Monday, January 15, 2007

Literature: The Ruins by Scott Smith

Author Stephen King has gushed not once but twice about Scott Smith’s recently published terror spasm The Ruins in his column “The King of Pop” from Entertainment Weekly. King has good reason to gush, both because The Ruins is a spanking good read (or listen, in this case) and because Smith has played Mozart to King’s Haydn in perfecting some of King’s most tried and true horror tools. Stephen King made a cottage industry of taking the mundane everyday and infusing it with a white-hot element of terror so potent that we can no longer look at St. Bernards, lawn art, or the summer lake trip in the same way. Smith takes King’s lead and runs with it … relentlessly.

Scott Smith is previously known for his book A Simple Plan, published in 1994 and adapted into a successful movie of the same title in 1999. That book focused on the psychology of guilt and secret keeping, with the added elements of greed, sloth, and lust, all timely topics in King’s middle period. The Ruins closest King kin may be The Shining and, by extension, It. The plot centers on a vacation of young adults before returning to school, a circumstance so common that one could not imagine a vein of horror in it (allowing that such a scenario has been employed in countless teen exploitation movies). But that is the beauty of such writing. It only takes a minute psychic nudge to push circumstances to a fever brink.

Smith’s story focuses on a group two American couples on holiday in Cancun, Mexico. A plain and common enough scenario repeated dozens of times each year. There, the Americans (Eric, Jeff, Amy, and Stacy) meet “The Greeks” (several Greek youths with no English or Spanish skills) and the German Matthias. They eat drink and lay around a lot until Matthias prepares to look for his brother, Heinrich, who recently disappeared after ostensibly visiting an archeological dig a day’s drive away. Eric, Jeff, Amy, and Stacy, one of the Greeks, Pablo, and Matthias leave Cancun; following a map left for Matthias by Hienrich directing him to an archeological site deep within Mexico’s interior where Heinrich had gone before dropping of the face of the planet.

And that is the last peace the reader enjoys for the remainder of the book. Through the seemingly innocuous introduction, Smith imperceptivity ratchets the story’s natural tension to the point that when things really begin to go wrong, the reader is already humming at a million hertz. Once in this state, Smith strums the reader as if a high tension guitar. Smith’s narrative is at once urgent and matter-of-fact, reflecting the mixed emotions of its protagonists and the direness of their shared situation. Smith uses environment to the story’s advantage. The ruins are bright, hot, and dry, giving the narrative a close, claustrophobic feeling similar to that promoted by Stephen King in books like Cujo and Gerald’s Game, the inherent horror in close quarters, whether those quarters are physical spaces or states of mind. The story smacks of The Tommyknockers and Lord of the Flies all rolled together.

Now the technical stuff: This abridged version of the novel was well-edited from the book with minimal loss to the story. My caveat will always be that, with rare exception, little replaces reading an entire text, but I digress. The Ruins is narrated by actor Patrick Wilson, whose credits include Running with Scissors, The Alamo and Hard Candy. His narration plays very well with Smiths workman narrative, never overstating. Wilson’s voice and delivery allow the terror to properly dawn on the listener, which is slowly. The overall effect is one long gasp.

This review was first published in

© Copyright, C. Michael Bailey, 2007