It's been a long time since a book made me so angry as the one I just finished.
I can't stop thinking about it, which I suppose is the sign of a successful author. And I finished it, which is usually a sign of enjoyment. I'm not compelled to finish books I hate. Yet I'm angry. I wouldn't recommend this one. I can't voice my criticism without giving spoilers, so brace yourselves. There's spoilers.
SPOILERS *** SPOILERS *** SPOILERS *** SPOILERS
This is a book about a man-eating vine. It sounds stupid, but it's surprisingly well written. This author has been compared to Stephen King, and I understand why: He can make you believe anything. Giant alien spiders that lure children into sewers? Sure. Sentient jungle plants? No problem. Scott Smith is one of those authors who brings you into the weirdness step by careful step, starting in the land of normalcy and ending in the land of lunacy. He takes you into the characters' heads in such an intimate way, you feel their terror, and their struggle with insanity as they try to comprehend the incomprehensible. This is Horror fiction.
But I felt like I was watching a train wreck. The self-absorbed idiocy of the characters had me wincing from the beginning. They harbor secret resentments towards each other. At first, I struggled to like them, because the quality of writing drew me in. They hiked into the jungle for a good reason, to find their buddy's missing brother. So what if they ignored all the classic signs of impending danger? I mean, if it were me, I would have turned back when the creepy truck driver said, "This is a bad place," and drove off in a hurry. But not everyone thinks like that.
When they became trapped on the vine-covered hilltop, surrounded by natives with pistols and arrows, I read breathlessly to find out how they would escape. They heard a cell phone ringing at the bottom of a mine-shaft. They decided to send someone down to find it. Did they check the rope? No. The rope had been sitting out in the weather for countless weeks, and no one bothered to uncoil it or test its strength. Of course, the rope broke, and we've got our first major injury. Pablo broke his spine. He's lying at the bottom of the shaft, screaming. What do the characters do? Well, they spend the entire rest of the day figuring out how to send someone else down there to bring Pablo up on a backboard. Meanwhile, they're rationing their water, the hilltop is littered with the skeletal remains of previous people who've died there, and they can't escape. WTF? I'd think they have bigger worries than the guy with a broken spine. He's already a goner. Yet the characters keep whining about how they need to get Pablo to a hospital, as if they have any way to accomplish this.
By that point (about 1/4 through the book), I knew these characters would die from terminal stupidity. Maybe Jeff, the relatively smart one who used to be an Eagle Scout, would survive. The women were annoyingly dumb. I can't stand how so many male authors write about survival situations with dumb, whiny female characters. Why not make one of the women competent? In fact, I think women are better suited to survive trauma than men. Also, resourceful characters are easier to like.
I wouldn't want any of these characters for friends. Let me tell you, this book terrified me on multiple levels. It works as a horror novel for all the good reasons. There's suspense, there's gore, there's tons of creepy scenes. And then there's the horrific idea of having to die with a group of idiots. What if you were trapped in a deadly survival situation, and your only companions want to drink tequila instead of planning a way to gather water when it rains? What if no one around you even thought about escape? What if you had to trust your life to their thoughtless non-vigilance? Scary! I get chills thinking about it. And Scott Smith made these characters very, very believable.
I came away from this book with fresh cynicism about humanity.
Before I wrap this up, I need to mention a few great ideas that never occurred to these characters. I wonder if they occured to the author.
1. My escape idea.
The natives keep watch day and night, and the vine makes an alarm noise if anyone tries to sneak past the sentries. But what about a diversion? Pablo, the guy with a broken back and hastily amputated legs, is shrieking in agony. They could drag him down the hill, let the natives shoot him to death, and flee while they're busy. Pablo would then die for a good cause instead of in vain. Okay, I'll concede that the natives might not fall for this diversion, or it may be too quick. But there's always victim #2: Eric. Eric is slowly bleeding to death from multiple self-inflicted wounds made with a dirty knife. By the second day, they all know he'll die without medical attention or food. He could martyr himself to save the rest of them. But no one thinks or suggests this idea. They discuss eating Amy's corpse on the third day, but they never discuss any practical escape attempt. Even Jeff, the former Eagle Scout, doesn't think of this. I hate them.
2. My communication idea.
The natives don't speak Spanish, which is why they were unable to warn travelers away. I don't buy this. The natives live in Mexico, and they obviously trade with Mexicans, because they have things like bicycles and T-shirts. At least one of them must speak enough Spanish to communicate. Jeff (who speaks high school level Spanish) should have tried communicating. Also, these natives are too cruel to be believed. They just let travelers wander into the vine, again and again, and hold them captive until they die. Why don't they flat-out kill them? Why do they waste resources by watching the travelers suffer in a long, drawn-out process? What if a little child or baby came with the travelers? Would an entire village--men, women, children--let a child die slowly like that? I don't believe these people.
3. My S.O.S. idea.
The vine yanks down any sign they put up. They find old S.O.S. signs hidden around the base of the hilltop, the sort of signs that might have warned them to keep away. But why don't they carve into the trunks of trees? That's what I'd do. If the vine covers their etchings, they could climb up and spend all day hacking off tree branches. That would leave some strange-looking trees, which might be enough to warn other innocent people to keep away. It might even be noticed if an airplane flies overhead.
4. My suicide idea.
Every character dies in a unique, tragic, gruesome way. By the third day, the remaining survivors (all three of them) know they're doomed. Eric skins himself alive because he's convinced the vine is inside him, Mathias gets stabbed in the heart, and the final survivor, Stacey, slits her wrists and bleeds to death. Why, oh WHY, don't any of them think to set the hilltop on fire??? They have a book of matches and a bottle of tequila. The vine recedes when it gets burnt. I'd say it's time for a Molotov cocktail and a forest fire. At least that way, they'll have saved future travelers from much pain and suffering.
Okay, I feel better now. Stay away from "The Ruins" unless you enjoy torture.