THE RUINS, by Scott Smith

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Adam-Troy Castro
Posted on Tuesday, August 15, 2006 - 09:09 am:   

THE RUINS by Scott Smith.

This is a very problematic book.

Scott Smith is the author of A SIMPLE PLAN, a modern-day “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” about a financially-strapped suburbanite who commits greater and greater crimes in defense of a cache of stolen money he and his brother find in the wreckage of a crashed airplane. It’s a small masterpiece, in that it details the slow damnation of its fundamentally-decent protagonist in certain, sure strokes. Sam Raimi made a movie, that was itself quite good, though it truncated the final act and completely omitted the story’s true climax. The book was better.

Smith took ten years to produce this second novel, which has been favorably reviewed by Stephen King among others, and which enters the realm of horrific fantasy.

And, yes, it’s damned effective.

But damned effective at what?

The story, in its broadest outline, follows two young American couples, along with a friendly Greek and a German they have met on their sun-drenched vacation in Mexico, on their doomed wild goose case into the rain forest, as they accompany the German to an “Archeological Dig” where they expect to find his brother.

It becomes rapidly clear that the first fifty pages are cutting them off from civilization, and from any easy way back home. But they ignore all danger signs – including a cab driver who urges them to come back with him, calling the area dangerous – and by the time they encounter a tribe of Indians that represents their last chance to turn back, their best option is an 18-mile walk back to the nearest bus.

Soon after that – ignoring a warning that is by itself so blatant that readers will be screaming at them for their stupidity – they have all entered another area I will call for what it is: a deathtrap.

Scott Edelman, who also read the book, long despised them by this point, considering them irredeemably stupid.

I was willing to buy it on the grounds that they didn’t know they were in a horror story and could be forgiven a little blindness. Even though I was screaming at them, too: “You idiots! Aren’t you paying attention? Turn back!”

The real problem comes when the deathtrap makes itself known.

I won’t get into the nature of this deathtrap, except to say that it’s well into the realm of the fantastic, and might be anything from supernatural to extraterrestrial to merely an unknown freak of evolution on this planet.

But I can tell you its essential elements.

They are trapped on a hill, and unable to venture outside a certain perimeter without being killed instantly.

They have only one tent for shelter, and only the minimal food and water they brought with them.

It is broiling hot in the Mexican sun.

There is no shade but the tent itself.

They are surrounded on all sides by a malignant menace they have no means of resisting. A menace that can kill them slowly, or quickly, depending on its whims. A menace that, it soon becomes clear, has devoured entire generations of previous wanderers who stumbled across the hill.

Their only hope is the slim chance that somebody will happen by, can be warned off before joining them, and will be able to come back with help, BEFORE they die of thirst, heatstroke, and the steady accumulation of injuries, over long, agonizing days.

That’s it.

And yes, this is terrifying enough. That first fifty pages is, I think, a masterpiece of steadily increasing dread. And much of what follows is suspenseful as all hell, as the deathtrap inexorably closes around them.

Smith is very good at capturing their inner monologues, and making everything that happens vivid and immediate. Line by line, this is one of the best-written thrillers in quite some time.

But really: because it’s clear from early on that there is no possible escape, nor any possible plan for survival beyond trying to stay alive and hoping that rescue arrives, it amounts to six people (including one who is critically injured almost right away), sitting around in the sun waiting to die.

By design, they are spam on a frying pan.

So the character arc of the novel is exactly that of the five stages of death.

You know, I don’t remember all the threads I participate in online, but I remember one, about a decade ago, where writers in a snarky mood debated the kind of manuscript most likely to piss off an editor. Folks competed, coming up with the boneheaded ploys that would irritate an editor on the first page. I pointed out, “A book that can be put down on the first page actually saves an editor time and trouble. If you want to REALLY inconvenience an editor, submit a thrilling, well-written, compelling and suspenseful 500-page buildup to absolutely nothing.”

That’s essentially what happens here.

And it’s not just the fact – no spoiler here, since it’s clear early on – that these characters are doomed and are not destined for a happy ending.

In the recent past I have praised such novels as Brian Keene’s CITY OF THE DEAD and Jack Ketchum’s OFF SEASON, whose protagonists are pretty clearly doomed from page one. Give me time and I’m certain I can come up with any number of other examples.

I don’t need happy endings.

I don’t even need hope.

Give me reason to root for the characters and I will follow even the darkest tale into the abyss, whether I know it’s coming or not.

What I do need is characters who can act, and resist, and fight like hell before they go into that good night. Characters who, if given the opportunity to speak from beyond the grave, would at least be able to say, “Well, dammit, you can’t say I didn’t try.”

Gimme a bunch of doomed folks fighting like hell until they’re overrun by zombies, as in Keene’s CITY OF THE DEAD, and I’ll say, well, dammit, they tried. They did what they could do.

Gimme a well-written book like that – and Keene’s book is well-written, just not one-tenth as well-written as this thing -- and I will exult in it.

THE RUINS denies us even the fight. Its protagonists can only sit around and wait for help and squabble over water and watch as their situation gets worse and care for the critically-wounded member of their party and come up with plans that won’t work.

It can enter their heads and, with absolute skill, follow their fantasies and self-recriminations and the fracturing of their personalities.

It can cook them until they’re well-done, keep rendering their situation more and more hopeless, and gradually bring them to the point where stepping outside that perimeter, and thus accepting immediate death, makes more sense than continuing to suffer.

This is, in short, Hamlet’s soliloquy, *except* that the characters cannot take arms against their sea of troubles, because they have absolutely no means, but endurance, of helping themselves.

It is sheer futility. Futility written with consummate skill, but still futility. Perhaps one of the best written thrillers in some time, but still futility.

Some people will admire it for precisely this reason. They will call it “unrelenting.” Certainly Stephen King does.

But you know something?

When Stephen King wrote a similar plot, “The Raft,” (about four kids who swim out to a raft and are trapped by a monster who will not let them leave, and will pick them off no matter what they do), he was done with it at novelette length.

If you were open to his conceit, you were done with the story before you had a chance to resent it.

Now imagine sticking around for two hundred pages to watch those kids dehydrate, or (if wounded) slowly linger and die.

The result is stunning in its pointlessness.

And it ends precisely the way you would expect it to: a scene utterly familiar from the last scenes of any number of horror stories before it. Imagine a question mark after THE END and you’ve pretty much got it.

Unsurprsingly, I cannot recommend this book.

I can remember A SIMPLE PLAN, and sigh, and hope that Scott Smith doesn’t make us wait ten years for his next one. Because the son of a bitch really can write.

18 August 2006

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