I’ve purchased a lot of books that carried a cover blurb by Stephen King. Generally speaking, the guy’s got pretty good taste when it comes to recommending horror novels. I read (and thoroughly enjoyed) both Clive Barker’s Books of Blood and Dan Simmons’ Summer Of Night based on a few words from King pasted on the back cover.
So it was with this in mind that I bought and read The Ruins by Scott Smith. It was the "best horror novel of the new century" according to King. There was a movie earlier this year, but I haven’t seen it yet.
It’s not the best horror novel of the new century. I haven’t read all that many, but King’s own Duma Key is better. So was The Terror which I reviewed earlier on this blog. In fact, The Ruins is pretty blah.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a very good read. The characters are well-drawn, the situation certainly tense. But it’s 500 pages long and could have been cut by about, oh…400 of those pages. This is a novella engorged to novel length.
In many ways, it reminded me of Stephen King’s short story, "The Raft," published in his anthology Skeleton Crew. In that story, about 20-30 pages if I remember right, a handful of people swim out to a moored raft in the middle of a lake, only to find that they are trapped there by a spot on the water that resembles an oil slick, but moves independently and with thought, and which dissolves the flesh of anyone unlucky enough to contact it.
In The Ruins, a handful of people go to some ancient ruins near Cancun, Mexico only to find themselves trapped there by vines that move independently, can mimic sounds and even human voices, and which dissolve the flesh of anyone unlucky enough to get trapped by them. Also, like "The Raft" the entire story here could be staged as a play. Aside from a brief prologue in a beach resort, a short tale of the journey to the ruins, and a brief trip into a hole in the ground, all of the action takes place in one setting.
What is missing from The Ruins, aside from any real action, is a reason. Sure, we’re given a reason for the five intrepid vacationers to be there. But the murderous vines are never explained. What are they? Where are they from? I’ve read every page and I still don’t know.
What we have here is nihilism. Things happen, but there is never a reason for it. The book is little more than an excuse to describe some gruesome deaths. Since there is no point to the deaths, then everything leading up to it is rendered pointless as well. The essence of tragedy is when bad things happen to people for whom the reader cares. The endings of, say, Nevil Shute’s On the Beach or Daniel Keyes’ Flowers For Algernon are certainly sad, even depressing. But the ending of The Ruins just makes me wonder why I went through 500 pages to get to this point. The ending is not pathos as it is in the Shute or Keyes book. It’s just bleak.
The book is a diverting read. It’s certainly a fast read, like a Dean Koontz or Stephen King book. You could do a lot worse than to curl up in bed on a rainy weekend and lose yourself in this world (you could be reading a James Patterson novel, for instance), and once you start the book is pretty compelling. It’s no-holds-barred horror in the tradition of other "go-straight-for-the-throat-and-don’t-let-go" writers like James Herbert or the team of John Skipp and Craig Spector, and it shares something of the latter duo’s dark world view (but not their sense of humor which lightened even gloomfests like The Bridge). But when it’s over you may just find yourself asking why you didn’t read something else.
Read it if it’s there and you like a decently scary story that doesn’t require too much thought.