September 2006

fiction

The Ruins by Scott Smith

I'll give Scott Smith credit. The Ruins, his new horror novel—and oh yes by any definition of the term this is a horror novel, not a simple thriller like Smith's previous book, A Simple Plan—does set up a good story. The trouble starts—and pretty much ends—when twentysomethings Jeff, Eric, Amy, and Stacy and their flashback-free foreign friends Mathias the German and 'Pablo' the Greek step foot on a hill overrun with vines sporting pretty red flowers. They are in search of Heinrich, Mathias's prodigal brother, who had gone to visit ruins in the Mexican jungle, and has been missing for a week. (But there are no ruins either or under the hill, and how could he have heard of said ruins when anyone who had gone in search of—well, now we're cheating, and why back through any holes of logic when there are some Buick-sized doozies straight ahead.)

But our intrepid travelers are, as previously mentioned, on their way to the hill, ignoring the native Mayan population’s warnings to turn back. When Amy steps foot on said hill, the Mayans surround our hapless travelers with bows and arrows and guns drawn. Thus trapped, they find two tents and a hole in the hill with a windlass handily positioned above it, leading to a cavern beneath the hill. They lower the Greek (he doesn’t speak English, German, or Spanish and is only lacking a big "Kill me" sign on his back) into the hole and—curses!—the rope snaps, as the vine's acidic sap and has worn through the hemp.

(For those keeping score, this is now an acid-sap-bleeding vine.)

The Greek breaks his back, and he is downgraded from smiling and gesturing to moaning and festering for the next hundred and fifty pages. Jeff, a former Eagle Scout, manages to repair the rope and lengthen it using the nylon of one of the tents, and they lower Eric down within twenty feet of poor 'Pablo.' Eric, who has left his Mensa membership card in his other pants, jumps the rest of the way and cuts his leg. The next day, after Jeff and crew have constructed another thirty feet of rope from the remaining tent nylon (and if anyone knows the name of a circus big top that has gone missing, please contact Mexican authorities) and rescued them from the hole, Eric awakens to find the vine embedded in the wound in his leg.

(A blood-sucking, acid-sap-bleeding vine.)

They return down the hole because they hear a cell phone, and who wouldn't want a cell phone with a battery that lasts weeks on end and picks up three bars fifty miles away from civilization, but it’s a trap because the cell phone ring is actually—the vine!

(A cell-phone-mimicking, blood-sucking, acid-sap-bleeding vine.)

Our heroes begin to bicker amongst themselves and have their own words thrown back at them by—the vine!

(A tourist-impersonating, cell-phone-mimicking, blood-sucking, acid-sap-bleeding vine.)

They're starving and they smell fresh baked bread—the vine!

(A mind-reading, tourist-impersonating, cell-phone-mimicking, blood-sucking acid-sap-bleeding vine.)

Then it does impressions of Stacy and Mathias having sex, making poor Eric jealous!

(A Machiavellian mind-reading, tourist-impersonating, cell-phone-mimicking, blood-sucking, acid-sap-bleeding vine.)

By the time the book ends, you're pretty sure that if a plane had passed overhead, the damned thing would have turned into a Stinger-missile-launching, Machiavellian mind-reading, tourist-impersonating, cell-phone-mimicking, blood sucking, acid-sap-bleeding vine. And why does it do all this? Why does it torture its victims (did I mention it laughs?) before dispatching and devouring them? Because it is an EVIL Machiavellian mind-reading, tourist-impersonating, cell-phone-mimicking, blood-sucking, acid-sap-bleeding vine, of course, and there is nothing worse than a plant gone bad.

Now, it might be time to take a moment and do my best belt-and-suspenders-wearing Republican impersonation by declaring that I am a fan of both thrillers and horror fiction. And I realize there is a certain "check your brains at the door" requirement for fiction at its more imaginative fringes. You tell me there are no bugs on the hill because in a thousand years of natural selection, only the flies and mosquitoes that knew to steer clear of the vine on the hill have survived, and I happily nod and hold my tongue about Venus Fly Traps and how the Mayans haven't evolved enough in a thousand years to build a half-decent fence or bothered to learn to say "danger" in Spanish. And there are more than a few fine horror stories and novels where [for those with special needs who are too thick to have glammed on yet, final SPOILER ALERT] our heroes perish in the end. And who wouldn't sit around doing nothing but trying to just stay alive when you're trapped by the horticultural equivalent of a James Bond villain?

But it becomes apparent way too early in the game that it's not only 'Pedro' we're killing time with, just sitting around waiting for the inevitable. They're all the human equivalent of flies with their wings pulled off. Worse, there's no Lord of the Flies-style allegory hidden in either their struggle or demise. And while the actions of poor doomed Jeff and Amy and Stacy and Eric rarely strike a false note, Smith's detached style ensures that we don’t particularly worry about them, either. They’re that friend of a friend from high school whose passing you noted with a brief pause of recognition before grabbing another slice of pizza. (Poor Mathias, it should be noted, can best be summed up as "less stiff than Jeff.")

And all this is too bad. Smith is a first-rate writer of no small descriptive power or storytelling chops. You’ll wait until the last page of The Ruins before heaving it across the room in disgust.

The Ruins by Scott Smith
Knopf
ISBN: 1400043875
336 Pages