Reading Scott Smith is like having a rope tied firmly round your middle, as you’re pulled on protesting tiptoes toward a door marked DOOM. The horror is in plain sight; there is no doubt things will end badly — the signs are everywhere. In Smith’s 1993 clockwork-perfect debut, A Simple Plan, hundreds of crows guard the crash site of a loot-filled plane. In The Ruins, Smith’s first novel since, six partying vacationers leave their Cancún hotel to explore an archaeological dig in the jungle. It’s meant to be a lark, but the day trip is immediately ruffled by small, unsettling events: The group ends up sharing a truck ride with a vicious little dog (”His anger, his desire to do them harm, seemed almost human”); the pathway to the site is illogically camouflaged; the Mayans whose village rests near the site pointedly ignore them, as if willing away a car crash.
Smith is a master of the ”if only” scenario, that most foolish and pungent form of regret: Here, a series of triggers, innocent or avoidable, ultimately traps the hapless twentysomethings on the ruins’ sun-blasted hillside, an ominously beautiful place covered entirely by vines pocked with blood-red flowers. It becomes apparent that they are meant to die up there; a malevolent organism is stalking them, a being sentient enough to plot.
But this is no Crichton-esque thriller — readers who demand careful scientific, biological explanations in their storytelling will, in fact, be infuriated. Smith’s forte is the psychological realm. Strong and passive personalities play their roles with frightening predictability: Eagle Scout Jeff throws himself into survival mode while childish Stacy daydreams and Amy, Jeff’s pessimistic girlfriend, pouts. Neither of these female characters is nearly as compelling as Simple Plan‘s murderously pragmatic Sarah, but then Smith’s interest here lies in group dynamics. The vacationers aren’t just physically trapped on a cursed hillside, they’re mentally trapped in the roles they’ve played all their lives, and the resulting actions and reactions (particularly the yo-yo between assertive Jeff and heel-dragging Amy) are as dangerous as the flesh-craving being that surrounds them.
At its heart, The Ruins is an old-fashioned horror story (Ben Stiller’s company has snapped up the movie rights), and it’s the invasive, intuitive killer that provides the ice-water dread. Indeed, when one character becomes convinced the thing has gotten inside of him, the book’s most nauseating, unsettling scenes are unleashed. It’s Thomas Harris meets Poe in a decidedly timely story: Smith has tapped into our anxieties about global warming, lethal weather, supergerms — our collective fear that nature is finally battling back — and given us a decidedly organic nightmare.