A Modern Horror Classic
Author: Scott Smith
Indolent, sun-soaked beach days and tequila drenched nights have lulled four tourists into a sense of enervating well-being. To spice up their adventure, they agree to accompany a newly made beach friend on a day journey to an archaeological dig in the Mexican jungle to find and retrieve his brother. Another new friend who only speaks Greek, made during the tequila nights, tags along for the journey. Spiced with a sense of adventure, the group, now six strong, struggles against vacation inertia and fights their way into the heart of the jungle and to their doom.
The Ruins begins in a haze. You can feel the sleepy pull of static days and drunken nights, the torpor of a vacation that has spiraled into samey boredom, the irritation of little things compiling among friends and couples, the small betrayals, the unseen looks that pass over a campfire, the luxury of doing nothing and needing to go nowhere. Jeff, the planner of the group, is aware of the impending return to everyday, to jobs that they aren’t qualified for, to a life that they are hardly prepared to begin, and he wants something more out of this vacation, something beyond the existential dread building in the silence. He plans the trip and gets the group going, and for a little while, at least, he’s able to help them survive.
When the group comes to the dig, what they find is something altogether ancient, unpredictable, silent, and deadly. Trapped, unable to go home, unprepared, hoping for a rescue that is likely never to come, they wait and, one by one, they die.
The Ruins is an atmospheric horror novel, a creeping story that intermingles character development, the baseness and glory of humanity, and the brutality and beauty of nature to create something that is just as gripping as it is imaginative. It’s here, in this sweltering isolation, that the group starts to come apart, that the trials of relationships and friendships and casual acquaintanceships morph into something darker. These interactions, alongside failed attempts at survival, are truly where the novel shines. Characters are built through their actions (or inactions), and as these six people at times comfort and at other times turn on each other, the story gains its heart. It is heartbreaking. The fact that these tourists are just not ready, not prepared – they bring tequila but no sunscreen, sandals to walk through a jungle, cameras instead of sunglasses, etc. – creates a recognizable, creeping horror. The fear of stepping into a situation haplessly, trustingly, and watching it all crumble.
As the story develops, the supernatural element begins to weave in, but it never overwhelms the pure humanity (and occasional stupidity) of the survivors. As the external horror grows, the internal horror and helplessness of the people increases. Relationships fray. Fears increase. The creeping horror in the ruins plays on the emotions, and the novel spirals into dramatic despair. It’s all very elegantly done, subtle yet deeply terrifying, emotionally pulverizing. Ultimately, The Ruins is the story of a group of luckless people who go where they shouldn’t go, who are unprepared and do not understand the power of nature, and who struggle to survive and escape anyway. It’s an excellent example of horror literature at its finest, and each haunting detail builds a sticky world filled with red tipped vines, empty water jugs, sweating people, and the infernal heat of isolation in a jungle teeming with life. Highly recommended.
– Frances Carden
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