The Ruins by Scott B. Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
That could be my entire review, but I'll expand on it a little.
There's a blurb on the back of the book which I think is very descriptive. It says this book does for plants what "Jaws" did for sharks. That's a fair assessment. I never thought a simple plant could be so terrifying and horrifying and spine-chilling as the one in this novel. I'll never see flowers the same way again.
"The Ruins" is about a group of four college students on a vacation in South America who decide to investigate some ruins. It's an archaeological dig where a friend's brother is supposed to be waiting. When they arrive at the ruins, they discover to their horror that everyone at the ruins is dead, and a local Mayan tribe won't let them leave. But besides their fear, hunger, thirst, and attempts to escape, they discover a mysterious and malevolent vine is stalking them. To say more would ruin a lot of the surprises, so let's break that down.
The thing about this novel is that it's really a very well-written B-movie. I wasn't surprised this actually was made into a cheap B-movie, because it reads like one. Dumb kids on vacation? Check. Stereotypical characters like the jock, the bimbo, the good girl, and the jerk? Check. Monster hunting and killing them? Check. Characters getting picked off, one by one? Check. But the novel takes that format and expands it considerably.
The characters in the book are extremely well-defined in surprising ways. For one thing, we don't even learn their names until page two. I don't think the novel ever revealed their last names. But they all feel like real people. They start out as the aforementioned cliches, but their internal monologue and actions reveal much more complex personalities. Stacy (the bimbo) knows she's stupid, and struggles against her own limited imagination and libido. Jeff (the jock) seems like the boy scout who knows what he's doing and will save them all. Eric (the jerk) is always trying to find the funny side of things while secretly knowing they're in more danger than he lets on. Amy (the good girl) is frustrated with how no one listens to her because of her constant negativity. But over time, they begin to unravel and become deeper characters. Jeff turns out to be so focused on their survival that he loses his humanity. Eric becomes more and more panicked as he sees their plight before anyone else. Amy's desperation to escape turns her against the others. By about halfway through the story, I was fully invested in all of them and was fascinated with how they clashed and struggled against their own misconceptions. They all have secrets and make emotional journeys that change them. Their inner struggle was just as compelling as their external struggle for survival.
The descriptions in this book are sparing, but extremely powerful. Reading this book truly transported me into the plight of the heroes. I felt their thirst as they tried to ration out their meager water, their hunger as they shared a handful of scraps, and their exhaustion from the burning heat. When the vine began its work, I felt panicked and frightened, sharing their horror at what miseries they endured. When I would put the book down and pick it up, I was always surprised how quickly I was carried back into their world.
I haven't gotten into the vine, but I really don't want to say too much. I knew the story was about an evil vine, which baffled me, because I couldn't imagine a plant being a threat. I was wrong. Man, I was wrong. The things the vine does to the heroes in this novel are almost unbearable to read. I cringed at times just reading the descriptions. Other times, I would read the same passage over and over, because I couldn't or didn't want to accept what had happened. The vine isn't just bloodthirsty. It isn't just frighteningly intelligent. It's also sadistic. That makes it much, much worse. It's like the vine spends the entire story just thinking of ways to make the survivors suffer more than they already are. And it does. By the end, the deaths of many of the characters seems like a relief.
Another thing I loved about the book is that there is very little exposition, but it delivers just what we need. What is the vine? Is it an alien creature? Is it a prehistoric creature unearthed by the dig? Why do the Mayan villagers not allow the survivors to leave? What have they been doing with this vine and how? What happened to the archaeologists? There are signs and hints to answer all these questions and more, but some are left as mysteries. Which works. Sometimes, the unknown is scarier than the known.
I could go on, but I'll leave it at this. This is truly one of the scariest books that I've ever read. And I loved it.
One nitpick, though. As far as I could tell, there are no actual ruins. Just a big hill with a shaft dug in the ground. Minor, but significant, considering the title.
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