The Ruins by Scott Smith
Consider this a palate-cleanser, a bit of throwaway fiction between the heavy doses of Miéville and Peake. And it is throwaway fiction; I picked it up at a Goodwill, and I doubt it will remain even on my paperback shelf for long. I’m not saying The Ruins is a bad book, because it isn’t, but…well… OK, look: I’m not nearly the horror junkie that I once was. Parenthood can do that to you, as your children get older and you start to see characters as somebody else’s children themselves. Increasing mindfulness can do that to you as well; as you start to realize your oneness with everyone else, your monkeysphere expands and seeing or reading about horrible things happening to people becomes so emotionally draining that you can’t put yourself through it unless something else about the experience makes it worthwhile. The Ruins is juuuust that close to making a re-read worthwhile, but not quite.
The Ruins begins with two couples on vacation in Mexico. Jeff, Amy, Eric and Stacy are fairly generic young Americans out for one last hurrah before donning the shackles of their professional lives. They befriend a German tourist, Mathias, and a group of boisterous Greeks who speak neither English nor Spanish; they introduce themselves to everyone as Pablo, Juan, and Don Quixote. As it happens, Mathias’ brother Heinrich has run off to a dig in the middle of the jungle pursuing some hot archeologist babe that he just met, and Mathias wants to follow him; Jeff volunteers everyone’s company to help him out, and Pablo tags along for the hell of it. It’s apparent from the very beginning that these idiots are in way, way over their heads, and shit gets real in a hurry as the group finds itself trapped in the dig, held prisoner by a group of Mayans who didn’t want them to come but won’t let them leave once they’re there. From here everything could easily have dissolved into hackneyed Deliverance-in-Mexico drivel or something like that, but Smith isn’t interested in that. He wants to see what happens to people and their relationships with each other when the pressure is turned up, and up, and up. Sure, there’s something evil in the ruins, but if you’re expecting a frenetic and white-knuckle adrenaline ride like, say, Neil Marshall’s film The Descent, you’re not going to get it. This evil is cold, and calculating; it toys with the group, playing on their fears and insecurities, and let me tell you, it’s a dick. The tone of the book is not frantic but brooding; Smith deals with dread rather than panic, and with nihilism rather than triumphant struggle.
Ultimately this sort of book lives and dies by its characters, and that’s where I think it misses the mark. The only really three-dimensional character is Mathias, and Smith draws him masterfully, but the rest are stereotypical whiny, spoiled American tourists, particularly the women. There are sporadic moments of interest as the relationships of the couples and the friendships between the six start to crack and snap under the strain, but ultimately you just don’t like them enough to care. Smith could stand to learn a few things from George R.R. Martin, who seems to refuse to kill a character unless you’ve gotten to know him like a friend; it’s that sort of emotional investment that gets someone like me to re-read something difficult or draining, and I don’t have it in The Ruins. Smith did part of his job really well; the situation that these people are in is chilling and in some parts transcends horror into terror. I’m just not willing to watch people go through what they go through when I don’t feel like spending time with them in the first place.
I should note that The Ruins was adapted by Smith for the screen, to apparently mixed reviews. I have not seen the film.