A rambling run through the 90s (or “the last years of the American Century” as he refers to them)
this is another sheaf of papers from the desk of Hunter S Thompson. Kingdom of Fear is the most
recently written of all the books that seem to coming from that desk, getting as contemporary as 9/11
in places. The book seems to have two threads – an even more entertaining than usual crack at the
American politics of the day (particularly if like Hunter neither George Bush Jr nor his Daddy is your
favourite American President) clumsily interwoven with the case for the defence in the now infamous
assault charges that he faced in the early 90s.
Each piece is short. I found myself reading the book in 10 minute snatches and still doing it justice
in a way that I could never have done even for the collected works like
The Great Shark Hunt and
Generation of Swine. It’s a bit of a jumble – we find ourselves skipping from
poorly remembered anecdotes to recent ravings to newspaper cuttings – but it still hangs together
in a weird way, and we are treated to some classic HST rantings and, as always, some truly incisive
thinking about the state of the world as we find it today.
I suppose my worries about this book are twofold. Firstly, I can’t help feeling that he’s making
the most of the recent film of his masterwork, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Work from Hunter over
the last 10 to 15 years has been slow to come by, and yet since the release of the film we have been
presented with the lost novel (Rum Diary), the short stories (Screwjack), two volumes of letters (Fear and Loathing in America and The Proud Highway) and now this, Kingdom of Fear. Not that any of these aren’t
worth reading (except perhaps Screwjack) but it does all seem to have appeared all of a sudden, and
put in that light the jumbled nature of Kingdom of Fear seems a little less planned and perhaps rather
more thrown together in a hurry.
My second worry is simply that these last 10 years don’t seem to have gone too well for the good
Doctor. He’s suffered, and it really appears that he feels that what he has suffered is unjust. In
the book we are presented not only with the case for the defence in the sexual assualt charges that
made the news, but also the defence in a number of other incidents that have besmirched his good name
over the past few years, from firearms charges, drink driving, explosives and pimping. The way he
reacts to these charges though is different. In previous works, in previous decades, I would have
expected these things to have been glossed over – incarceration or police brutality turned into a
joke and shrugged off as another margarita is mixed and downed. But not so in this one. Each and
every case is picked over as HST defends himself, justifies his actions and in effect says “I didn’t
In his world, where paranoia doesn’t exist but fear is all too real the good Doctor tries to show
us one more time that there is no space for compromise. Never back down. Never show weakness. But
this time he does. In this book you find him on the back foot – you can almost feel the corner that
he’s backed himself in to – you can definitely see the bared teeth and hear the snarl. To me this
book is perhaps a last gasp of the lifestyle he has so carefully cultivated over the past nearly 40
years. Dr Thompson is getting old, and the fight is getting harder.
Don’t get me wrong. This is still classic HST and if you’re a fan (like me) you should still be
reading this book, but… You’re going to have to forgive him the ego, the ranting and the
self-justification – perhaps more than you have before.
If you’re new to HST this isn’t the book you
should be reading. For classic, balls to the wall, “I can’t believe I just read that” you should
be reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. For a remarkable insight into the America
of the late 50s and early 60s you should be reading the book that made him famous, Hells Angels. And for perhaps the best collected works of journalism to come from
the American movement that was the New Journalism you should be reading Songs of the Doomed.
Hunter S Thompson has been, among other things, the leader of the darker side of the counter
culture, one of the most incisive political journalists of our time and a novelist par excellence.
If you’re a fan Kingdom of Fear will keep you happy. If you’re not yet, start somewhere else – you’ll
probably want to read it in the end anyway!