November 13, 2006

BOOKS: The Ruins, Scott Smith (2006)

Four young Americans, just out of college, are vacationing in Mexico. They're having a blast, drinking and flirting with other vacationing students from around the world. One of their new acquaintances, searching for his brother, plans a day trip to a nearby archaelogical dig, and our foursome agree to go with him; they are joined by another of their new friends, a Greek man who speaks no English or Spanish.

As they near the site of the dig, the six are repeatedly warned away. The taxi driver refuses to take them beyond a certain point; the local villagers actively try to stop them from going any further. But once they've set foot on the hill where the dig is supposed to be located, the villagers do an about-face, refusing to let them off the hill.

That's the setup for Smith's novel, which arrives thirteen years after the enormous success of his first book, A Simple Plan. It's a very different type of book; instead of the psychological crime drama of the earlier novel, The Ruins gives us straight-up horror. For there is something on that hill, and it is not friendly.

It's very quickly clear that there are only two ways The Ruins can end: Either there is a miraculous rescue, or the group is doomed to a series of slow, unpleasant deaths. What's remarkable about the book is that as it goes on, and the rescue becomes less and less likely, Smith manages to hold our attention and keep the fear level high. It's an even more impressive feat because the menace on the hill is not something inherently scary, and it proves to have unprecedented talents and abilities; some of the scenes it which it terrorizes our heroes could easily teeter over into camp. Smith never lets that happen, though, and the horror never lets up; it is, in the words one character keeps repeating, "inexorable, inevitable."

Very nicely done.

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