Critical reaction of Scott Smith's second book, The Ruins just released in mass-market paperback, was decidedly mixed. This is, on reflection, unsurprising. His debut effort, the blockbuster A Simple Plan, was one of those crossover genre hits that manages not only to deliver the goods, but touch a deep and resonant nerve. Mining the same ground as its spiritual predecessor, the genre-crossover classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madres, the plot was brilliantly straight forward. A group of three men find a bundle of cash. To keep it, all they have to do is keep their mouths shut and trust one another. Of course, everything goes to utter hell and what could be an exercise in suspense nastiness turns into a brutal portrait of human souls turned monstrous by greed.
In contrast, The Ruins features a super-intelligent man-eating plant.
Seriously. Like a more vicious, splatter-punk version of Audrey II.
You can see how many critics, especially those who had perhaps felt that they were already dangerously close to slumming it when they read Smith's first novel, turned up their noses. After all, is their any creature feature cliché cheesier than the man-eating plant? Images of shambling men in rubber tree-suits spring to mind; maybe you imagine foam "vines" swung about wildly on visible wires.
Well, the disdainful critics were full of poop. Smith's novel takes the hokey B-movie concept and strips it clean of every last vestige of Navy Versus the Night Monsters camp. Using a finely drawn cast of characters and placing them in a plot that is as eerie and surreally inevitable as the snap motion of a Venus flytrap, Smith builds a novel that, despite its bulky 500-page length, is taught and merciless. The Ruins worthily fulfills on the promise of Smith's exceptional debut.
The novel follows the story of four young American tourists (the tourist is the new small-town teen of the horror world) on an off-season vacation in Mexico. There they run across a friendly German tourist, on vacation with his brother, and a trio of rambunctious Greeks who, despite not speaking a word of English, glom on to our protagonists. The German informs them that his brother has gone to an archeological dig in the jungle inland, chasing after a hottie archeologist he met earlier. The group decides that a hike through the jungle might be fun and the four Americans and one of the Greeks take off to make a day of it. To the readers great un-surprise, things go terribly wrong. Shortly after finding the abandoned site, our heroes get trapped there by the locals who seemed determined – lethally so – to keep them at the site of the dig. Trapped without supplies, our heroes' problems get horrifically worse when they find that, sharing the dig site with them, is a system of seemingly sentient vines that live off the fluids and flesh of human beings.
The plot actually shares a sort of conceptual similarity with A Simple Plan. In both cases, our protagonists are stuck in situation that slowly, relentlessly spirals out of control. Though there is plenty of gore and high-res gross out materials (Smith is downright Rabelaisian in his eagerness to depict various bodily fluids), the real violence of Smith's book comes from his own unyielding narrative brutality. Like all good horror authors, Smith is merciless when it comes to putting the screws to his own creations. What makes him a great horror author is that he never loses sight or sympathy for the humanity of his characters. They remain fully realized characters throughout the ordeal. This at once makes the story more involving and more repellant. If our protagonists were the pasteboard cutouts of most low-grade genre fiction, we wouldn't care about them and the slow green deathtrap they find themselves in would be more tedious than frightening. On the other hand, getting to know these characters makes their fates all the more distressing, especially as the bodies begin to pile up.
Thinking back on it now, sympathy is the wrong word. Smith is something like an anatomist of genre fiction personality. His characters are "full realized," but not in the sense that they remind us of people we know. Instead, they are meticulously constructed extensions of genre types – as if he intended to make the trappings of genre fiction real rather than bring a level of the real into the context of genre fiction. This fits with the rest of Smith's MO: just slowly and steadily push everything to its most extreme conclusion.
Smith's A Simple Plan was such a great debut novel that any follow up was bound to receive a mixed reaction. The Ruins not only holds up on its own; Smith should be given credit for taking his brand of relentless psychological suspense and reworking it into a gutsy, gory concept that doesn't feel like retread of modern horror plots or his own instant classic first book.
You can find The Ruins anywhere they sell readables and the new paperback edition will only set you back about 8 smackers.