By Scott Smith
The Ruins is the second novel by Scott Smith. His first was the much acclaimed A Simple Plan (later made into a movie), published in 1993. Such a long hiatus makes one wonder what he has been up to for the last 13 years. Could it have taken him that long just to write . . . this?
Perhaps he was on vacation, gathering material. The Ruins is a thriller set in Mexico, and it follows the unhappy adventures of a group of four young Americans (along with a German and a Greek they pick up along the way) as they leave their resort in Cancun on a day trip to visit some Mayan ruins. Alas, these ruins (if they really are ruins, it isn’t clear) are infested with some kind of sadistic, flesh-eating plant life. One thing leads to another and . . . but I’ve probably already given too much away.
At this point you probably think I’m just being flip, especially when I referred to the plants as “sadistic.” But I’m not. This is a plant with personality. If it even is a plant, that is. That part isn’t clear either. What we do know is that it speaks several different languages, can apparently read minds, and takes a keen interest in human psychology. Once the tourists enter its domain it could kill them all off in minutes. But that would be too easy. It would also make for a very short and unsatisfying book. So it takes its time.
Genre fiction – whether it be romance novel, whodunit, or thriller – is nothing if not formulaic. We expect the expected. We call these books “page-turners” not just because they emphasize story over character, but because the outline and essential characteristics of the story are so taken for granted we can afford to be impatient with them. And so as soon as our plucky gang of heroes, themselves a collection of walking clichés, wander off the main path into the jungle (yes, that’s how it starts), we know they’re in trouble. We know every mistake they’re making as they’re making it. The set-up telegraphs every gory shock pages in advance. Of course this doesn’t make the book any less effective. Part of the enjoyment in any horror plot is this mixture of foreknowledge and anticipation (“Nooooo! Don’t go down there alone! Stay with the others!”). And for lovers of this kind of stuff there are plenty of delightfully icky moments to be enjoyed, tempting you to keep racing ahead to all the good parts. Brainless it may be, but effective.
But there is nothing more. Smith’s characters, while having some psychological outlines, seem conventional compared to Stephen King’s. And at least King makes some attempt to explain his plots. The fact that nothing is explained in this book doesn’t make it seem “realistic” or “postmodern” so much as merely lazy, as though Smith couldn’t have been bothered to work such basic matters out. Even granting the premise of a super-intelligent and thoroughly evil form of vegetation, there are still irritating inconsistencies in the story. But then rationalizing the horror is perhaps just a defence mechanism as well, a sort of wishing it away.
Popular horror has always had a way of tapping into larger cultural anxieties. Dead teenager movies from the 1980s were often seen as containing a subtext about the dangers of promiscuity. In the 1950s it was radioactive mutants. Stephen King is obsessed with family breakdown. But The Ruins doesn’t resonate on any level. Perhaps there is an environmental message in it somewhere, or a heartfelt plea for the rest of the world to learn English so we can better understand what they’re saying. But in all likelihood it is just a warning for affluent young Westerners visiting Cancun to stay on the beach. Where they can safely read books just like this one, with the sound of long, warm waves tumbling in their ears.
Review first published October 7, 2006.