Book Review: The Ruins
By Kim Hollis
July 17, 2006

Feed me, Seymour!

Many years ago, I had a friend with whom I frequently exchanged books. One day, she brought me a paperback of something called A Simple Plan by Scott Smith, giving it her highest recommendation. Indeed, the book's dark tone drew me in as it took twists and turns I wasn't expecting. I didn't precisely love A Simple Plan the way my friend did, but I always respected the remarkable knack for psychological study within its pages. When Sam Raimi went on to direct a film version, the story got even more attention as Smith's screenplay went on to be nominated for an Academy Award.

Now, 13 years have passed and Smith has finally come through with a follow-up. For my money, it's a better book than A Simple Plan, encompassing all of the mental games Smith's characters play inside a real horror/thriller. It's a book that is very, very difficult to put down at any point, and the 319 pages simply fly by. One thing seems fairly certain – The Ruins is likely to put tourists off of exploring Mexican ruins for a long time to come.

Smith's tale takes a set of 20-somethings and throws them together for a Cancun vacation. Four recent college graduates encounter a German while diving in a wreck, and after a few days of being acquainted, he tells them that his brother is missing. It seems that Henrich met a hot archaeologist and followed her according to the map she left behind. The four young Americans (Jeff, Amy, Eric and Stacey) agree to accompany Mathias in the search for his brother, and they also invite along a Greek who speaks no English and whom they know only as Pablo.

As the group makes their journey, things become ominous fairly quickly. Stacey has her hat and sunglasses stolen by some kids, and the only cab/truck that they can find to take them out to their remote destination has a rather unfriendly dog in the back that attempts to devour the men sitting near him. Upon arrival, the cab driver tells them the place they are heading is bad. Really bad. He offers to drive them back, but the spirited youths head off on their merry way.

Once in the jungle, they head down the trail until they come upon a Mayan village (real live Mayans, not extinct ones). They are not given a friendly welcome. Finally, they find the trail that Mathias' map indicates, and even though they speculate as to why it should be so deliberately hidden by palm fronds, they forge ahead.

Needless to say, things go terribly, terribly wrong for our heroes from here. There is an evil that lurks inside the jungle vegetation – a malevolent force that has designs on destroying and consuming them.

The Ruins is exceptionally suspenseful as the tourists unravel what is happening around them, but as with A Simple Plan, its real strength is the interaction between the characters. The story plays out like a horror movie – indeed, Ben Stiller's production company has purchased rights to make the film – and Smith has cleverly designed each of the characters to be an archetype of the type of people who populate those projects. There is the boy scout, the whiny girl, the hot/sexy/skeezy girl, and the plucky comic relief. For added intensity, we have the stoic German and the foreign guy whom no one can understand. That's not so creative, you might say. But it works, because what Smith does is play those characters off one another in unexpected ways, and it keeps the reader constantly guessing. I was particularly struck by a segment where three of the players discuss what the movie version of their story would be like and who would die in what order. I had found myself doing the same thing as I was reading, and their thoughts echoed mine, but as in A Simple Plan, simple Hollywood endings are not in the cards for these people.

Along with the human characters, the vegetation of the jungle itself comes to life as it antagonizes the intruders on its domain. While in theory it might sound strange to say that the book's "villain" is an intelligent, malicious plant that schemes and mocks, Smith runs with the notion and it makes for a chilling atmosphere.

Best of all, the book's prose is sharp and has a strong literary feel to it, which makes it a unique prospect amongst typical novels of the genre. The Ruins is a strong outing and very distinctly different from Smith's debut. It's an outstanding sophomore effort and the hope is that Smith will be back for more sometime sooner than 2019.