Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Adam Nevill - The Ritual

After debuting in 2004 with the limited edition of Banquet for the Damned, and the novel's subsequent mass market release, Nevill cemented his name just last year with Apartment 16. The book was remarkable not only for being so unabashedly horror in a time when the genre, outside of a duo of giant names, seemed more straightjacket than style in terms of sales potential, but also for the coverage the novel received both in general review venues and in countless blogs, horror and otherwise. Between those two books, and their success, it doesn't seem silly at all to call Nevill, along with his contemporary Joe Hill, the biggest author in horror to debut this side of the millennial divide. The man's new book, 2011's The Ritual, is, like everything in the man's catalog, an exploration of a different sub genre of horror. This time we've got, as Mr. Nevill himself put it in our interview, a "Great Outdoors" novel, and – for a time – it seems poised to not only live up to its two predecessors but far surpass them. Alas, it does neither.

We begin with layers of isolation. Luke, a rebel and loner well into middle age, meets up with his three college buddies for a reunion camping trip through the virgin forests of northern Sweden. But those dear friends of his youth have all changed, matured, and left him behind. Now, together with them again, he finds himself lonely in their midst:

He had been so excited about hanging out with them all again and looked forward to it for the six months following Hutch's wedding, when the idea was first mooted. But the trip had been so wretched because he recognized so little of the others now. Which made him wonder if he had ever really known them at all. Fifteen years was a long time, but part of him had still clung to the notion that they were his best friends.

But he was truly on his own out here. They had nothing in common any more. (p. 24)

But, of course, the isolation is not merely an interpersonal one. Luke and his friends are far from the world, utterly cut off and off the trail in the midst of virgin forest. Into this comes an ancient monstrosity, a manifestation of the forest bent on slaughtering the unprepared modern men that wandered into its depths. The  two conflicts feed off one another, with the attempted escape that dominates the first half of the book not so much a flight as a war of attrition, and the conflicts of personality established prior becoming deadly hindrances that must be overcome.

It's as the hunt continues that Nevill's characterization really shines through. We see everything from Luke's perspective and so, at the book's start, his companions seem nothing but belligerent, Phil and Dom as believable middle aged men, but more homogenous archetypes than living, breathing people. The friendlier, and more competent in the outdoors, Hutch, too, seems spineless in the way that he refuses to take a side. As the book progresses, however, the intricacies of each of them become clear in their growing desperation. Without anything so laborious as flashbacks or extended reminiscences, Nevill manages to demonstrate the bond between the friends with nicknames, reliance, and confessions.

Though it's the devilish chase that's paramount now, it soon becomes clear that each of their catastrophes started long before they first set foot in the woods that brought them to a head. Phil and Dom – outwardly wealthy, successful, and happily married – are each on the verge of economic disaster and are both stuck in empty, loveless marriages. Both Phil and Dom reached for happiness, thought they'd found it, and now find themselves struggling to stay afloat in the world at large and upon their blistered feet in the present. Only Luke seems to have gotten what he sought from college on, but the independence he craved has a bitter cost. Luke's at home here, in this struggle of life and death, but he's nothing else: ability with no hope for a better life. As he says, It's the other world I can't cope with. I'm hopeless in it. (p. 201) Of our fourth character, Hutch, his interesting opening does not lead to as much development as the other two, in part due to his relatively early move to off screen. There are hints, given by the others, that maybe Hutch's middle of the road, integrated but not opulent, lifestyle led him to contentment where their path's failed – but, of course, those views were from the outside, and, by the time of those statements, Nevill's already shown us many times how flawed such views can be.

Through all of this, Nevill writes with clear, utilitarian prose that effectively conveys matters of characterization and action. Every once in a while, though, he unleashes a few paragraphs of flawless writing that's somehow as conversationally delivered as it is evocative:

And what is that hanging from the tree line? Stretched between the black fringe of the wood like washing blown from a line and caught in the high tiers of forlorn branch and limb, something flutters. They could be shirts, holed and ragged. Discarded things with torn sleeves. There of them, matched with three sets of frayed leggings, thin as long johns arranged below. And all stained with rust.

Skins. Stripped from dead things. Peeled off and flung upwards to hang like pennants, about the place you sought refuge in. (p. 142)

Of course, The Ritual is far from the only Great Outdoors horror story. One of the earliest examples, and certainly a classic one, is Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows" (1907), where characters canoeing enter a bizarre and otherworldly reason untouched by man. But "The Willows" was a short story, and so closer parallels, at least in terms of structure, might be found in Stephen King's The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999) and Dan Simmons's The Terror (2007). In The Ritual, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and The Terror, we have characters in extreme environments (the woods, the woods again, and the arctic, respectively), and in each the environment is personified in a supernatural menace.

More importantly, each shifts from its central conflict of Man vs. Nature (and supernatural beasty) when it comes time for the climax. The reasons for this are pretty clear: in texts so made of inevitability as these, there's no possible climax with the players already introduced but the protagonist's demise. This might be fine in a short story, but it would be a rather downbeat climax for an exercise stretching into the hundreds of pages. In The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, King solves the problem by introducing an outside party, a hunter, to deal with the monster and rescue the narrator. Achieving the same aims with a tad less dues ex machina, Simmons broadens his novel by the introduction and expansion of the Inuit mythology only hinted at in the rest of the narrative.

