The Ruins by Scott Smith (book review).

‘The Ruins’ is a horror novel by Scott Smith. It’s probably a fantasy horror novel but it might be Science Fiction, depending on how far you want to stretch science. The true nature of the menace is not revealed, just its terrible effects.

Four young Americans go on holiday to Cancún, Mexico for a fun summer break before starting college. Amy is fair and Stacy, her best friend since childhood, is dark-haired. Amy’s boyfriend is Jeff and Stacy’s boyfriend is Eric. While in Cancún, they meet four Greek youths, including one who calls himself Pablo and a young German named Mathias. He has a brother named Heinrich who met a girl and went off with her to an archaeological dig in the jungle about fifteen miles from the small town of Cobá. Mathias wants to go after his brother and asks the four Americans to go with him. They think it will be a bit of fun for a few days to see an archaeological dig and agree.

Pablo comes along for the ride. They get a bus to Cobá and a taxi up the dirt track to the jungle. There’s a Mayan village nearby and the natives are not friendly. Eventually, our heroes find the path to the dig. The site is a large mound, a hillock shaped like a breast and covered in strange ivy. Very strange ivy indeed. Almost accidentally, they get onto the mound. It quickly becomes clear that the Mayans will shoot them if they try to get off again. They’re trapped. This is the point of no return, around fifty pages into the story. But how bad can it be?

The fifty pages are not wasted because the author uses them to introduce his cast in detail. There are no chapters and the third person point of view switches between the four Americans. Pablo and Mathias are active in the story but we only see them through other eyes. Like Stephen King, who he admires and who wrote a generous blurb for the back cover, Scott Smith gets deep into the personalities of his horror victims. Briefly, Jeff is efficient, a boy scout who can make fire, work wonders with string, knows first aid and plans rationally to stretch food and water until they can be rescued. Eric is something of a dreamer and easily led. Pablo leads him into drinking tequila.

Amy seems to be the one who complains and hates being seen as a moaner but can’t help pointing out what’s wrong. Stacy is sexy, flighty and dreamy. Jeff’s like the hero of a Heinlein juvenile but no Heinlein hero had companions like these and his best-laid plans go awry. Some of the characters are careless to the point of stupidity but, if you think back to your youth, honestly, weren’t most of us a bit daft? The plant that covers the mound is the real villain of the piece though. It’s definitely alive but could it possibly be sentient?

Four young Americans getting attacked by something mysterious and horrible is standard B-movie fodder and there’s a film like this on the Horror Channel every day. Ho-hum, you might say, but Scott Smith tackles the characters in depth and makes you feel it. In ‘Misery’, Stephen King frequently referred to the ‘Gotcha’, the point at which the reader is hooked and has to keep reading. Smith does ‘Gotcha’ good and had me by page fifty. The threat level builds slowly, surely, and there are plenty of inventive new ways for the mound to terrify Jeff and his friends. I wanted to know how it would all turn out.

Scott Smith is also a screenwriter and the story cries out for translation to that medium. Hell, he probably wrote it with that in mind. He wrote the screenplay for ‘The Ruins’ when they filmed it in 2008. The book first came out in 2006, long ago, so you can pick up the hardcover for £10 and the paperback for around £3. Recommended for fans of Stephen King by Stephen King and, for what it’s worth, I enjoyed it too.

Eamonn Murphy

October 2020

(pub: Alfred A. Knopf. 319 page hardback. Price: $24.95 (US), $32.05 (CAN). ISBN: 1-4000-4387-5)

checkout websites: www.aaknopf.com and www.entertheruins.com

Eamonn Murphy

Eamonn Murphy reviews books for sfcrowsnest and writes short stories for small press magazines. His eBooks are available at all good retailers or see his website: https://eamonnmurphywriter298729969.wordpress.com/

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