full of money.