Reviewed by Scott A. Johnson
Written by Scott Smith
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
Vacations seem to be ripe with tragedy in horror, especially among youthful, alcohol-soaked and sexually promiscuous vacationers. For some of the characters in horror, the best vacation would probably be one spent hiding in the closet, avoiding sun, beaches, and Mayan ruins altogether. Of course, if they did that, we wouldn’t have a story. Enter Scott Smith’s newest novel, The Ruins, in which a group of friends in Mexico on holiday ignore common sense and head into the jungles after a person they’d only just met and – surprise, surprise – meet up with terrors unimaginable in the steamy jungles.
The plot begins much the same way certain recent traveling American horror flicks begin. A group vacationing meet up with a German and a few Greeks, none of whom speak the others’ languages. To make matters worse, none seemed to have the forethought to have even a working knowledge or phrase book in Spanish, as they’re in Mexico. Through a series of botched communications, punctuated with hand-drawn maps and no one really being certain of who is saying what, the group decides to follow the German, Matthias, into the dense South American jungle in search of his brother, who has disappeared while chasing a girl to an archaeological dig near some Mayan ruins. On arrival, they encounter people with guns whose gestures and well-placed bullets warn them to turn around and go back. However, as with most vacationing Americans in horror, they don’t listen and forge ahead into peril. What they find are vines with acid inside them that burrows inside victims and eats them alive.
Smith’s previous work, A Simple Plan, was a fast-paced, intelligent thriller heralded by no less than Stephen King as the best book of its kind of the 1990’s. The Ruins is a departure, in that the characters are not so nearly well-drawn as in his previous work. In fact, they seem like the very clichés they poke fun at toward the last section of the book. Watching the characters, readers will easily recognize the responsible one, the funny guy, the slut, the pure heart, the jock, and every other character from every ’80s slasher flick. The characters demonstrate little intelligence or even common sense, giving the reader the sense that they deserve what they get.
Smith is capable of admirable writing, and he demonstrates his skills often in this book. His description of the Mexican jungle is breathtaking, letting the reader almost feel the humidity and the heat. He is also quite skilled at building tension, as is evidenced in several sections where the reader will not be able to tear their eyes away, anticipating what will happen to the characters next. He also seems to take a small amount of sadistic glee in putting his characters in the most painful situations possible. Whether he leaves them laying in the dark with a broken back at the bottom of a deep mine shaft or invades their bodies with flesh-eating vines, his descriptions of their anguish are top-notch and will make readers cringe in sympathy.
The story, however, suffers mainly from the characters involved. While, admittedly, most horror books and movies are based on people making stupid mistakes, there comes a point where the audience simply asks how stupid any group can be. In addition, there is little growth in the characters’ personalities, keeping the reader from caring about them one way or another. When the group doesn’t take the hint even when a group of angry people are shooting at them, the reader ceases to be able to relate to them and is lost.
On the whole, The Ruins must be viewed as something of a disappointment. To be fair, however, practically any follow-up to A Simple Plan would seem so. Taken on its own, it is an enjoyable bit of escapism that may very well serve as a warning against wandering off into unknown territory in pursuit of people one neither knows nor can even communicate with. If you are not looking for too much in the way of intellectual fare, this book performs the task of entertainment adequately. Expecting too much more would be a mistake.
3 1/2 out of 5
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