I just finished reading The Ruins by Scott Smith. If you plan to read it, stop here, because I'm about to take a stroll through it.
Reading The Ruins as a writer, got through the first 75 pages and asked myself how this writer managed to get me to follow these people into the jungle when I didn't particularly like any of them.
The Ruins is about four recent college grads on vacation in Cancun, who go off on an adventure to help an acquaintance find his brother. The college grads are comprised of two American couples, Eric and Stacy and Jeff and Amy. Although they have distinct personalities, none of them stands out as a person I would follow on a day trip away from the beach. When their German friend, Mathias, tells them that he must travel to an obscure Mayan archaeological dig to retrieve his lovesick brother, Jeff volunteers himself and his friends to keep him company. And let the foreshadowing begin.
None of the Americans really seem happy to leave the beach. Eric is so hung over, I expect his eyes to start bleeding, Stacy doesn't seem to think about whether she wants to go or not...she just follows Jeff's lead and remains the classic follower until there's...um...no one left to follow. Amy whines about going but then remembers she's been criticized for whining and summarily shuts up and goes. And I follow right along with them, thinking, "They're not really prepared. Do they know where they're going? Should they trust Mathias?" They have a hand-written map, where public transportation only takes them within 15 miles of the spot. The bus ride is ominous, the pickup truck ride to the trail head is stressful, the truck driver tries to warn them, they encounter an entire town of Mayans who try to stop them, and Amy continues to snap photos. At the last minute, a smiling Greek, bearing the gift of three bottles of tequila, joins them.
That the Greek speaks no English is only one of the language barriers the Americans encounter. They can't talk to the Mayans either. And the Mayans are clearly trying to tell them something kind of important. Something like, Don't Step Onto The Hill With The Red Flowering Vine. They do, of course, and that seals their fate. Looking back, I don't know why I didn't predict the end. They all die. There are no heroes, no survivors. Their collective penchant for sniping at each other and their private pools of fear and self-doubt take them straight to their deaths.
That pretty red-flowered vine turns out to be a carnivorous plant with super human abilities. It can mimic them in their own voices and knows just what to say to hurt them better than a kid sister with a crush on her sister's boyfriend. When hunger makes them swoon, it can engulf the hilltop with scents like freshly baked bread or steaks barbecuing. Yep. It's one mean plant. But the two couples, the German and the Greek never really question what it is or why the Mayans feel the need to keep them on the hill at gunpoint. They never try to find a weakness in their enemy. Nor do they work to make a plan to escape. They wait, hoping that the Greek's companions will come for them. Two other Greek men, who don't speak any English, Spanish or Mayan, are their only hope for survival from this situation.
Is there a message here? Something beyond entertainment? The Ruins does break a lot of formula expectations. No survivors, no heroes, no escape plan. They are four Americans, newly graduated from college, affluent, white and ready to begin adult life. By American standards, they are four young people who have the world by the ass. Yet they are not prepared to survive any difficulties. In fact, they are all basically lead to their deaths, whining and longing for another drink.
Another thing that Smith does is he keeps them all alive for an agonizingly long time after their fate is sealed. I kept expecting people to start dying off. But no one dies until more than 3/4 of the book is gone. Once the first one dies, though, Jill comes tumbling after...they drop pretty quickly. The sad part is, I'm grateful to see them go. They're the kind of people you might have a drink with at a tavern and never remember any of their names an hour later.
Okay...since I said at the beginning that I was going to go through the book, I don't feel like I've spoiled anything for anyone. Just thinking it through.