Book/Author and Year Published: The Ruins by Scott Smith (2006)
Preferred Reading Environment: This would be another good camping read, though I read it on my couch.
Reading Accoutrements: The food you’d miss most if you were starving with little chance of survival
Content Notes: Gruesome Deaths, Suicide
It’s Friday the 13th! So of course, I’m reviewing a book involving a bunch of young white people on a vacation that goes terribly wrong. No, the Friday the 13th movie franchise isn’t based on a book you’ve never heard of (though of course, there has been a novelization). Today’s gruesome novel is called The Ruins, and while I haven’t seen the movie version, I feel comfortable saying that it has a lot of the same horror tropes as the Friday the 13th movies. My husband has been wanting me to read this one for a while since he enjoyed the gory horror of it.
The Ruins follows two American couples in their twenties on vacation in Mexico before they go off to grad schools and jobs. They’ve befriended a couple tourists from other countries, and if you’re familiar with horror films, you might be thinking, “Well, I already know who’s going to die first.” I’ll tell you now: that instinct will be very active in this book. I was constantly thinking about horror movie tropes and what I thought was going to happen next. And there’s tons of time to think, because this book is just over 500 pages long.
Before I started, I checked to see how these 500 pages were broken up. I was dismayed to see there were no chapter breaks. But the story is engaging and the writing is easy to follow, and I actually found it to be a relatively quick read.
So, the Americans have just been lazing around at the beach, drinking and touristing, when their German friend tells them that he’s going off to some ruins (title drop!) to find his brother, who has run off with a hot archaeologist he met at the beach. What starts off as a fun day trip to explore the jungle quickly turns into a deadly journey.
Our main characters are Amy, Stacy, Jeff, and Eric. Amy and Stacy are best friends, and Jeff and Eric are their boyfriends. The perspective switches between the four of them, and it’s pretty easy to follow whose brain we’re in at any given moment. They’re all pretty generic American 20-somethings. In the beginning, when I was still figuring out who was who, I was definitely reminded of 70s and 80s slashers where you can’t tell the characters apart because everyone has the same blond hair (and it doesn’t matter because you know most of them will die anyway). Toward the end, they even muse about which horror movie tropes they each fit, trying to imagine who will play them in the movie version of their story after they’re rescued. But throughout the book, their individual personalities are developed and we see them process emotions in varied ways that make sense for the situation, which isn’t necessarily a given in horror media.
There was one thing I thought could have been improved character-wise: The group is joined by two other tourists – a German man named Mathias (whose brother found out about these ruins) and a Greek who has taken the name Pablo for his Mexican vacation. For the bulk of the book, these six characters are together, and I think it would have been nice to get Mathias’s and Pablo’s perspectives as well. It could have added a different level of fear, since we would have been in the heads of characters surrounded by people who don’t speak their language.
That being said, I liked how Smith portrayed the characters he did spotlight. We see these people in a terrifying situation, dealing with shock and trauma in what I imagine is a pretty realistic way. There’s denial, back-and-forth reasoning, and of course, rash actions. The characters are trying their best to be reasonable, but they all have certain levels of breakdowns. Even at the beginning, the characters display quite a bit of self-awareness, but this doesn’t prevent them from being unreasonable. There’s even what I see as a nod to that horror movie moment where you want to shake the characters for being so stupid. Jeff acknowledges that something strange is happening but wants to ignore it, hoping it will go away as he can’t think of a solution. He knows this isn’t wise, but he simply can’t imagine what else he can do. I liked this because it kind of pointed out how easy it is to sit and read or watch people in horrible situations and imagine all the things you’d do better. But if you were trapped in a survival situation with countless limitations on your choices, you’d likely make some mistakes, as well. Even though the characters don’t always make the best choices, you can see the reasoning, or lack thereof, in their thought processes.
Going in, I was a little worried this book would drag, mostly because of the length, but the pacing was solid. I read this over two days, and though I did put it down a couple of times, I always quickly returned (it did help that I really wanted to post this on Friday the 13th). The first hundred pages introduce the characters and set up the situation, and then it shifts from “Ill-Fated Vacation” to “Survival Horror.” The ending wasn’t shocking, but I could see it realistically ending a couple of different ways, and I think the rest of the book has enough intrigue that a shock ending wasn’t necessary. There were some genuinely scary moments, and lots of scenarios that made me cringe – mostly involving injuries, though since we’re in the character’s heads, there’s some good psychological stuff as well.
My husband had warned me this book was gruesome, and it definitely lived up to that descriptor. I ended up liking it a lot more than I thought I would, though I (of course) have minor criticisms about how gender and race are addressed. This is very white-centric, and I don’t think it had to be. In fact, I think that exploring some of the cultural elements, at least of the fellow tourists, if not also of the natives who know at least something about the spooky stuff at the ruins, would help make the story a bit less straightforward. As far as how Smith writes women, I think Amy and Stacy were a bit of a lesson in “How a man would write two college girls,” but mostly not in horribly egregious or offensive ways. There was a moment where Jeff compares the attractiveness of his girlfriend and her best friend in a way that I didn’t think was necessary for the situation he was in – it seemed like an excuse to bring attention to the fact that women have boobs. The women never ponder the attractiveness of the guys, even though Stacy is portrayed as promiscuous with a wandering eye (the word “slut” is, unfortunately, used liberally). It would have made more sense to have her evaluating the men than throwing in a random, “Jeff pondered Stacy’s hotness and how he’d ended up with Amy instead,” moment.
I honestly don’t want to reveal too many details about the plot. If you like gruesome horror that makes you shudder, you should read the book. The characters were pretty standard, but well-written, which pretty much goes for all of the writing. There’s nothing particularly stellar about it, but it’s decently executed and, like I said above, engaging.
All in all, The Ruins is a solid horror story, and while I see opportunities for improvement, I enjoyed what was here, and I’d be open to reading more of Smith’s work in the future.
What are you reading or watching this Friday the 13th? Give us ideas in the comments!