Thirteen years have passed between Scott Smith’s new book and his best-selling 1993 debut novel, A Simple Plan, which Book Page called “mesmerizing” and Entertainment Weekly described as “clockwork-perfect.” A tautly paced moral fable about greed, A Simple Plan was the story of three ordinary people who find a wrecked small airplane and, in its cockpit, more than $4 million in cash, apparently the proceeds of a drug deal.
The Ruins is a different form of clockwork entirelya horror story that occupies an uneasy ground somewhere between genre fiction and literature. The doyen of the former, author Stephen King, is featured on the dust jacket praising Smith’s novel as “The book of the summer . . . no quietly building, Ruth Rendell-style suspense here; Smith intends to scare the bejabbers out of you, and succeeds. There are no chapters and no cutawaysThe Ruins is your basic long scream of horror.”
Like most horror, the tale begins innocently enough. Two young American couples, vacationing college students celebrating their recent graduation, drink and party on the sunlit beaches of Cozumel and Cancun. They meet their counterparts from other countries, and they form a sort of bond with a few of them: a reticent German tourist named Mathias and three happy-go-lucky Greeks who speak neither English nor Spanish but jokingly assign themselves the interchangeable nicknames Juan, Pablo, and Don Quixote.
Mathias is deeply worried, and the Americans eventually discover why. He has had a fight with his younger brother Henrich, who as a consequence has run off to a local Mayan ruin with a female archaeologist he had met. Mathias runs out of patience waiting for his brother to return so they can fly back to Germany, and he decides to ride a day-trip bus to the ruin and try to locate Henrich.
The Americanscouples Jeff and Amy, Eric and Stacydecide as a lark to accompany Mathias on his search, and the Greek youth who calls himself Pablo impulsively joins the group. With great naturalness but surprising speed, their ill-considered odyssey goes from bad to worse to worst and continues inching up the disaster scale until the final page.
Their task of finding the ruin is complicated when local villagers who speak no English try to wordlessly scare them off the camouflaged path. The mounded site, when they reach it, is deceptively picturesque: It is covered by a hardy jungle vine with red flowers, which Amy begins enthusiastically framing with her camera. The odd foliage is the key to a mysterious natural menace that will first entrap the travelers and then, misstep by inevitable misstep, become a surreal nightmare far worse than most vacationers could ever imagine.
Smith has told interviewers that he spent five years between books working on a huge, unwieldy novelon a different subject than The Ruinsthat he eventually abandoned. The rest of his time was spent writing screenplays, first for his own novel and then for other projects. The Hollywood influence shows in this book, and not in a pejorative way. There is rarely a moment when the characters or the reader can take a breather, an effect that is enhanced by the lack of chapter divisions. His dialogue is pared down and telegraphica development, he says, from the years of writing screenplays.
What is unusual in this horror-suspense novel is how internal its focus is. The narration rotates constantly among the four Americansthe reader...
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