A photograph of Hunter S Thompson, smoking, against heavily laden bookshelves

Image: Paul Harris/Getty Images

As well-known for his heroic booze and drug consumption as for his stellar and pioneering style of journalism, "Doctor" Hunter S. Thompson’s best-known work Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas was first published half a century ago. But what else in his vast canon of letters, journalism collections, short stories and novels is worth seeking out? Here is our guide to the essential "gonzo" reads.

Hell’s Angels: The Strange And Terrible Saga Of Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (1967)

The best book to ever come out of the 1960’s "New Journalism" movement. This, in essence, was a form of writing where the hack himself (and it was almost always men) would abandon notions of objectivity and opine furiously whilst placing himself at the centre of the story in question.

It’s an exceptionally hard trick to pull off without sounding wilfully conceited and self-absorbed and very, very few of the New Journalism exponents ever got it right. Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe and, of course, Thompson were the exceptions and the latter’s Hell’s Angels book won’t ever be bettered as the definitive exploration of the form.

Thompson lived with, drank with, argued with and, eventually, got brutally "stomped" by members of Californian chapters of the Hell’s Angels. This is an absolutely fearless piece of extended journalism. Thompson constantly puts himself in genuine danger in a brilliantly absorbing account of what life at the more sinister end of the American counter-culture of the era.  

Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas: A Savage Journey To The Heart Of The American Dream (1972)

“Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only real cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas.” It seems like much of America was having the same kind of thoughts as Hunter in this, by far his best known work, written under his alter-ego of Raoul Duke.

The grotesquery’s of Sin City, police drug prevention conventions and vintage car rallies are distorted even further thanks to a tsunami of mescaline, acid, tequila, rum, amyl and ether which Duke and his ever-present Samoan attorney binge on as they attempt to retain their sanity whilst covering various journalism assignments.

Thompson himself had just failed to win elected office in his home town of Aspen by running as a "Freak Power" candidate and the ultra-high octane drug fuelled hi-jinks conceal passages that seem to reveal Thompson’s profound despair at the death of the hippie dream. “The illness,” he wrote, “…was understood to be terminal, and the energies of the Movement were long since aggressively dissipated by the rush to self‐preservation.”

Fear And Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973)

The book that made a million spiky, articulate teenagers want a career in journalism is by far the funniest and most dysfunctional account of a Presidential election, written in a white heat where it appeared Hunter himself was, at times, on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Such was his state of mind that, in lieu of any truly interesting developments, Hunter simply began making stuff up, beginning rumours such as one that Democratic candidate Ed Muskie had hired a Brazilian witchdoctor to supply him with Ibogaine, a hallucinogenic that has been known to delude people into thinking they are salamanders.

His frenzied tour across the States on the trail of George McGovern’s doomed attempt to unseat Richard Nixon shines a light on the booze soaked, cynical, morale-destroying torpor of political campaigning. After this, Hunter stayed well clear of front line domestic, political reportage for the rest of his life. You really can’t blame him.

The Great Shark Hunt (1979)

There’s a bewildering number of Hunter journalism collections (which became increasingly threadbare towards the end of the 20th century) but this 1979 collection is the only one you really need.

Before the "gonzo" experiments, this book shows just what a fine investigative reporter he was in early stories on the 1962 military coup in Peru and police killings in Rio. His gradual development from talented hack to generation-defining documenter of the era happens fast, and his 1970 depiction of the Kentucky Derby (included here) is where the rabid, visceral, free-flowing Thompson we know truly ignites.

Yet, as the 1970s advance, this collection also shows the beginnings of Thompson’s ego beginning to wreck his talents. His collection of accounts (originally written for Rolling Stone magazine in 1978) of various meetings with Mohammed Ali are a huge, but fascinating, mis-step; the first time where, as a reader, you’re urging for Thompson to take himself out of the centre stage and simply let the greatest athlete in 20th century sport talk.

Kingdom Of Fear (2003)

When it comes to politics, drugs and civil liberties, you can rely on Thompson to write from the heart. But he was much more coy when it came to anything more personal. Which is what makes this, the closest thing we have to an autobiography, such a fascinating if frustrating read. Among a lot of magazine features, we get snatches of  recollections about a young Thompson spending his high school graduation night in jail on a robbery charge and tall-ish tales from his predictably disastrous stint in the Air Force. But there's no focus or, seemingly, intention on Thompson's behalf to fully bare his soul at an age (65) when most of his contemporaries were ready to take stock and reflect on their lives. What we're left with only hints at the masterful autobiography he could have delivered. 

The Rum Diary (1998)

Die-hard Thompson fans will argue otherwise, but Hunter’s star really only shone for a decade or so and, by the late 1970’s his work had begun to loss its dazzling originality, pep and verve.

Having documented Nixon era America with such zeal, craft and humour, he had no answer to Reagan, Clinton and Bush other than appearing in an increasingly inebriated state on talk shows to incoherently rant. Thanks to Johnny Depp we did get one final slice of classic Thompson before he took his own life in 2005. Ransacking Hunter’s archives, Depp stumbled across an unpublished novel Thompson wrote in the late 1950’s when he was just 22.

It’s a magnificently, taut, hard-boiled and painfully funny semi-autobiographical account of life on an ailing newspaper in Puerto Rico, this is a wonderfully giddy account of hard drinking hacks of the old school portrayed cruelly but lovingly by a man who proclaimed himself to be, above all, a "Doctor of Journalism" right until the end.

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