Good horror is like good sex. It involves the element of surprise and being taken out of your head into the land of purely visceral response. Added to that should be a nicely escalating excitement, interspersed with lulls in the action to take the edge off, which makes it even more intense when things get cranked up another notch. Reading good horror is about losing control not just of yourself, but of what’s happening, the only way to stop the feeling being to put down the book, but by then, the story’s grabbed you so hard that you don’t want it to stop.
My point – and I’m pretty sure I had one – is that I have just finished reading The Ruins by Scott Smith and find myself left rather - a-hem - unsatisfied. Before this crosses the line into “cold shower” territory, let me get on with things. But first (I can never say those two words without thinking of the Chenbot – sorry. Obscure Big Brother reference), a warning: there will be spoilers. Neither vague, nor circumspect, these spoilers will be specific, explicit and in places completely ruin part of the plot. If you wish to read this book, stop now. I’ll wait a moment for you to safely leave before ranting on.
Ready? Ok, here goes.
First, the good. Of which there is some. It's a nifty idea, the Big Bad – a sentient and very hungry vine - is effectively creepy (or at least, has the potential for being effectively creepy) and the author seems to know the theory of creating good horror. However, the book ends up being mostly utterly lifeless, which, come to think of it, is quite an accomplishment, considering how a nifty the idea is. I spent much of my time reading this book (15 interminable hours) wishing that Stephen King had written it.
According to the experts, a good rule of writing is 'be specific' - you need to paint a picture with words to make the story come alive. However, there is such a thing as too specific. An example: 'Eric walked over to the tent, unzipped the flap, and stepped inside'. In and of itself, not too bad. But when the entire book is like that, describing in endless, mindnumbing detail every single action of the characters, it gets on your nerves, dilutes the tension and drowns the story in words. By the time enough is happening that it becomes somewhat more entertaining, you have reached the last quarter of the book. That's too long to wait for any payoff, no matter how good. And this is merely serviceable.
Speaking of diluting the tension. Another good rule is 'show, don't tell' - in other words, show me the person is upset, don't tell me about it. There were times during my reading of this book where I wondered if perhaps I would have enjoyed it more by reading the traditional way, as I felt the narrator was reading in too staccato a manner, not emoting well. Then I started noticing that there were no emotions to emote and thought better of it. Smith understands about escalating the tension, but repeatedly makes the same mistake. Right when he has succeeded in finally taking you out of your head, starting to careen out of control, he slams you right back in. For instance, one of the main characters dies (as do they all, eventually) and because her boyfriend was sulking and didn't understand what was happening, he didn't help her. Fast forward a few hours when the characters find out she is dead (they thought she was sleeping off a drunk). Mr. Boyfriend frantically starts CPR and for a moment, we hope against hope that perhaps she'll be saved. And then… right when we are biting our nails, hearts speeding up a bit, Smith starts telling us how Mr. Boyfriend is remembering the day he first learned CPR as a scout, how many other boys were there, what they had for lunch, what he had thought would happen once he learned CPR, what the dummy looked like and by the time we get back to him attempting to save his girlfriend - who, let's not forget, he could have saved if only he hadn't been an arse - we have gotten completely sidetracked and no longer give a crap. Aside from the fact that a man in that situation likely wouldn't be thinking rationally and coherently, once you have started the ride, you can't stop the roller coaster in the middle. Sure, escalate slowly, then slow down to lull the reader into a false sense of confidence, but you don't start the lulling in the middle of giving one of the main characters CPR!
I could go on, talking about the contradictions, the incongruous language (if you consistently use the word 'shit', you shouldn't consistently use the word 'urine'), the oddity of two long-term couples engaging in no casual gestures and words of affection (and if you consider the excruciating detail in which everything else is described, this is very noticeable), but I'll stop ranting in a minute.
To sum up: The Ruins is the story of six terrified people in a terrifying situation - shouldn't the reader feel some nervousness? The book is two-dimensional, flat, overly simplistic and contains entirely too many words. When I finished, all I could think was that I needed an antidote. Something fantastical. Something with dragons. I felt like rereading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell to be reminded of elegance and artistry in writing.
In the immortal words of Dorothy Parker: this book should not be cast aside lightly. It should be hurled with great force.