Sunday, 11 December 2016

Not Quite Book Review Corner: The Ruins (Scott Smith)

I spent rather more time than I would have liked in hospital during my recent UK trip, but it gave me time to read a book I'd bought to entertain me on the flight: Scott Smith's The Ruins (2006). It was one of three I'd bought, the other two being a Michael Slade and a Jack Higgins. I don't look for aesthetic or intellectual entertainment when I fly; I want something interesting enough to make it worth my while turning pages, and that's it. It's different when you're comfortable, awake and alert, but those three things are not what flying is all about.

The Ruins was an unknown quantity. I didn't recognize the author. I later discovered he's the guy who wrote A Simple Plan (1993), a thriller I very much admire, but at the time the name Scott Smith plucked no forgotten strings of memory. The Ruins is his second, and to date he's only written two. The man does not believe in rushing things along.

He's an MFA Fine Arts who's got a few screenwriting credits behind him, and is currently working on Civil, a TV drama-cum-thriller-cum God Alone Knows in which nation-shattering violence breaks out after a hotly contested election. He seems to prefer obscurity; he's given few interviews and in those interviews he says little about how he works or what he's working on. He likes bookstores. So there's a plus.

The Ruins begins deep in Mexico's tourist heartland. Four Americans meet a German and three Greeks. The German has a problem; he and his brother fell out after the brother met a pretty archaeologist and the brother ran off to join her at some dig out in the boondocks. Now it's almost time for their flight home, and the brother hasn't come back. What, he asks the Americans, do they think he should do?

To them this all seems like a fantastic side adventure with a hint of illicit romance. Besides, going out to see some picturesque antiquities was on their To Do list, even if these particular antiquities seem to be a not very remarkable mine far from the comforts of civilization. So they pack a hearty picnic lunch, rent a taxi, and zoom off to the ruins. Ignoring the taxi driver's Borgo Pass-style warning - 'this place no good. Give me fifteen dollar, I take you somewhere better.' - they get off where they think the footpath to the ruins ought to be. There their problems begin.

The locals in the village nearby are as unfriendly as it is possible to be without actually shooting them. The locals pretend not to understand what they're talking about, and don't encourage them to stay. However by luck and some deductive reasoning they find the right footpath, which has been carefully camouflaged with leaves and brush. Following that path they find a pleasant hilltop covered with greenery and beautiful flowers, surrounded by a wide strip of what seems to be burnt out landscape, not unlike a moat cut out of the jungle. They can see what seems to be a tent at the top of the hill, presumably belonging to the archaeologists.

In short order the locals arrive, and they are not best pleased. Many of them are armed, and more are on the way. The leader seems to be about to let them go, but then one of the Americans accidentally sets foot on the flowery hillside. That contaminating foot is enough, and they're all ordered to climb the hill. No questions, no going back: climb.

Then things really get weird, but to go any further would involve major spoilers.

This, like Smith's previous novel, has also been made into a movie. While I have not seen that movie the trailer gives me no confidence whatsoever, and I'd avoid watching the film before reading the book as it might ruin things for you. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a pretty mixed rating, for what that's worth.

I like smart horror. By that I mean I like the characters to be strong characters who don't do anything dumb for reasons that are transparently plot related. Everyone has to behave in keeping with their character and everyone has to make reasonable decisions. Not necessarily correct decisions - in horror there aren't many of those - but reasonable according to the facts available at the time.

This is very smart horror. Even the locals, who might otherwise be faceless cyphers, are interesting, and behave very much in keeping with a group of people who've found themselves living next door to Satan's Left Buttock. Having found a way to keep the wicked emanations at bay they dedicate their lives to ensuring nobody goes near, and if somebody does, they make sure the unlucky wanderers never get out. Perfectly reasonable, under the circumstances. After all, we know what happens when you rely on the authorities to solve your problem for you.

Seldom have I read anything quite so much in the present tense. The only comparable I have is Andy McNab, and you know how I feel about him. Yet in this everything relentlessly flows from moment to moment, less like a narrative and more like a rising flood, carrying everything before it. Nothing in this novel happens without you silently witnessing it; there are no off-camera segues.

The antagonist is pleasingly Lovecraftian. By that I mean it is unknowable, alien, and malign. You get the sense that it's just biding its time up there on the hillside, waiting for the locals' guard to drop. It voraciously devours everything it can get - birds, animals, insects - and human targets are o-so-tasty, but perhaps a little large and feisty to be swarmed in a frontal assault. So it resorts to trickery and illusion to get the job done, luring them into dangerous situations where they can be picked off one by one.

Narratively it reminds me of John Wyndham and while some of you may be leaping towards a certain novel I'm actually thinking of the criticism levelled by Christopher Priest, who called Wyndham 'the master of the middle-class catastrophe.' The main characters are all nice college kids with money and all the nice things that money can buy. They've had good educations, they're smart, they can handle themselves in most situations and soon they'll be going off into the working world.

Here they are enjoying an exotic vacation. Here they are going off to rescue their friend's brother from a silly romantic misadventure. Here they are climbing a flower-covered hill, threatened with death if they try to come down again.

One of them thinks wistfully about her nice things, left in the hotel back in Cancun. Perhaps the maid will steal them.

It all speaks to a kind of invulnerability middle class Westerners think they enjoy. Nothing can seriously go wrong, not to them. After all, they're on vacation. They're having a good time. They just want to go out for the day, have a picnic, see some scenery and go home again. What's so difficult about that?

The other two books I bought for the trip are long gone. I don't believe in carrying excess baggage, and I brought too much stuff home with me to want to burden myself with even a fraction of a kilo's weight. I don't think the Harris even left Bermuda's airport; I dumped it for someone else to find, and same goes for the Slade. I believe in being a Johnny Appleseed of books, and English pubs are quite good places to spread the love.

I almost took the Smith to Dragonmeet to pass on to some unwitting host. I didn't. I almost passed it on some other way - after all, I had three days in London after Dragonmeet before getting on a plane.

It's with me now, on my desk in front of me.

You don't get rid of the good stuff.

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