Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Scott Smith - The Ruins
Like, I suspect, many a reader, my interest in The Ruins was first sparked by the Stephen King quote on the cover. The best horror novel of the new century, King says. High praise indeed. Smith does, in fact, lay a superb foundation for an excellent horror novel. Unfortunately, he never gets past the foundations.
Enjoying a vacation in the Mexican sun, two American couples lounge on the beach and party with their fellow tourists. Though none of them speak Greek, they befriend three Greeks. And they befriend a German man named Mathias. Mathias says he has a brother, but they haven't seen him. When they grow to know Mathias better, he tells them that that brother went to an archaeological dig and hasn't been back since. The group, looking to help and looking for a great day amidst the ruins, agree to head out to the site to see what happened. The journey's ominous. Eleven miles down a jungle road, and the driver warns them off the whole time. When they reach the hill the dig's atop, they find the armed denizens of the nearby Mayan village at its base. When they dare to put a foot on the vine covered hill, the Mayans refuse to let them down. Before long, they find the decomposed corpses along the hill's bottom, shot through with arrows as they tried to flee. The tourists are trapped, and, needless to say, things only get worse from there.
The vine, they come to realize, is at the center of it all. It's not just omnipresent, not just absurdly fast growing. It doesn't only feast on dead flesh. The vine is malevolent. Worse, it moves. It thinks. The vine is trying to destroy them. It lays traps. It stretches out to devour any blood they spill. It crawls into their wounds. It makes the sound of laughter. It begins to speak, imitating their voices to drive them apart. One of the tourists, Eric, is even sure that it's inside him, growing in the cavity in his chest, shoving his organs aside as it strengthens.
Quarantined by jailors they can't hope to plead with, trapped with an impossible menace that seeks their death, the characters and the reader discover that the hot Yucatan sun is no barrier to claustrophobia. Early on, Eric begins to ask: Who are they? (p. 28) He doesn't just mean the Mayans outside. He doesn't just mean the Greek and the German that they're with. He doesn't even just mean his friends. No, even Eric himself is now a mystery to the question's asker. Here, pushed to and past the brink of sanity, the characters discover things about themselves and each other that they wouldn't have thought possible. Quickly, they diverge into two groups. One, led by and sometimes only consisting of Jeff, is always planning, always ready to take any measures aimed at survival, no matter how grotesque or futile. The rest don't have his nerve. Or, alternatively, don't have his inhumanity.
Agency seems the chief question. Early on, before the troubles reach their peak, one character thinks back to how a relative of theirs cautioned them against simply reacting until, one day, they realized they had let life pass them by. It's necessary to plan, that relative cautions them. Planning, always planning – because that was what it meant to be alive (p. 422), one character eventually concludes. But such planning is rendered impotent by the constricting vines. Destiny is not in the characters' hands. At best, Jeff can struggle to stay alive for just a few days longer. Escape, the ultimate questions of life and death, are not in their hands.
Amidst all this, Smith's prose is not flashy but is often quite good, especially when it comes to the creation of specific and horrific images, the best of which is, I believe, the following: He believed that if he were to cut himself at this spot, just the smallest of incisions, the plant would tumble outward into the light, smeared with his blood, like some horrific newborn, writhing and twisting its flowers opening and closing, a dozen tiny mouths begging to be fed. (p. 300) The characters begin hard to tell apart, and the women could have used more differentiation, but Jeff and Eric both come off extremely well, the former characterized by his utter determination and the latter by his perpetual and ultimately mad wordgames, making increasingly frightened word chains that begin with a certain letter, such as: Dreaming, delirium, dying… (p. 300) Mathias, too, has a quiet strength about him, one that promises powerful things to come.
All of this potential – the set up, the claustrophobia, the questions of planning and identity, the characters – isn't so much squandered as let sit. Having laid the groundwork, Smith proceeds to capitalize on none of it, and it was in the last few pages of the novel that I realized my worst fears were going to come true – none of it was going anywhere. The Ruins is at once far too long and far too short. At 500 pages, it is a fair bit longer than the average horror novel. By switching among perspectives, Smith is able to keep the tension up for most of that length, but, at some point, the reader stops and wonders what's happened and where it's all going. And while The Ruins had five hundred pages worth of buildup, it has none at all of answers, climax, or development.
The chief problem with it all is the abrupt ending, coming from nowhere to slay the whole cast without any dignity or, save in one fantastic case, any climax. The buildup of interpersonal tension, of questions of what survival is worth morally, of different plans – all of that goes nowhere. After the fairly early revelation that it is not only malevolent but sentient, the vine goes nowhere. Its origins remain an utter mystery. It has some grand evil plan for the characters' demise, we are told, but things never come to that point, and it comes to nothing. All of the rising tension and promises Smith makes add up to nothing. The climax could have been slotted in at page two hundred without significant alteration.
Perhaps because of his quote on the cover, The Ruins invites comparisons to Stephen King. Specifically, in my mind, to some of the stories in Skeleton Crew. One gets the sense that Smith is attempting to be the collection's highpoint, "The Mist": an epic in terms of impact and emotion, even if confined to a single area, a statement about man's purpose and abilities in the face of inevitability and the world beyond him. He doesn't quite make it. In addition, The Ruins seems to be striving to be "Survivor Type," the horrific tale of a man who will do absolutely anything to survive. But the characters in The Ruins are never pushed to that point; though disaster is perpetually looming, and though Jeff makes grim statements, they are never actually made to face the consequences of their hard decisions.
Ultimately, the King story that most resembles The Ruins is "The Raft". In both, young Americans (joined in the novel by nicely exotic foreigners) enter a seemingly innocuous area for relaxation and are relentlessly pursued, hemmed in, and then slaughtered by an utterly inexplicable force. In my review of Skeleton Crew, I said that The Raft was "extremely enjoyable," and it was. It was darkly claustrophobic, filled with inevitability and doom, and it didn't overstay its welcome. The first two certainly apply to The Ruins. The last one, not so much. It's not that the formula doesn't work for Smith. It does. Most of The Ruins is suspenseful and well done. It's just that he doesn't hit a single note that King doesn't, and he takes more than ten times as long to hit those notes. Without anything (anything at all) else thrown in, the story can't sustain itself over that kind of expansion. It's not so much weak as it is empty, desperately needing either an additional hundred pages to fulfill every promise and leave the reader stunned by its power or a pruning of two or three hundred pages to function as a lean and mean blow to the gut.
As is, The Ruins isn't bad at all, and you'll certainly be entertained while reading it. But it doesn't break any new ground, and, no matter how important an ancient mine shaft may be to the story, it doesn't go deeply enough at all into its own well trodden soil to justify itself. An acceptable horror novel? Sure, I'll give it that. Best of the new century? Not even close.