In a New York Times ad for The Ruins, Stephen King states that he found it a scary read. I wanted to see what frightens a man whose novel about vampires prompted me to wear a cross in seventh grade. I also had liked Scott Smith's story A Simple Plan (whose screenplay was amazing and taut.)
I did not get the horror novel I expected.
Rather, I got a very well-crafted character-driven suspense novel with horror elements, and excellent summer fare. This book should be consumed while the reader feels perspiration trickle between her shoulder blades and a glass of iced tea sweats on the table next to her. (Sandy beach optional.) I read this book as a palate cleanser before I started some of the more intense novels and involved non-fictions in my stack, and I got what I bargained for.
I just wish it had started faster.
After about 40 pages of character development — and only Stephen King's endorsement spurring me on — the players finally get busy: four Americans on holiday in Cancún volunteer to help a new German friend retrieve his brother from the unmet youth's ill-advised side trip to Mayan ruins. They are joined by a Greek who knows no English but is well-versed in the Language of Tequila.
Along the way, they get Clues: a bad beginning, awkward warnings from strangers, blocked and hidden paths. None of these change their course and they discover, too late, why the Mayan-speaking residents of the small village near the ruins were waving them away — and why a single step sealed their fate.
Smith’s writing is like embroidery: each strand is vital and contributes to the image. In The Ruins, he wanted to make sure we knew the characters before the action began because the characters are what compel the story.
However, I want my character development as part of the action. The tension between the characters, how they accept the reality of their situation, how they act in adversity — that all comes from the action. Spoiled twenty-somethings getting drunk on the beach do not interest me. An Eagle Scout who tries to remember the important points of distilling urine does.
I want my suspense or horror stories to grip me from the beginning or I may not trust the author to deliver the scary stuff. I do not need the monster to show up on page one, but I need the author to show me there is a path to the monster that starts on page one.
The Ruins is definitely worth reading — but as a library read, or a book I'd buy for a dime at a library sale for a beach house bookshelf.