The Ruins

by: Scott Smith
published by: Alfred A Knopf, 2006
A major motion picture release, 2008

I love serendipity.

The last few days, while I read The Ruins, we've had some hot, steamy weather.

Again, while sitting out on a hot, steamy Sunday afternoon, reading The Ruins, I watched in fascination as a small spider, sensing the movement of my arm against the deck chair, prepared in all his tiny fury to strike - thinking, no doubt, to render a very large piece of meat motionless, while he wrapped it up for future consumption.

Finally, while getting ready to write my review of The Ruins, I took the evening off to go see M. Night Shyamalan's latest, The Happening, which just happens to be about vengeful vegetation.

See what I mean? Serendipity.

Well, of course, you don't see yet as I haven't elaborated.

The premise of The Ruins is pure summer pool-side escapism: four twenty-something friends (two couples: Stacy and Eric, Amy and Jeff) escape to the Yucatan for some sun, sex and Cervezas. While there, they meet up with a German (Mathias) and three Greeks (none of whom speak English).

Mathias' brother has chased after a woman who has headed out on an archaeological dig, and Mathias is going to find him. Our four friends decide to accompany him, as does one of the Greeks, known only as Pablo.

The ruins turn out to be just an old mining operation deep in the jungle, but before the group gets there, they are hounded by some Mayans who try desperately to convince them not to go.

Why is it the girl always goes alone into the basement where the strange noises are originating?

While there is a bit of the predictable in the group's insistence on crossing the Mayan Maginot line, it nevertheless is a bit creepy that no sooner does the group pass a cleared area and set foot on a vine-covered hill that comprises the ruins, than the Mayans switch from warding them off, to hemming them in - soon surrounding the hill with armed men who refuse to let them leave.

At first angry more than concerned, the heat, their meager supplies, and the evidence of an encampment but no archaeologists - and no bodies - soon has the group more than a little nervous.

Having spent some time in the Yucatan, I can testify that writer Scott Smith does a good job with the oppressive heat and humidity, the mud, the closeness of the jungle - and all these elements add to the sense of foreboding that builds in the early chapters of the book.

And while he gets off to a very slow start - at first, I couldn't even keep the characters straight, they were so little differentiated - by the second half of the book, they had developed distinct personalities, and there are even nice moments as Amy confronts her own lack of character as she steals the group's precious water stores, and Jeff learns that he can't fix everything, no matter how hard he tries.

The chirping of a cell phone from the bottom of the ancient mine shaft has the five celebrating prematurely. Using a windlass to lower Pablo down to retrieve it, they not only fail to find the cell phone, but they drop Pablo (who breaks his back) into the shaft , and they discover that the vines covering the hillside ooze a sap that is so acidic that it can burn through rope.

And that's just the beginning.

Because it seems that the beautiful, red-flowered vine is not only lethal, but it has murderous intent. And they, have stumbled unwittingly - though against desperate warnings to the contrary - into its lair have now been infected, and must be quarantined on the hillside until the vine does its malevolent work.

When I told a friend about the premise of the book, he didn't comment, he just laughed. Ok, I admit that it sounds a little silly when you just come out and say, "an acid-sapped plant with talking red flowers plots the demise of a group of five adventure-seeking friends in the Yucatan," I give Smith full marks: it actually works.

While I won't say that it kept me up nights, it did cause me to reinterpret my usual friendly fascination with little bugs, so that I could actually imagine that small spider I mentioned earlier hopping toward me to attack rather than just jumping amiably about. And Smith did keep me turning pages - this was just a few days worth of spare-time reading.

Smith's prose style is easy to read, if not artistic, and the dialog is genuine and appropriate. Howlers are the bane of horror novels, and this book has none of that.

And as mentioned, the book is best read on a hot, sweaty night - with small night flyers batting against your screen, and a few tendrils of summer vine slithering - just at the periphery of your vision - ever so slightly nearer.

Note: The Ruins was made into a motion picture released early in 2008 - and soon to be released on DVD.


Shelly said…
Excellent book review! I am looking for some new reading material to read poolside this summer so I will be adding this one to my list. Thanks!

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