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The Ruins / Scott Smith

thTheRuinsPaperback.jpgVintage (Reprint Edition) / July 2007
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

Hailed by horror maestro Stephen King as the best horror novel of the new century, Scott Smith’s The Ruins lives up to the praise – and then some. With a set-up that doesn’t overstay its welcome and no chapters to punctuate the action, The Ruins barrels forward like a runaway roller coaster, leaving the reader breathless in some spots, teeth clenched in others. Put mildly, The Ruins will soccer-punch you and leave you for dead on the side of the road.

Smith’s long-awaited follow-up to his well-received 1993 debut novel, A Simple Plan, begins simply enough with the introduction of two couples enjoying a post-grad school Mexican getaway. Jeff and Amy and Eric and Stacy are the archetypes of the modern twenty-something – educated, carefree, and not quite sure of their ultimate direction. They meet up with two German brothers –Matthias and Heinrich – and three Greeks, who they jokingly dub Juan, Don Quixote, and Pablo. Despite language barriers and cultural differences, the group flirts, drinks, and bonds with one another - well enough that when Matthias suggests that the two couples accompany him to a Mayan archeological dig to retrieve his brother who’s gone off in pursuit of a girl, the four agree with a shrug and little reservation. As the hapless vacationers, with a hug-happy, tequila-toting Pablo in tow, leave the sunny, resort-style amenities of Cancun behind them and travel by bus, then taxi, to a tiny Mayan village west of Coba, they quickly find themselves in a jungle adventure in search of the fabled ruins. The recurrent theme of dislocation, both figurative and literal, underlies the narrative. While the four main characters are physically dislocated in an unknown land, they are simultaneously looking over the precipice between college and the real world where kid meets adult. Smith carries the notion of strangers in a strange land throughout the novel, and zeros in on the unnerving sense of dread that accompanies it.

To share even an iota of the horror the group encounters at the titular ruins would be a tremendous disservice to Smith’s masterful storytelling and skill in coaxing extraordinary terror out of the seemingly ordinary. Suffice to say that as the horror unfolds (or uncoils in this case), readers are treated to a gradual escalation of genre-bending fright unlike anything written in the last few years. Think Little Shop of Horrors meets The Descent.

Smith’s strength lies in his ability to make the unbelievable completely believable. He wrings his blood-soaked prose in sharp, at times gag-inducing, imagery - at once incomprehensible and authentic – and easily convinces readers to suspend their disbelief and simply follow him through the narrative. His characters are well drawn and overall likeable enough that when the horror encroaches, the reader cares. In the hands of a lesser writer, the four leads could be one-dimensional cardboard cutouts – the brainy Boy Scout, the pessimistic prude, the flirty ditz, and the party-ready jock. But Smith does marvels painting his foursome with depth and dimension, adding color and richness to his characterizations:

In the end – despite his hunger, his fatigue, his anticipatory sense of failure – it was Jeff’s upbringing that finally triumphed, his New England roots asserting themselves in all their asceticism, that deep Puritan reflex always to choose the more arduous of any two fates.

Smith’s pacing is brisk, with gasp-inducing shocks punctuated with momentary breaks in the action that provide essential detail and keep the narrative grounded. There are any number of adjectives that could be used to describe The Ruins – bleak, gory, shocking, horrific, to name but a few; yet Smith’s is an understated, simply told tale of terror that breaks new ground while remaining true to the rules of the genre. Simply put, this is storytelling at its finest.

Purchase Scott Smith's The Ruins

Posted on Friday, September 14, 2007 at 11:20AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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