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Smith thrills in his new dark suspense

“The Ruins does for Mexican vacations what Jaws did for New England beaches.”

— Stephen King

The Ruins by Scott Smith. Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. 319 pages.


Twelve years ago, Scott Smith wrote A Simple Plan, a dark tale about three friends who find a crashed plane in the woods — along with a dead pilot, several million dollars and assorted drugs — all free for the taking. This 1996 novel turned out to be one of the best suspense/thrillers I have ever read. Ironically, the book almost vanished without a trace after a number of critics trashed it in the weeks after its publication. Luckily, Stephen King bought advertisements in several major newspapers advising readers to ignore the critics. King praised the book, noting that Smith “knew how to write a thriller.” Judging from the book’s success in the following months, King was right. A Simple Plan became a best seller and went on to become a successful film (1998).

Well, folks, that was 12 years ago. Smith’s fans assumed that he would soon publish another tale packed with teeth-gritting tension and dark suspense. After a decade passed, readers began to assume that Smith’s success was a one-shot fluke. Now, perhaps a bit belatedly, The Ruins is on the shelf. For the readers who remember A Simple Plan, the question is, can Smith make you neglect food and sleep as you follow another “page-turner” to its end? The answer is “yes” but with a difference.

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The major characters in The Ruins (two college-age couples) have much in common with a dozen horror flick casts but with variations of the old formula: They are hapless victims trapped in an alien environment (a remote part of Mexico near Cancun) — much like the cast of “Lost,” or the terrified victims in a dozen current horror flicks: “The Descent,” “Wolf Creek,” “Hostel,” etc.) However, in all of these films, the threat originates from humans. The enemy may be crazed, inbred and/or bestial, but it is basically (or marginally) of the same species as the victims. In The Ruins, the terrifying evil is something else. It is an aspect of the natural world — vegetation, a creeping, flower-laden vine that is capable of an array of talents, including cunning, malice, mimicry and cruel humor.

Scott Smith has a penchant for creating tension, and the atmosphere of The Ruins becomes almost unbearably sinister. Starvation, thirst and tropical heat combined with the mounting despair of the victims as their rescue and/or escape options vanish may cause many readers to temporarily throw in the towel and close The Ruins, only to return eventually, cautiously reopen the book and plow on to the chilling conclusion. The book describes three days of mounting terror — 300 pages — and there are no chapter divisions. The entire book is one, long chapter that occasionally slows like a rollercoaster as it mounts an incline, only to careen down a free-fall slope.

However, this tale is not propelled by terror alone. The innate traits (or hooks) that drag each character to a fatal and tragic confrontation are psychological flaws. In other words, each of Smith’s middle-class college kids contains a seed of self-destruction. Had they been content to frolic, drink and sing on a Mexican beach, they would have each returned to a life of success and privilege. Unfortunately, they choose to accompany three drinking companions (nicknamed Juan, Pablo and Don Quixote) into a remote valley to “see the ruins” and find the missing brother of another newfound companion (a German named Mathis). The sudden goodwill trip is perceived as a lark.

Jeff, Amy, Eric and Stacy are classic American college graduates who are poised on the brink of successful (and predictable) careers. Their vacation to Mexico represents a final fling before they settle into careers, marriages and a future of comfort, stability and materialism. Consider this personality profile:

Jeff is a pre-med graduate, full of knowledge and accustomed to taking charge. He loves the Boy Scouts and intends to marry Amy. Amy is spoiled and self-centered, the killjoy who always disagrees with the majority. She loves to say, “I told you so.” Eric is a slacker and a jock with a healthy appreciation for alcohol and drugs. Stacy, nicknamed “Spacy” because of her scatter-brained approach to life, is a flirt with a marked inability to take life seriously.

In the early stages of the group’s entrapment, each perceives the dilemma as an adventure. As they busily set up camp, planning to build shelters, catch rainwater and live off the land, they are confident that rescue is eminent. When the local natives prove unfriendly, they devote their energies to finding a mysterious cell phone, which rings, intermittently in the bottom of an abandoned excavation.

Then, they discover that they are prisoners and will not be allowed to leave the excavation site, and the cell phone is some kind of bait or lure. The vines with the pretty flowers are getting closer....

For what it’s worth, a major studio has already snapped up The Ruins and initial filming plans are underway. Rumor has it that Scott Smith will write the film script. He also wrote the screenplay for “A Simple Plan.”

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