Saturday, July 22, 2006

Death in the Tropics: Scott Smith's The Ruins

There's something about the summer, the heat and sweat of it, that makes the brain want to just turn off, indulge in tasty candy, and every summer, there's a book that's pure adreneline, designed to do just that (recent examples include The Da Vinci Code and The Historian), entertaining bored parents who can't be bothered to watch their kids THAT closely at the beach.

I'm not exactly the first to say this, but Scott Smith's The Ruins is that book for this summer. It's a horror novel, but one of the most smartly written in a long while (I know Bentley Little has his fans, but one really has to go back to early Stephen King to find American horror this well STRUCTURED). Smith, of course, wrote the great page-turner A Simple Plan (the one about the guys who discover the downed plane full of cash and then slowly turn on each other -- Sam Raimi made a pretty great film version of it). Then, he disappeared for over a decade, writing only the screenplay for Simple Plan and abandoning a novel that was apparently over 1,000 pages.

So much for the better, though, because The Ruins, if not quite as good as A Simple Plan, is a monster of a book, conjuring up dread almost effortlessly. The build-up to the central horror setpiece is ruthless in how it builds tension, and the sequence where the central characters get trapped at the titular ruins is a bizarre yet compelling one.

Then, as you begin to realize that there's some weird stuff going on at these ruins, you think that the rest of the book will be about sussing that out, about figuring out an exit strategy.

Smith does something very smart here though. He has the smartest of his characters figure out what's going on almost immediately, deducing it through careful calculation (juxtaposing it with a horrific scene elsewhere). The rest of the book is about the characters realizing just how screwed they are.

There have been a lot of books written where a team ventures in to the jungle, confronts a horror and finds their strength in facing the horror. This is not that book. Without getting too spoiler-heavy, it's sufficient to say that Smith is writing about middle-class American twentysomethings. And middle-class American twentysomethings, at least in Smith's universe, tend to be completely incapable in the face of the inexplicable. The characters here completely shut down, and the book is one long slide to the end of the story. Will they luck in to a solution to their problem? I'll leave that to you.

What makes Smith's book work is how economical the prose is (would that I could write like this!) and how easily it establishes its characters both along genre archetype lines and as more fully fleshed out versions of those characters. Smith tells you the whole story of a character in one sentence on the second page, but he spends the rest of the novel spinning that sentence out into all its possible permutations, showing you everything that underlies that archetype.

The characters here are not as well-drawn as those in Simple Plan. And part of that is that Smith is getting (I think) at some sort of War on Terror allegory (it also hurts the characters that the villain doesn't rise out of the characters themselves so much as it arises out of the landscape). This is a story of Americans, isolated by language and cultural differences, who stumble ahead in to a situation they're not prepared for and get trapped in a brutal, unforgiving quagmire. I don't know if that sounds familiar to you at all or not, but it rang some bells for me.

What's best here, though, is the monster. I hope that this is never made in to a movie, because I don't see how you make this monster play on the big screen. Smith has taken our fear of the natural world rising up and striking we humans down and turned it into the perfect monster, the sort that takes up root in your mind and hangs out for a few days.

By all means, check it out. Just don't take it along on your Mexican vacation.

No comments: