A suspenseful descent into darkness

Review Horror


The Ruins

Scott Smith

Alfred A. Knopf / 336 pages / $24.95

Ever the Boy Scout, Jeff crouches down and tears a blank page out of his notebook. Uncapping his pen, he draws the first sign, a skull and crossbones. On another page, he writes SOS. On still another, he writes HELP. And on a fourth, he writes DANGER.

Jeff and his three friends take the day trip of a lifetime in Scott Smith's horror thriller, The Ruins. After a three-mile hike through the Yucatan, the four 20-somethings are taken hostage by a tribe of Mayas, who represent only one of the dangers the hikers must face.

Making the circumstance worse, the four do not know why they are being held against their will. Is it because they have stumbled on a plant that seems to have unusual powers, or because the Mayas want to keep outsiders from a silver mine or from sacred ground? Or is a drug ring responsible for the predicament in which the characters find themselves.

An exercise in unremitting tension, the story begins casually enough as Jeff, his fiancee, Amy, and their friends, Eric and Stacy, enjoy a vacation in Cancun before starting their professional lives. After this interlude, Eric and Stacy will leave for Boston, where she will study for a master's degree in sociology and he will teach in a prep school for boys; Amy and Jeff will enter medical school. But first Mathias asks Jeff to help him find his missing brother, Henrich, who had followed a woman to an archaeological dig situated somewhere west of the town of Coba, just an hour or so from Cancun.

Jeff brings along Amy, Stacy, and Eric, because like him, they need a little adventure after days of swimming, sunbathing, and drinking. But when they arrive at the site, they find several deadly adversaries, one of which seems to have killed 30 or more people and eaten their flesh. Now it's out to get the four hikers, sort of.

As in his taut first novel, A Simple Plan (1993), Smith writes in clear, vivid language with elegant sentences. His style appears straightforward enough, until he throws a curve ball. A subtle threat, an implication, it doesn't have to mean anything, but it could, and it's enough to start you worrying.

Here's an example from the third sentence of the first page: "Mathias rose toward them from the depths, like a merman."

What an odd comparison. Is he a merman? How has he gotten there? Who is he? Perhaps Mathias, as Eric later suspects, is somehow connected with drugs. Perhaps Mathias, as Jeff sees him, is strong, intelligent, reserved.

Besides these subtle threats, Smith uses ambiguity to great effect. Nothing is ever certain, even the identity of the culprit or culprits. Could it be the hostile Mayan villagers? Is it Mathias who gets them into this mess? Perhaps tequila-guzzling Pablo, who seems to tag along for the fun of it but might have his eye on Stacy? Or is it the omnipresent flowering vine (imagine kudzu awash in blood-red poppies), whose acidic sap burns holes in the skin and which seems to grow by the minute as it stretches across the hill and hides the entrance to the mine?

Smith tells the story by shifting points of view among his protagonists. Although working with four protagonists slows an already overlong plot, it offers tantalizing possibilities - something like Rashomon. With their very different personalities, the young people at first believe that they will escape their situation and get back to Cancun safely. Soon, their belief shrivels to a hope that they will be rescued before all of them die.

Jeff and Amy are the more rational of the group, but they have their differences: Jeff tends to be optimistic, while Amy is the gloomy one. Stacy, whose nickname in college was "Spacey," is given to fantasizing. Like Stacy, Eric is playful and impractical.

As each of the four tries to out figure out what's happening and what to do about it, Smith ratchets up the suspense. Stacy and Eric count on being rescued; Amy gets drunk and gives up. Jeff, the natural leader, thinks they'll survive if they work at it, which at first means rationing their food and water and later means drinking their urine and possibly eating human flesh.

"I think we're in a hard place. I think we have to be really, really careful. And smart. And alert," Jeff tells Eric.

But can Eric, Jeff, Amy and Stacy be careful, smart, and alert for as long as it takes for someone to rescue them? Maybe. Maybe not.

Diane Scharper, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, teaches English at Towson University.

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