Woo-hoo! I’m on vacation this week, so immediately the first thing I did was scoot down to the bookstore and pick up a trashy summer novel. This year, I chose Scott Smith’s The Ruins after stumbling upon the glowing review by none other than Stephen King on The Ruins Amazon page. It’s perhaps an odd choice for summer reading, as Smith’s previous novel A Simple Plan is a study in tension and duplicity, not typically feelings you want to experience and emulate in your beach reading — but King’s review was so effusive and glowing, I figured why not pick it up.
The Ruins is the story of six guys and girls in their early twenties who, during a crazy sexy drinky beach vacation to Cancun, decide for no particularly good reason to pack up and head off into the jungle. During their stumble in the jungle, they mistakenly fall into what is quickly and clearly The Wrong Place To Be. And then it gets increasingly worse from there.
It’s a quick read; I wound up reading the novel in two chunks in the span of about 12 hours. For the first couple hundred pages, I was riveted. The book is exquisitely written, with long detailed and well-voiced passages that pull you directly into the various characters point of view. The writing and pacing is very cinematic, perhaps suspiciously so, as the film rights have already been sold to Ben Stiller — who is thanked in the forward of the first printing.
But: sometime during the last hundred pages, I found myself tense, surly and depressed. I can’t tell you exactly why I think I felt that way without discussing-slash-completely-spoiling the ending, so click below if you don’t plan to read it but still really want to know about what I think is wrong with The Ruins…
A couple years ago there was a depressing little movie called Open Water; in this story, a couple went deep sea diving, their boat sailed off, and they were stuck in shark infested waters. Eventually, the guy gets bitten deep enough so he loses tons of blood and dies, and the woman decides to literally throw herself to the sharks and she dies as well. A year before was released a horrible movie called Cabin Fever which was a despicable little tale about five college kids who rent a cabin in the woods and one by one all fall victim to a gruesome flesh-eating virus. And don’t get me started about Saw. What a despicable waste of time and energy these movies are, and The Ruins is a member of their extended family.
The basic problem in all these stories is that no one escapes — all these movies (along with The Ruins) have the basic 4-step plot of:
- setting up a horrible situation with no apparent way out,
- and the characters all bitch and moan and flail about,
- and sure enough, there’s absolutely no way out,
- and then they all die.
And: it’s cheap and sadistic storytelling with a downward narrative trajectory that just dips lower and lower. As a reader, even if you’re not rooting for an outright happy ending, on some level you hope to see some kind of curveball thrown at you, and to witness a glimmer of hope that the situation is not as hopeless as it seems. The Ruins is the horror equivalent of the worst type of contemporary fiction, meant to do nothing much more than bum you out — if these people were the creative forces put in charge of writing Star Wars, Luke, Leia and Han would have been crushed in the garbage compactor on the Death Star.
Reading through The Ruins made me nostalgic for a time decades ago when I breathlessly tore through 1,000+ pages of King’s It; the important distinction being that in the final chapter of It, King invents just enough of an escape hatch to allow at least a couple of his characters to live. Creating an escape is not apparently a priority for Smith, as he seems content to sit around and pull the wings off his flies as he leaves them for dead. I strongly suggest you skip this cruel and unsatisfying little book.