Review: The Ruins by Scott Smith is a Haunted House Story

“But it’s a plant.”

Jeff glanced up at her. “How do you know that?”

“What do you mean?

“How do you know it’s a plant?”

“What else would it be? It’s got leaves, and flowers, and-“

“But it moves. And it thinks. So maybe it just looks like a plant.” He smiled at her, as if pleased, once again, with the vine’s many accomplishments. “There’s no way for us to know, is there?”

I stayed up until past 2AM last night finishing my second reading of this impeccable horror story by Scott Smith, and “book hangover” doesn’t even begin to describe the hollowed-out, weary feeling the writer left me with. Unfolding in real time with no chapter breaks, The Ruins charts from beginning to end the downfall of six young adults on vacation in Mexico. Relentlessly bleak, gory, and at times downright sinister in the terror it evokes, the 509-page novel moves easily through the horror, cementing itself as a modern classic.

Jeff, Amy, Stacy, and Eric. Mathias, and a Greek man called Pablo who can’t understand a word any of them are saying. None of these names are particularly memorable, nor are the characters they’re attached to. And that’s all by design: Smith opens the novel by introducing us to the people who are the least equipped to handle a nightmare survival scenario, and serves them up almost immediately to the beast. A less-talented writer would have likely fumbled this. After all, “you have to care about the characters” is pretty much the golden rule in horror fiction. But Smith compels us nonetheless. Throughout the novel we are treated to anecdotes that show, rather than tell, a glimpse into the upbringing, privilege, irresponsibility, and apathy of these young people. Uncomfortably, they are more often than not relatable; it’s easy to find yourself or people you know in these characters, and you can hardly blame them for shutting down, for making the wrong decision, or making the right ones and screwing it all up anyway.

Smith focuses on their realism more than their likability or relatability, and makes a point of it: in one scene, the gang idly passes the time by imagining the fictional adaptation that would be made of their nightmare. They would change them to be a little more palatable, turning Jeff into a hero, Eric into a funny guy, Amy into a prissy final girl, and Stacy into the slut. They are none of these things, of course, and it only adds a further element of realism as we wait to see how these normal people react to a horrific scenario. It adds dimension to the story. You feel as if you’re there, and it’s only too easy to imagine being trapped alongside people just like them, and it’s far more compelling than offering us archetypes.

I’ve often described Smith’s writing in this book as somewhat detached. Yes, we do get those anecdotes and in-depth thought processes that paint a more detailed picture of the novel’s protagonists, but Smith offers no judgment. None of them are inherently bad for being ill-equipped to survive, or good for being proactive. He examines them much like a scientist would examine a slide under a microscope. It’s an intelligent move that adds to the sense of isolation, and echoes the emotionless gaze their captors at the bottom of the hill treat them to as they wait patiently for them to die. We get the feeling that we are not reading a story but witnessing a murder in cold blood.

Realistic and intentionally plain as our cast of characters are, there is nothing plain or normal about the antagonist of the novel: the vines. The plant that covers the ruins and surrounds the characters, creeping ever closer, growing more sinister by the hour, just might be one of the most underrated and scariest villains in a horror story to date. While The Plants by Kenneth McKenney fails to illicit anything more than a yawn, and Stephen King’s own The Plant buckles under its limiting format, Scott Smith manages to take the idea of a sentient, malevolent plant and root it (pun intended) firmly in reality. It often lingers in the background while the characters worry about their dwindling supplies, the heat, their injuries, and their fate, making its sudden advances all the more startling. Intelligent, it lures humans toward traps by imitating sounds: of cell phones, of other human voices, of birds. It changes its scent to wear down the starving group. It warps words and context to sow distrust and anger among them. It is patient, cunning, and displays a tendency to play with its food before digging in. Smith wastes no time on weaknesses, keeping the characters and the reader claustrophobic and overwhelmed.

After this second reading, I realized that the closest one could come to describing this sinister vine is perhaps comparing it to a demonic spirit in a classic haunted house novel. And that’s when it hit me – rather than being trapped in an old estate, these characters are trapped on top of a ruin. But it’s all the same, in the end: they are being haunted. There is something lurking in the dark corridors of the mine shaft, or among the picturesque hillside, and although it’s a physical, tangible presence with a thirst for blood, it uses psychological fear to humiliate and terrify its victims. As its presence increases, the characters feel more crowded than ever. They are reduced to whispers so that they don’t hear their own voices being echoed mockingly back at them over the night. They attempt to hide their fear and tears so that their aggressor might not guess the full extent of its affect on them.

At one point in the last act of the novel, a character passes away overnight after being smothered by the vine. After a tense, upsetting discussion about potentially eating their friend, the gang zips her body up in a sleeping bag, unable to bury her. Hours later, the deceased girl stands up, begins crying for help, and scratches desperately at the sleeping bag to get out. When they finally unzip the bag, a lifeless skeleton falls out. One of the more hair-raising scenes I’ve read in a horror novel in a long time, it felt like something that would come straight out of Matheson’s Hell House. Satisfied that it has successfully tormented its intended victims, the sound of soft, high pitched laughter rings across the hillside.

The beauty of The Ruins is that Scott Smith has struck a perfect balance among his writing, his characters, and the fear. You will be unable to stop once you get pulled in, and few books have immersed me at the level done here, not just in the physical situation unfolding but in the psychological fear, terror, and dread so coldly, eloquently, realistically expressed. The only bad thing to be said of Scott Smith is that he hasn’t published more books. I hope he’s creatively fulfilled in his current endeavors, but with the horrific masterpiece gifted to us here, he will have readers for life.

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