Look on almost any substantial list of “best horror novels of the 2000s,” and the odds are fairly good that Scott Smith’s 2006 book The Ruins will be on it. It’s a grim, ever-escalating survival nightmare of cruel and heightened nature, and it’s pretty damn gross, to boot. It was made into a decent film in 2008—Scott Smith adapted his own novel to a screenplay—and my one regret was that I actually ended up watching the movie before I read the book, since at the time I saw the film I didn’t realize it was based on a novel. I wish I could have approached the book without knowing what was going to happen, in other words; although the movie is slightly different than the book, it’s similar enough that I already knew most of the surprises.
Incidentally, Scott Smith’s first (and only other) novel is the 1993 thriller A Simple Plan, which was adapted into a great and very well-regarded 1998 film directed by Sam Raimi.
The Ruins concerns a group of four American tourists—Eric, Stacy, Amy, and Jeff—who decide to take a vacation to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The brief first scenes of the book set up the characters economically, and follows them as they spend a few days drinking and partying on the beach and generally doing fun vacation things.
Not too long into the story, the friends meet a German tourist named Matthias, as well as three Greeks, none of whom speak a word of English and spend their days happily drunk on tequila. The friends refer to them as Pablo, Juan, and Don Quixote, since they have no idea what their actual names are.
Matthias, whose English is perfect, asks the friends if they want to come join him on a bit of an adventure. His brother Heinrich, he explains, met a smoking hot archaeologist a couple of days back, and accompanied her out into the jungle, where her team was doing a dig of some newly discovered Mayan ruins. Heinrich hasn’t returned yet, and Matthias is starting to get a little bit worried, since their flight back to Germany is only a few days away. He doesn’t necessarily think anything bad happened to Heinrich; he’s convinced that the man simply got so carried away with the enchanting woman he met that he lost track of time.
The four friends think this excursion is a capital idea; they had been wanting to see some ruins anyway, and now here is a promise of seeing some that aren’t even widely known about yet. They secure a ride with a local man who’s willing to drive them out toward the dig site in his truck. The four friends, Matthias, and Pablo pile into the vehicle for the trip; Juan and Don Quixote are sleeping off a drunk someplace, so Pablo leaves them a note in the hotel room, letting them know where they’re going.
Once they get to the remote Mayan village near the site of the dig, though, things start getting creepy. All the villagers just kind of stand around and stare at them, and the driver of the truck tells them that this isn’t a good place, and he’d rather take them somewhere else. The friends aren’t having it, and head off on a path toward a hill where the dig is supposed to be taking place.
As they get close to the hill, a bunch of armed locals come out and try to prevent them from going any farther. Jeff, who speaks some Spanish, attempts to explain the situation to them, but they just stare, disconcertingly. The friends notice that the hill is covered with these thick, lush vines of a kind they’ve never seen before, interspersed with gorgeous red blooms. Amy then decides to take a group picture of everyone, but while she’s setting up the shot, her foot goes up onto the hill, at which point the armed men sort of bear down on them and herd them up the hill, not allowing them to come back down.
Unsettled, the gang head up the hill, since that’s where they were going anyway, figuring there was just some misunderstanding with the locals and they’ll sort it out later. At the top, they discover the remains of a camp and obvious signs of an archeological dig, such as a deep shaft into the hill with a windlass atop it. But there isn’t anyone around, and the campsite is covered with all these weird-ass vines.
The gang are spooked and wonder what the hell happened to everybody, when suddenly they hear what sounds like a cell phone ringing from down in the mine shaft. Since none of them have their phones or the phones aren’t working for various reasons, they decide that one of them should be lowered down the rope on the windlass to get the phone. By this time they’ve noticed that the armed locals at the bottom of the hill have increased in number, and seem to have set up camps all along the perimeter of the hill, preventing them from coming down.
Unfortunately, as Pablo is being lowered down into the shaft, the rope breaks, seemingly because one of the vines has wrapped itself around it and burned through it with its acidic sap. Pablo breaks his back in the fall, and when Eric goes down after him, he injures his leg. Sometime during the course of all this, the gang also discover the dead body of Matthias’s brother Heinrich, who it appears was shot by the Mayans and then had his corpse overgrown by the vines.
All this is terrible, of course, but the friends don’t think they’re entirely screwed yet; they left a note for Juan and Don Quixote back at the hotel, they reason, so they’ll just have to sit tight until those two come to their rescue.
From there, the rest of the story is a steadily ratcheting fight for survival, as the gang have to deal with not only dwindling food and water supplies, wounds becoming infected, and the prospect of being shot if they attempt to flee the hill, but also the knowledge that these vines all around them aren’t like any other plants known to man. Other than the acidic sap, the vines are also flesh-eating and highly aggressive, and as the story goes on, even more bizarre attributes that the intelligent plants possess come to light, making for a chilling and ultimately fruitless struggle to survive.
This book is rightly considered one of the scariest of its era, and it’s easy to see why. Our hapless characters, through no real fault of their own, end up in a terrifying and untenable situation where all the odds are stacked against them, and where things go from bad to worse to absolutely horrendous, despite all their efforts to save themselves. Be warned too that the novel is unapologetically gruesome, with limb amputations, skin flayings, and flesh eating described in very, VERY vivid detail.
While some other reviews I read found some aspects of the vines’ behavior too unbelievable to swallow, I did not have this problem in the slightest; the plant and animal kingdom is weird, y’all, and although plants in real life can’t do some of the things the plants do here (that we know of, anyway), I didn’t find it so farfetched that it took me out of the story. Your mileage may vary, of course.
Playing out as a series of steadily deteriorating circumstances with no chapter breaks, The Ruins is one of the grimmest horrors I’ve ever had the dubious pleasure of reading. The movie ending was slightly happier, but the book just mercilessly goes for the throat. This was one of those books that took me a long time to get through; not because it wasn’t good or gripping, but because it was so bleak that I had to give myself a break from it every now and then. It’s definitely not a “fun” book by any means, but it is riveting and horrific in all the best ways, and thus it comes highly recommended.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.