Review: The Ruins by Scott Smith

After reading A Simple Plan years ago, I was very much looking forward to reading The Ruins. And besides, Stephen King didn’t just endorse it – you practically have to wipe the saliva off the cover from the tongue bath the maestro of horror gives this book. The Ruins popped up on my reading list because I was bored one day and googled best horror novel lists, so I added it to my own.

To put it simply, the book is worth a read, particularly if you like horror. Would I recommend it to my wife who enjoys mainstream fiction? No. Her book club ladies would not enjoy this alongside a glass of wine and their buffalo chicken dip.

But let’s take the book from a strengths and weaknesses perspective. If you think that the strengths outweigh, it’ll solidify your choice about whether to read it, although this post may function better as a discussion forum for others who have already read the book. Be warned, some spoilers below.

Strength: Readability. Smith’s prose just flows, and you flow with it, which means it’s well done. He definitely achieves that “movie playing in your mind’s eye” effect that author’s of really accessible fiction achieve. It all feels natural, off the cuff, as he reels off the characters’ backstories.

Let’s take a timeout and talk about subtext. A Simple Plan tapped into something primal about greed and sin and what choosing commits you to (i.e. destiny). The Ruins features characters who are well drawn but the Americans in particular are very callow, untested 20-somethings, without much going on in their lives. They all seem to be drifting, unmoored, committed to nothing. Then, these same no-nothings are trapped by an evil they can’t comprehend in a foreign country, even after the locals (who grasp the evil better than they do) try to keep them from getting trapped. Whether intentional or not, the book can be read as a metaphor of a naïve, unprepared America intruding into a situation about which it has no understanding and, finding itself totally unprepared, succumbing to the evil without muster much of struggle to survive. However you feel about the politics, this can be read as linking to any of our interventions in foreign wars over the years. Only, it has a deeper resonance now, because we feel more like a society where the twenty-something boys are still living with their parents and the girls are taking selfies aimed at “breaking the internet.” Is this the same society using drones to kill enemies abroad?

This leads me to a Weakness: Hopelessness. Very early on, you get the sense that this isn’t going to end well for the four Americans and their German and Greek friends. The narrative loses steam because no one even has an escape plan. As a reader, you don’t have that plot hook to root for a happy outcome. Now, maybe this isn’t what Smith was going after. If he wants to explore the psychology of how his characters react to impending doom, then he is successful. And while hopelessness/lack of plan lowered my interest in how the whole thing was going to end up (I pretty much knew) I was still engaged, wanting to know where the characters ended up at the close.

Strength: A diabolical villain. The vine is a cunning monster, and as its characteristics are revealed, Smith masterfully raises the level of suspense. After finishing the book, you realize the vine is a consummate sadist. It doesn’t just want to kill its victims stuck on the pyramid. It wants them to suffer, it wants to toy with them, it wants to drive them to the edge of reason before it feasts on them. It wants their terror as much as it wants to drink their blood.

Weakness: Swallowing the contrivances. I’m willing to give an author a lot of benefit of the doubt. But if I’m being hard on Smith here, there are elements of the plot that seem questionable if scrutinized too closely. For example, the plot hinges on the German character, Mathias, convincing the Americans to help him find his brother. His brother has disappeared after a one night stand with a woman going to work at an archeological dig. For this to be true, the site has to be marginally well known, not a  secret remote site lost in the Mexican jungle. The girl Mathias’s brother met was planning a trip to the site. But once you experience the vine, who has ever lived to tell about it? How could you plan to do an archeological excavation, go have some fun with a random German guy, and then head to the site? I didn’t buy it. Another example is the behavior of the Mayans who try to keep the tourists away from the pyramid, but then reverse course and trap the tourists there once they’ve stepped on the pyramid. Why? The reader is left guessing. Do they Mayans have some sort of unholy alliance with the vine? We will ensure that your prey stays put. It’s never spelled out. Why is the vine itself trapped on the pyramid? If it’s so all powerful, why doesn’t it just spread?

Anyway, you’ll probably have quibbles of your own if you read the book. In the end, they didn’t kill my enjoyment.

Going back to the theme of callow Americans stepping into a situation they can’t understand or escape, I don’t want it to appear that this subtext overwhelmed the book, or got in the way of a plain, good old suspense story. It’s just a layer that’s there, that surfaced for me as I thought about the book afterward. The book is brutal, grisly yarn, it is fascinating for the way it builds distinct characters and highly readable.

Here’s what I wrote on Amazon: “This is a tour de force and I recommend it. (minor spoilers follow) Other reviewers here have complained about the unremitting doom and the lack of fight the characters display, to which sentiment I agree in part. But I think the author is mainly interested in exploring the reactions of well-developed characters to a hopeless situation, documenting their psychological and physical descent. On that level, the book is a success. The characters are real, distinguishable and flawed. It’s fascinating to see how the author uses point of view, which shifts between the four main American characters, but never allows us to see things from Mathias’s (German) perspective. Like the character himself, we are kept at a distance, even though he is a key figure in the plot, and something of a red herring. (Did he lure the others to the ruins intentionally?). The author leaves the vine’s motivation and genesis a mystery, which gives a slightly unsatisfied taste to the close of the book. But again, it’s not Smith’s chief concern. If this were pure science fiction, an explanation might be warranted. But this is horror, and Smith is interested in what people would do when they are trapped together with pure evil (even in a vegetative state!), not resolving plot threads. Do the characters achieve some grace as the trap closes shut? You’ll have to read to find out.”


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