BOOK REVIEW: The Ruins (2006)

The Ruins

Ruins_Smith_Cover

By the author of A Simple Plan

 

Author: Scott Smith; Cover Artist: Peter Mendelsund; Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf; ISBN: 1-4000-4387-5; Media: Hardcover; Length: 319 pages; Genre: Horror; Country: USA; Language: English; Year: 2006

In 2006 Scott Smith quietly published The Ruins, an inconspicuous little horror novel that Stephen King called “The Book of the Summer”. King recommended it in his column for Entertainment Weekly with these words:

“...last heard from in 1993 (A Simple Plan, later filmed by Sam Raimi from Smith’s script). No quietly building, Ruth Rendell-style suspense here; Smith intends to scare the bejabbers out of you, and succeeds. There are no chapters and no cutaways — The Ruins is your basic long scream of horror. It does for Mexican vacations what Jaws did for New England beaches in 1975. It doesn’t succeed completely — it felt 30 pages too long — but it works well enough, I think, to be the book most people will be talking about this summer.”

And he's right. The Ruins is a compelling read, leading the reader breathlessly onward to find out what happens to the protagonists. And those protagonists are real. Smith paints them as people should be – in all their glory and faults – and this makes the reader feel for them and hunger to know their fates. The story, about vacationing Americans who run into trouble in a foreign country, has been done time and time again, but this Mexican vacation pits them against a different kind of antagonist. It's a refreshing change from the same old “vacationers from another country are tortured and killed by sadists” and a far cry from the usual “trouble in the woods” fare. Scott's villain is a breath of fresh air and takes the reader by surprise.

The Ruins begins with two couples on a final vacation before moving on after college. Jeff and Amy will be attending medical school in the fall, and Eric will be teaching school while Stacy will be studying to become a social worker. While scuba diving, they meet Matthias, a German tourist whose brother, Heinrich, has been missing a few days, and his three Greek friends who, for laughs, call themselves Pablo, Juan, and Don Quixote and swap the names around on a whim. As the end of his vacation approaches, Matthias decides to go searching for his brother at the ruins where he went with a pretty young archaeologist he'd met on her first day there. Jeff assures Matthias they will accompany him for a chance to see some of the authentic Mexico, and the following morning, they meet in the lobby where the couples are surprised to see Pablo has decided to come, too. After a long trip that goes first by bus, then by taxi, and finally on foot, the six friends arrive at the ruins, which are both breathtaking and eerily quiet.

As they mill about, Amy snaps some pictures of the group, and a Mayan from the village they passed through arrives on horseback. Unable to control his horse after he dismounts, the Mayan releases the reins and the horse bolts back the way they came. He seems neither surprised nor disturbed by this and concentrates on trying to convince the group to leave but they are unable to understand him. Frustrated, he pulls a gun and more emphatically yells at them as two more men, these armed with bows and arrows, arrive on horseback. As the Mayans talk and further try to persuade the tourists to leave, Amy steps backward to the base of the ruins to snap a picture of the encounter. Suddenly and seemingly without reason, the Mayans change their minds and order the group to climb the ruins. It is here that the group learns the reason for the Mayans' behavior.

Smith's strong characterizations and innovative antagonist make the story work. Smith takes us inside their minds for glimpses into their pasts as well as insight into how they are coping with with the situation as they slowly realize they are being stalked by a sentient, carnivorous vine. The idea of a sentient, carnivorous plant is not quite as far fetched as one might think – a quick look at David Attenborough's The Private Life of Plants will illustrate this – and Smith makes it work Better: he makes the reader believe it by not revealing all right away, instead the plant as antagonist unfolds like a flower unfurling its blossoms. And Smith holds no punches.

Watch for my upcoming review of The Ruins movie.

7.5/10 claws – Don't read this in the garden!

Posted by Woofer McWooferson

Woofenstein “Woofer” McWooferson is a writer, editor, proofreader, researcher, reviewer/critic, and werewolf active in the horror community.

A werewolf from birth, Woofer had an otherwise normal childhood. Woofer grew up in a suburban home and found more friends in books, television than at school. In college, Woofer undertook an honors degree while majoring in English with a minor in criminal psychology. Woofer later earned a Master’s degree in English, focusing on the modern British novel and then pursued a degree in Metaphysics at Miskatonic University.

Woofer was a contributing author for William Castle Presents: Scare It Forward: “Angel Island” (2010) and an editor for Blake Petit’s Opening Night of the Dead (2012) and Claus Holm’s Dreams and Awakenings (2014) and Tempus Investigations (2016).

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