Monday, September 28, 2009

The Ruins by Scott Smith

A train wreck. I think that's the best way to describe this book. I only followed the lives of these characters out of a morbid curiosity. It makes me feel much more debase to admit that I actually wanted to see how bad this got rather than doing the smart thing... I should've put the book down when I could tell after the first two hundred pages exactly what the other three hundred would entail. Still, since this is a review rather than a ranting session, I guess I should start at the things I liked about this book and then work my way down to the reason why I believe reading it was a waste of my time.

The first thing I enjoyed about this book was the language in which it was written. I have to admit that the author has a "way with words." He paints elegant pictures with language and provides enough detail that you get a real feel for every scene. I could almost literally see everything in the novel with my mind's eye in excruciating detail, down to even sometimes feeling ill from the images he described. He really does have en elegant writing style that pulled me onward, making me want to see more if nothing more than the simple pleasure of how vivid the image was that he created, like watching a movie in my mind rather than reading a book.

I also admit, the characters were incredibly believable. There isn't much dialogue to see the thoughts and motives of the characters, but throughout the book there are glimpses into each of the main characters' subconscious thoughts and memories that make them more than simply three dimensional; they almost seem real. I went to school with these people. I guess my first problem was the fact these were the people I went to school with that I didn't like.

The characters had the sort of naivety that I would expect from teenagers rather than young adults. They made friends with two strangers on the beaches of Cancun in a few days, and trusted them wholeheartedly enough to follow them to a ruin in the middle of the jungle that someone already warned them not to enter. Not only that, but they practically didn't prepare for the hike, not even buying enough supplies to last them more than a day or bringing a knife and first aid kit with them. I've never been a girl scout, but even I know better than to go on a hike without carrying a knife, a first aid kit, and extra supplies if I don't know exactly how long my journey is going to take. Not to mention the most obvious setback, they had a cab drive them to the trail eleven miles into the jungle and then didn't arrange for anyone to pick them up, realizing at this time their supplies will be inadequate but pressing on anyway.

As they got closer, they also realized that the ruin is near a shanty town full of dangerous looking people (the descendants of Mayans) that seem intent on making them leave the area. The fact they continued onward after all of these setbacks made me lack sympathy for their plight. And, while they were fleshed out characters, they did still seem like stereotypical examples of the boyscout, the slut, the whiner, and the jock. They even made fun of this fact later in the book which made me chuckle at the irony of it all. This is probably why my favorite characters were the most mysterious ones out of the group, the German man they made friends with on the beach and the Greek man that couldn't speak any English.

Yes, that's right. I disliked all of the main characters and liked the two that you didn't get to know. This is probably because the others possessed obnoxious character flaws that made them unlikeable. Characters do need flaws, but when the flaws begin to take over halfway through the book, you stop caring about the characters simply becoming annoyed by them and unsympathetic when something bad happens to them. That's what happened to the main characters, they began to give themselves over to being petty and annoying to the point I just stopped caring about them.

Here is one of my biggest problems with the novel. I'm not giving much away by telling you that the supernatural antagonists in the book are a group of vines. That's right, man eating plants. The absurdity of it was too ridiculous to suspend disbelief. Yes, there are Lovecraftian monsters that are plants that can somehow seem terrifying, but these did not. All I could think of was "FEED ME, SEYMOUR," and expected the plants to start breaking into song and dance at any second, especially since the plants could also talk and think. You never determine if the plants have a hive mind or are the extensions of some larger scarier monster, but they can even set traps and have a malicious human-like intelligence. Plants don't scare me. Besides, the characters, as things turned out, were their own worst enemies. This book could've been written without the plants and the result probably would've been the same, only my opinion of it might've been better.

I should've stopped reading it, but I kept trying to say it was the journey that mattered. However, when I did reach the ending, I realized that in this case that wasn't true. It was the most cliche ending a horror novel can have. Well, the second most cliche ending. I'm not telling you what it is, but I think you can guess. I'll give it this though, at least it didn't turn out to be "and it was all just a dream," in the end, but it might as well have been for all I'm concerned. Five hundred pages, an entire week, and a letdown like that just made me want to strangle someone with vines myself. This ending was the type of thing I would expect from a short story, not a five hundred page novel.

The quote on the cover is from Stephen King, "The best horror novel of the new century." Maybe it was at the time he said that, but I certainly hope that isn't the case now. I'm sorry that this review is so scathing, but I have to be honest in my assessment. I will say that by the end of the book I did have some attachment to a few of the characters. The ending made me realize that, but not enough to justify standing on a hill for over four hundred pages and predicting just about everything that was going to happen.

Sadly, I knew the vines were the enemy the moment they stepped on the hill. Like I said, I wasn't giving anything away by telling you that, and I also knew they could mimic sound the moment they heard the "cellphone ring." I'm afraid I'm a bit too good at picking up on symbolism and things of that nature, but I think it wasn't just me this time. I think the book was predictable. I don't recommend it, and it doesn't surprise me it became a movie, but I'm not going to see it. Still, I did glean an appreciation for attention to detail that I don't get from most books from this one, and for that, I do commend the author. I'm afraid I won't be sampling any of his other work though.

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