Horror fiction isn’t usually my thing, but lately it’s piqued by interest. And so it is that I’ve read three horror novels over the past two months—Joyland and The Dead Zone [review forthcoming] by Stephen King and The Ruins by Scott Smith. Though King is the undisputed grandmaster of the horror genre, these particular selections weren’t very horror-y. Rather, they were stories about growing into adulthood with some supernatural/paranormal elements thrown in, and which were generally more creepy and thought-provoking that terrifying.
The Ruins isn’t like that at all. It’s dyed-in-the-wool horror, serious freakout shit that threatens to melt your brain and infect your dreams. It’s also very conventional horror, structurally speaking: four teens/young adults go on an exotic journey for an indulgent vacation, full of sex, drinking and so forth, only to discover they are at the mercy of a malevolent force seeking their death. It’s the kind of thing you know from basically every horror film you’ve seen, and the kind of thing satirized in the genre’s periodic meta-comedies, like Scream or The Cabin in the Woods. The Ruins is that. It’s a good version of that, but it is still that.
The premise is basically this: Jeff, Eric, Amy and Stacey are vacationing in Cancun, Mexico. There they meet the stoic German Matthias and a bunch of loud Greeks no one can understand. Despite cultural barriers, or perhaps because of them, they are fast friends. Unfortunately, Matthias’ brother has gone off into the Yucatan jungle to meet some hot archeologist and excavate the ruins of an abandoned mine (some some undisclosed previous era). They set off, with one of the incomprehensible Greeks, into the jungle to find the missing German. They encounter some unfriendly Mayans, who try to warn them off their quest. They don’t listen, because they are stupid, arrogant teens/young adults who violate the first rule of fiction written by white people that features indigenous people interacting with white protagonists on a quest: listen to the wise keepers of hidden knowledge! They do not, and that puts them on a hill with the eponymous ruins and a very strange, curious form of vegetation.
The first 50 pages from here are fairly tedious, and mostly because the perspective characters—Jeff, Eric, Amy and Stacey, are all really uninteresting. Jeff is slightly interesting, as he’s the only competent one, but Eric, Amy and Stacey are just whiny and helpless. (Maybe that’s realistic? Doesn’t make for good fiction, though. And two out of two girls are helpless? GOD HELP ME.) Of the non-perspective characters, Matthias is actually pretty cool and Pablo (the incomprehensible Greek) is just a disaster, both as a character and as a stereotype.
Thankfully, The Ruins picks up from there. From the moment when the true nature of the horror reveals itself, the book is basically impossible to put down. Smith does an excellent job balancing the growing fear with dwindling hopes, and the speculative nature of the horror itself is much more interesting than your average ghost, vampire, werewolf or zombie.
All that said, don’t take the criticisms to mean this is a bad book. It’s actually a book that does certain things really well and other things not well. I think I get what Smith was after here—a horror book that plays with a limited number of variables in the conventional formula. Those moments are clearly the best bits; there should have been more of them. Still, this is a quality read for an airplane or holiday.
Baseline Assessment: 6/10
Bonuses: +1 for quality speculative horror; +1 for palpable tension.
Penalties: -1 for terrible characters; -1 for lazy gender and ethnic stereotyping.
Nerd Coefficient: 6/10. "Enjoyable, but has some serious issues."
Why a 6 isn't terrible.