Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Ruins - Scott Smith


The Ruins
Scott Smith
Knopf

Thriller - Horror


Four American friends, Jeff and Amy, Eric and Stacy, are on vacation in Cancun after finishing college. They’ve spent weeks sunbathing, drinking and dancing on the beach. While snorkeling, they meet Mathias, a German tourist who is worried about his younger brother, Heinrich. Heinrich went missing after he decided to follow a female archaeologist into the jungle to explore some ruins. After a fight between the brothers, he left only a note (in German, which none of the Americans can read) and a hand-drawn map to the site of the ruins. The Americans, along with a Greek tourist who speaks neither English nor Spanish, decide that following the map and finding Mathias’ brother will be an adventure.

It’s right here that things clearly begin to go wrong. The driver they hire begs them not to proceed to the ruins, and becomes irate when they won’t listen. When they arrive at the village on the map, the Mayans completely ignore them, as if willing them to leave. The group only finds the path to the ruins by crossing muddy fields and dismantling a screen of branches, but doesn’t stop to consider the strangeness of this. When they arrive at the hillside site, a few Mayans from the village try to warn them away. Once one of the group sets foot on the hill, the Mayans make it clear that they will use deadly force to stop them from coming back down again. It slowly dawns on the group that they’re meant to die at the site. It isn’t long before it becomes horrifyingly clear that they are not alone there. Something is hunting them.

At each point, a decision is made to continue. At each point, the reader knows that this decision, as reasonable as it seemed at the time, will cost them. The true horror of this novel is not just what awaits them at the site; but that the reader can see disaster getting closer and closer to the group of travelers. Each character has been clearly defined before they arrive at the site; once they’re placed in jeopardy, each character’s traits are amplified in a very realistic way. Jeff, the natural leader, takes over all decisions. Stacy, always the passive, quiet girl, becomes more helpless and dependent on everyone else.

The claustrophobic atmosphere of being trapped at the site, in the blazing Mexican sun, away from any civilization, mimics the feelings of the characters. They’re stuck on a hill, with only the food and water they happened to bring for what they thought was a daytrip, no way out, no hope of rescue, and they’ve now become prey. It’s a tribute to the author that, once the identity of the predator is revealed, it all seems so very logical in hindsight. The very structure of the book contributes to the feeling of creeping terror. There are no chapter breaks at all, only small breaks to denote the various characters’ points of view. There is no escape. Just like the travelers, once you get started on “The Ruins,” there’s no way to stop. Highly recommended horror by the author of “A Simple Plan.”

Rating: 9
July 2006
ISBN# 1-40004387-5 (hardcover)

Rating Scale = 1-10

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