(This review first appeared on StaticMultimedia.com on July 9, 2008)
If you loved the movie Cloverfield, you’ll love Scott Smith’s The Ruins. Written in a style as gritty and unrelenting as a story can get, it may discourage you from taking vacations in tropical climes for a few years to come.
Six college age tourists leave the beaches of Cancun to visit an archeological site at an ancient Mayan temple. One of the young men is on a quest to find his missing brother while the others accompany him for what they expect to be a diverting day trip. Along the way, they are warned not to go to the site, discover the path to the ruins has been hidden and notice that the ground around is salted as if to keep evil spirits from escaping. Evidently none of them have ever seen a horror movie. They do not decide to turn back or devise a more sensible plan like contacting the police or a consulate to discover what’s going on. A few fateful footsteps later, they become trapped at the ruins with little food or water, no way of contacting the outside world, and surrounded by immediate life-threatening danger.
Isolated from their normal diversions, each of those trapped at the ruins have ample time to reflect upon their short lives and Smith frequently delves into the minds of his four main characters. As in many horror stories, the purpose of these characters is to react to the creepy circumstances not necessarily do anything about them. While the flashbacks provide insight into their ineffectual and often annoying reactions to events, seldom do the characters learn or grow from their reflections. Their trips down memory lane also slow down the plot’s pace.
Fans of Jack London’s classic tales of survival will appreciate the painstaking, at times graphic documentation of sights, sounds, smells, and touch that the characters experience. The methodical layering of sensory details makes the oppressive atmosphere come alive for the reader and, with a few alterations to plot, this novel would work well as a straight survival epic. The realistic trials the characters face are more frightening in many ways than the supernatural elements. It is the creepy monster element that falls short of expectations. It seems stuck in limbo between sentient creature and deadly but unthinking organism. For thinking adult readers, the real horror is found less in this supernatural predator than in the characters’ behaviors. The extent to which these twenty-somethings have already fallen into self-delusion and self-destructive patterns is one of the scariest parts of the novel.
About midway through the book, one of the main characters figures out what the group’s inevitable fate will be. For the reader, who has probably figured this out long before, (or knows it already after seeing the movie), the big question becomes: will the rest of the book be worth reading? Because fears are as unique and personal as people, that’s a difficult question for a reviewer to answer. At 509 pages total, those who want a fast-paced, action filled horror ride may call it quits before finishing the book. However, those who seek a story of persistent, inescapable doom will not be disappointed.