Scott Smith,
The Ruins
(Vintage, 2006)

Scott Smith's The Ruins, the author's sophomore novel and first since 1993's A Simple Plan, is an achievement in horror set on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Though the story contains many of the traditional (read: stereotypical) elements -- a cast of a half-dozen vacationing twentysomethings, exotic locale, multiple deaths -- that one typically finds in horror stories, Smith's scary tale still felt overwhelmingly fresh. And where Smith best differentiates from the genre path is in his polished storytelling, which kept me guessing about the fate of the story, and of its characters, until the final page.

The Ruins tells the story of two American couples and a Greek vacationer who are convinced by a German they meet while in Mexico to accompany him to a mysterious spot of Mayan ruins to help him track down his brother, who just a few days earlier followed a girl to that very spot. With the aid of a hand-drawn map, the group runs into multiple obstacles -- a strange Mayan town, a miss-marked path, a driver that warns them not to approach the ruins -- before reaching their destined spot. Even with the blatant danger signs, including a number of armed Mayans who won't allow the group to leave the ruins once they set foot on it, the group reluctantly pursues its search for the brother of a man they've known less than a week. And here is where the group encounters its villainous nemesis for the remainder of the story -- a deadly vine that has plenty of tricks in store in its effort to ensure the vacationers never leave the ruins alive.

Though a bit ridiculous in what it is able to do -- let's just say the novel could in no way be based on a true story, hopefully -- the vine turns out to be a more than formidable foe for the vacationers and a sickly entertaining and original villain for the reader. Though it must be said, the tale does grow to be a bit gruesome for Smith's unfortunate characters. Limbs are broken, lives are destroyed -- emotionally and physically -- and flesh is vigorously cut into, because once the vine finds its way inside you, the only way to get it out is to get in there and find it.

What I didn't care for, though, is the ease in which the American couples are convinced to join the German, a man they have only known for a few days, in finding his brother. On top of this, the group runs into its fair share of obstacles before reaching the ruins, and it only makes sense that someone in the group would protest the decision to continue. But given that the group discovers the ruins, and setting for the remainder of the story, fairly quickly, it really is no more than a minor flaw.

And of course, The Ruins is not high literature. In fact, it's far from it. It's a gory tale that puts the fates of six characters in the hands of a mythic, and very alive, vine. And that's about all. But taking it for what it is, Smith's novel is a fast, solid read that shouldn't -- and really can't -- be taken too seriously.

review by
Eric Hughes

12 July 2008

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