Minor spoilers ahead.
Scott Smith, author of the bestselling novel A Simple Plan, is a very talented writer. So talented, in fact, that you even don’t notice it, which takes a certain kind of skill. His style is understated, utterly transparent, and straight as an arrow from start to finish, with no fancy words, lengthy sentences, elaborate images, or even chapter breaks. It’s so completely active, in fact, that it’s virtually a shooting script already (and, indeed, according to press materials, “Ben Stiller’s company at Dreamworks will make the movie with a script by Scott Smith”).
The plot of The Ruins is just as straightforward and no-nonsense as the style. According to the well-proven horror movie formula, our heroes comprise the classic Scooby Doo team: the practical guy, the funny guy, the sexy girl and the smart girl (so entrenched are these prototypes, in fact, that at one point, in a postmodern twist, the characters start arguing about who’s going to play them in the movie). The two couples are vacationing in Cancun, where, having had enough of drinking and partying, they decide to help a young German tourist, Mathias, look for his missing brother, who was last seen heading off to an archeological dig in the jungle. Soon enough (but not before we do), they realize that this was a terrible idea.
At first, I was hooked. It’s hard not to be — Smith does a great job of setting up the predicament; the first part of the book is fast-paced, inexorably pulling you in, so the next thing you know, you’re already half way through, almost despite yourself. In the same way, the four young adventurers are pulled into the jungle (along with Mathias and an easy-going Greek pal, who speaks no English), despite all the sinister omens surrounding them — mangy dogs, concealed roads, inscrutable, finger-wagging locals — which soon have you persuaded that something pretty nasty’s going on. Pace and suspense are built as Smith alternates details of the physical environment (sticky mud, dry heat) with the characters’ interior doubts and anxieties, which are no different from the reader’s: Where are we going? What’s happening now? Who are the mysterious Mayan horsemen? What happened to the archaeologists? What’s the secret hidden in the ruins?
The set-up is a tour-de-force, but unfortunately, once you’ve been lured in, you start to feel like the victim of a bait-and-switch. It gradually becomes obvious that there’ll be no resolution or pay-off, and your questions aren’t going to be answered. Instead, you’re left with a set of characters who’ve been placed in the middle of a nightmarish ordeal, and left to do battle among themselves. At this point the novel turns into a very sadistic episode of Survivor, and that the point soon becomes reading about naïve and attractive youngsters getting their comeuppance for being naïve and attractive. You sit back watch as they go through all the predictable dance-steps of desert-island despair, from whining, yelling at each other and bickering over the rations, to performing primitive surgical operations and debating the pros and cons of cannibalism. And because the characters are so one-dimensional, you don’t really care which of them — if any — survives.
I hope I’m not giving too much away when I say that the main threat — the villain of the story — turns out to be botanical in nature. Scary plants have been with us for a while, of course, from Jack and the Beanstalk to Day of the Triffids and Evil Dead. In the light of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, perhaps The Ruins will provide impetus for the backlash to the environmentalist lobby, reminding us that nature is red in tooth and claw — or, in this case, in stem and leaf. But however suspenseful the prose, however gory the details, it’s hard to get really terrified of … well, a plant.
Clearly, Smith has set out to write one of those horror stories that Stephen King does so well, where the threat is located in something deeply familiar to us — a building, a household appliance, a car — that reappears in an unfamiliar form, which, incidentally, is Freud’s definition of the uncanny. This works best when the threat is something inanimate that we remember from childhood, that returns and comes to life (a doll, a ventriloquist’s dummy, a clown). But plants are already alive, so there’s no surprise there. And however charged with malice, supernatural power or nuclear radiation, it’s very hard to imagine a plant being malevolent, planning ahead, having agency. Worse still, what we have here is the Room 101of plants. In some unexplained, miraculous way, it has the ability to move, suck blood, communicate over long distances, invade people’s bodies, laugh, imitate sounds (including human speech), reproduce delicious smells including hot dogs and apple pie, and — like some super-talented botanical psychoanalyst — penetrate the depths of the human unconscious, wrapping itself inexorably round our deepest fears.
How it does all this is a mystery. And when you realize the mystery is never going to be untangled, it stops being mysterious and starts being to seem a bit of a dodge, a bit of a cheat. This is when the story starts to seem overlong, and you realize you’re no longer wrapped up in it, you no longer care what happens. Still, while it lasted, it was quite a ride.