By Scott Smith
Knopf. 319 pp., $24.95
Only one word does justice to Scott Smith's The Ruins , and it's the last word to leave the lips of Joseph Conrad's Mr. Kurtz: horror.
Smith turned heads with his gripping first novel, A Simple Plan (1993), which chronicled the downfall of three men who find millions of dollars in the wreckage of an airplane. His second novel proves worth the 13-year wait. The Ruins is a tour de force of terror, a novel that seduces, shocks and dares you to keep reading -- and never relents, not even on its final page. Like A Simple Plan , it's driven by a keen sense of character, the collision of the mundane and the extraordinary, and an abiding fascination with choices and their consequences.
The Ruins proceeds from a premise familiar to fans of latter-day horror fiction and film: the Road Trip to Hell, made mythic in "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "The Hills Have Eyes." Smith's travelers are apple-pie American, four fresh-faced college grads intent on one last fling in Cancún before confronting adulthood and the obligations of the real world. That confrontation comes far sooner than expected.
Bright and beautiful Amy will enter medical school in the fall with her boyfriend, Jeff, an alpha male and former Eagle Scout -- ever calm, ever industrious, ever prepared. Stacy is headed nowhere with her boyfriend, Eric, who is built less of logic and muscle than playfulness and imagination: "He was going to teach children and remain a child forever, while Stacy advanced implacably into adulthood, leaving him behind." Bored and in need of a little adventure, the four join a dour German tourist on a day-trip search for his missing brother. A hand-drawn map leads them inland by bus, then truck, then foot to a remote archaeological dig. The journey is part Joseph Conrad, part B. Traven -- and turns fatal when they reach a Mayan village that guards the ruins, unearthed by miners on a silent hill:
"The hill was rocky, oddly treeless, and covered with some sort of vinelike growth -- a vivid green, with hand-shaped leaves and tiny flowers. The plant spread across the entire hill, clinging so tightly to the earth that it almost seemed to be squeezing it in its grasp. The flowers looked like poppies, the same size and color: a brilliant stained-glass red."
Another red -- the red of blood -- soon follows. The villagers refuse to let the outsiders come down from the hill, forcing them to confront a mysterious nemesis among the empty ruins -- and, in turn, their own faults and fears. That vined plant, beguiling in its beauty, is carnivorous and somehow conscious. Only the lexicon of H.P. Lovecraft could offer meaningful descriptions: eldritch, noisome, tenebrous, a crawling chaos beyond simplistic notions of man and monster, primitive and civilized, good and evil.
Faced with a lethal dilemma -- death now, at the hands of the Mayans, or death later, in the grip of abomination -- the friends hope for rescue or an opportunity for escape; and that's when the real story, a harrowing saga of survival, begins.
Smith's assured narrative circles inward patiently, interrogating his characters' responses to a scenario that, in lesser hands, might read like 1930s pulp fiction. He eschews an omniscient point of view, sweeping and swerving through the limited viewpoints of the four Americans, and that refusal to know all preserves the novel from horror's anathema: the eagerness to tell all. The events on that lonely hill are all the more disturbing because they cannot entirely be explained, and Smith's claustrophobic style makes the moments of violence, when they come, stark and searing:
"She kept clearing the vine away, buffeted by [his] screaming, seeing and not seeing, not bone white, but bone itself, the flesh stripped cleanly from it, blood beginning to pool now, pool and drip, as the plant was pulled free, revealing more white, more bone white, more bone, his lower leg nothing but bone, the skin and muscle and fat gone, eaten, blood dripping from the . . . knee, dripping and pooling, a long tendril wrapped completely around his shinbone, gripping it, refusing to relinquish its hold, a trio of flowers hanging from the length of green, red flowers, bright red, bloodred."
There's something else powering these pages: The reader feels trapped with Smith's terrorized tourists in their desperate struggle for survival -- and for understanding. And nothing seems to work: not instinct or intellect, love or labor, friendship or faith. That isolated hill and its inexplicable predator suggest discomforting metaphors; it's difficult not to read this novel about Americans caught in a dire morass on foreign soil without thinking of the day's headlines.
But there's a more timeless fable at work here, one that prompts thoughts of Heart of Darkness . Courageous in its pessimism and its embrace of horror, Smith's powerful tale, like Conrad's masterpiece, cautions against such reassuring conceits as civilization, conscience, morality, superiority -- and yes, good and evil. Hidden somewhere in the vines of The Ruins , like those of the Congo, beats the heart of an impenetrable darkness. ·
Douglas E. Winter, a Washington attorney, is the author of the novel "Run."