Published by Random House
Review by W. R. Greer
I should state at the beginning of this review that I'm not a huge fan of the horror genre. I usually have two problems with horror books or movies. First, there's the suspension of disbelief necessary for the imagined horror to exist. Without that, it's hard to generate the fear for the adrenaline rush. Second, and this is more of a problem with Hollywood movies than it is with books, plot and characterization are often given short shrift so that imaginative and gory ways can be found to dispatch the poor characters inserted into the plot. It's almost a cookie-cutter outline: choose stock characters, create a new type of horrible villain or thing, put them all in a situation with no escape, and watch the blood flow. I thoroughly enjoyed Scott Smith's first novel, A Simple Plan, so I decided to give The Ruins a whirl, hoping it could step outside that flimsy outline.
A Simple Plan was the story of a man who is undone by his own greed. What should have been a simple plan to hide and claim a fortune in cash begins to go awry. As it does, he descends into his own world of horror, step by step, in an attempt to hold it together, committing acts of violence that he'd never thought possible of himself. The Ruins follows a similar theme. A group of ordinary young adults hike into a jungle in Mexico and become trapped in a horror they'd have never imagined, and their own faults and weaknesses exacerbate the situation. Jeff and Amy and Scott and Stacy are two couples spending three weeks in Cancun, Mexico after graduation from college. They make new friends on the beach there, a German named Matthias and a trio of Greeks who have assumed Mexican names for their visit. Matthias is concerned about his brother who has been missing for several days. He'd gone off into the jungle to follow a woman working on an archaeological dig and never returned. He'd left behind a map of his intended destination, though.
Matthias grows increasingly nervous each day when his brother fails to return, and eventually wants to go in search of him. Spurred on by Jeff despite their uneasiness about the idea, the four Americans agree to go with Matthias and head into the jungle. They are accompanied by one of the Greeks, nicknamed Pablo, who makes a copy of the map and leaves it behind for his friends. Their trip into the Yucatan stays true to the horror genre as they encounter enough clues and warnings that should deter from the danger that awaits them. Some of the group raise their suspicions, but they're driven forward by a combination a concern for Matthias' brother, a quest for adventure, and a faith that their youth and privilege will help them overcome any obstacles. They realize that they have no way back, and they eventually find a small, inscrutable Mayan village. They can't tell if they're ignored because of language differences or if the villagers are just unfriendly. Unable to find the archaeological site on the map, they begin to backtrack along their route. Finally discovering the hidden path (yet another clue they shouldn't proceed), they find the hill with the archaeologists' tents.
They initially find all the archaeologists' gear, but no sign of them. The hill they're on has strange vines growing all over, and as the first night draws around them, they come to some startling realizations. One of them is that they're trapped on the hill without any obvious means of escape. The second revelation is that the vines consume human flesh, or more correctly, any type of animal. The horrors abound quickly, with the group of six realizing they're battling an unknown horror for their survival, and they must draw on all their strengths to succeed.
At this point, Scott Smith has fulfilled all the requirements for the horror genre. What he does well is show the real horror doesn't lie with the vines, but within the humans themselves. By following the narrative from the point of view of the four Americans, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, both within themselves and within their relationships with each other, each of them becomes central to the story. Knowing these characters well helps us understand their actions, even the misguided ones that increase their peril. Jeff, the ex-Eagle Scout, assumes the leadership role. It's a natural selection for him, since he's always been the de facto leader to the two couples. It's a role they've given him by default and, as it turns out, not without some bitterness. Amy is a wet blanket, always the one with the complaints and feeling like she's pulling the group down. Stacy is the flighty character within the group. Eric struggles against growing up, often leaving important decisions to others and willing to eschew responsibility. In many ways, they embody most twentysomethings on the verge of adulthood, where their skills and inner strengths, or lack of them, will attest to their success in the world. In short, they're typical young Americans.
What Scott Smith explores, with a constant intensification of horror and violence, is how these typical American young adults react to these life-threatening situations. Do their strengths and close relationships eventually function as assets, or does their youth, coupled with lingering grudges and resentments, prove to be their undoing?
The Ruins presents two faces to the reader. The first is the typical horror novel following all the usual guideposts, almost frustratingly at times, while the second facet is the exploration of the psychological interactions that are forced to the surface by the horror. It's a coupling that could produce a can't-miss winner of a novel, and to his credit, Scott Smith almost pulls it off. The Ruins moves at a breakneck pace once the six of them are trapped with the vines and continues unabated to the final page. This book may disgust you, frustrate you, madden you, but it will never bore you. At one point, the characters even mock the horror aspect of the novel, talking about the movie that will be made from their exploits once they're rescued, and how each of them will be rewritten into stock Hollywood characters. They discuss who will be the prissy one, the slut, the funny guy, the villain, and the hero. Yet even this conversation eventually comes back to haunt them in ways they'd never foreseen.
The strict adherence to the horror genre was the only drawback to The Ruins for me. I kept waiting for the sparks of originality that would elevate this novel to what it might have been. I wouldn't let that dissuade anyone from reading this novel. While the basic plot remains a bit preposterous, the characters are all too real, and ultimately, it's the human actions and interactions that provide the drama, the squeamishness, and the horror that draw you deeper into the novel. It's a novel that will grab you and never let go, and any novel should be praised for that. In that much, it succeeds as a fun and haunting diversion. It just comes up short as being something memorable.
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