So how does Nevill solve this problem? As it turns out, not well. At the halfway mark, Luke reaches the dwelling of a group of black metal musicians, the band Blood Frenzy, eager to summon the beast in the name of Odin, great Wotan who mutters in our blood. (p. 283) Now, the problem is not that the group is unconvincingly depicted. Anyone who's ever interacted with the rather one track members of the modern black metal scene (or, as they'd no doubt put it, kvlt), will feel they know each of these characters. There's even an obligatory declaration of "Poseurs!" at the mention of Dimmu Borgir. (p. 268) No, what the fatal flaw in this solution is rests in the soul of this quote:

Though something notable was missing now. But what was it? From inside him, there had been a removal or a raising of something like a weight. A something that had driven him, wasted him, spent him, left him witless, big-eyed and alight with panic for so long.

Fear.

Fear. The choking of it. The flinching and the paralysis. The relentless expectation of its cold jolt. Fear had finally gone from him. (p. 245)

Luke feels no fear for a moment there, and, though danger soon returns for him, it does not for the reader. The spell breaks in the divide between parts one and two, and the novel goes from a momentous death march resplendent with isolation and death to an excruciating wait in a house of inanities. A large part of this is due to the members of Blood Frenzy. Believably portrayed they might be, but scary they are not. They're, as Luke himself observes, pathetic. They are, as he tells them, a cliché. (p. 345)

These delusional teenagers are not harbingers of a grand revolution but rather misfits, and even if they might be dangerous with a knife, they're a damn poor substitute for the supernatural terror that dominated the novel's first half. While that terror wanders aimlessly outside, Luke spends near two-hundred tension destroying pages with the band members, listening to their doomed (full of shit (p. 323)) plans and their shallow posturing, and the fact that it's meant to be as ludicrous as it is does nothing to redeem the section. The climax, when it comes, should be devastating. It's the moment when the characters of the novel succumb to the bestiality between them and leave all veneer of civilization behind, a conclusion drenched in blood and desperation. There Luke tells his foes: "Mercy is a privilege out here. Not a right." (p. 381) Such a statement should shock us, and the developments mere pages later should terrify. But after so many pages of nothing, even drastic character evolutions and the beast's return can mean little, and the novel that began on so thunderous a note ends with an agonizingly drawn out whimper.

The Ritual, it must be stressed, is not without its strengths. Here are two hundred pages so fantastic that they are not only Nevill's best but, perhaps, some of the best ever penned in the genre. Nevill's grasp of characters and tension has never been greater than here, and he uses all of those skills in the first half. But the face painted drudgery of the second half's overlong refuge destroys all that, a noose well positioned to strangle the beginning's brilliance. In the end, this is a novel too flawed to retain its power.

6 comments:

  1. Certainly Nevill's best, and I don't disagree with any of the points you make here, Ser Kats, but I didn't find The Ritual so utterly ruined by the last act, silly and piddling though it was.

    I'm coming around to thinking that you really can't win with horror along these lines. Either the author rationalises the creepy weird away, which invariably results in disappointment, or he (or she) cuts the narrative short with a dream or a hanging thread and an invite extended to one's imagination - as Caitlin Kiernan has a habit of doing - and that often rankles, too...

    I have no answers!

    Superb review though, mate, as ever.

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  2. The Ritual's opening was indeed awesome, but I wouldn't say it was Nevill's best. For me, I think he's actually best in his least ambitious works, odd as that is. While Ritual and Apartment 16 both had fantastic elements, they each had significant flaws too, at least in my opinion, while the far less flashy Banquet of the Damned made it from start to finish pretty much unscathed.

    I agree that there is a huge problem with endings in horror. Of course, one method's the obvious one - just letting the inevitably triumphing evil actually, you know, triumph. Ligotti, for instance, does that, and I know I would've loved The Ritual if, at the end of those two hundred pages, evil did triumph...

    But I'll admit that I'm not everyone, and that most people would no doubt hate that kind of ending in a novel. I can think of one or two horror novels that did end in a satisfactory manner - George RR Martin's Fevre Dream, for instance - but I can't think of any of the survivalist, great outdoors type that this is, save for The Terror, where I still felt the ending was by far the weakest part. Perhaps the subgenre can only really work in the short story form, where a darker outcome's okay. That'd be a pity, though, as these books do seem to start so well...

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  3. Would you mind terribly if I excerpted some of this discussion for a post on the blog, mate?

    It's probably a few weeks off anyhow, so if there's anything you need me to sign, there's time... :P

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  4. That'd be perfectly fine. Looking forward to seeing the post...

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  5. See the post!

    http://scotspec.blogspot.com/2011/09/but-i-digress-end-of-horror.html

    Ten years later I still don't know the HTML what makes links less ugly. Sorry. :/

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  6. "The spell breaks in the divide between parts one and two, and the novel goes from a momentous death march resplendent with isolation and death to an excruciating wait in a house of inanities."

    Exactly my reaction to the book.

    "The spell breaks." Just so.

    That said, the first part was quite good. Viscerally disturbing.

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