John Wiswell's Reviews > The Ruins

The Ruins by Scott B. Smith
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May 19, 12

Read in June, 2011

This book forced me to reassess one of my oldest and least popular literary opinions. I enjoy passive prose. Even if I don’t write it often, I’m fond of the styles that recorded most of our great myths. The action is taken out of pacing, trapped in a sort of literary amber where unique characters and ideas are everything. Through use of voice, "telling" can be equally entertaining and artistic as "showing." It’s a similarly great medium for thorough journalism and science. Yet The Ruins is perhaps the worst example of passive writing I’ve ever read.

The opening simply tells us about the characters. We don’t see them arrive, get drunk or argue. The novel even relays the gist of conversations instead of letting us hear them. And because these are all well-to-do tourists with hormones and romantic drama, they bleed into two groups. The core group is Eric, Jeff, Stacy and Amy, a troupe of young, mostly interchangeable Caucasian tourists. Then there are the Greeks, who even on the last page of the book don’t develop into more than a group of foreigners who like to bang. And we’re told that they like to. The novel insists on telling us that they leer at a pretty girl and maybe had a night with her; we’re never taken into a moment to see any of it. This passive reportage follows us into the ruins of an ancient temple and saps the tension from this Horror story.

The detachment from action is at its worst in the first hundred pages. Pretty much anyone who picks up this book has been told it’s about a giant killer plant. Thus, you spend those first hundred pages waiting for it to crawl out of the jungle. Since we have such a superficial bunch of characters, we might root for them to all get eaten – but the novel doesn’t even get on the premise quickly. Instead we’re told they’re nervous, we’re told their thoughts about the Greeks coming for rescue, we’re told about rationing. When the creepy natives show up, they sit there and do nothing. We’re then told they’re creepy.

I’ll argue that passive writing can illuminate great stories. Hercules’s labors are novel even relayed as dry history. But in The Ruins, we’re trapped with some petty characters doing very little. Amy dominates a hefty chunk of the first third of the book. She’s not particularly bright selfish about food and water rations, and instinctively spiteful toward anyone who might judge her. Put into motion in a sitcom, that could be funny. If you’re just told that over and over, or read these descriptions of her transparent thought process, you’re begging to toss her to the plant. It worsens further as the characters set into despair over their situation and grow similarly hysterical. You’re left with a passive account of an unsympathetic group being obnoxious until they escape or die. Even that might work in a Horror-slasher movie, but not one that spends ten pages painstakingly going through a twit’s anxiety over sipping water.
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by Mav (new)

Mav Skye I read this years ago. When I finished it, I was so angry that I let myself read past pg. 50. Terrible book. Everything you say is true. King endorsed it at the time. And didn't they turn it into a movie? Geez.


message 2: by John (new) - rated it 1 star

John Wiswell King called it the best novel he'd read in years, which stuns me in retrospect. He does seem to be a more reliable fiction writer than advocate, though. And I adore Uncle Steve.

They definitely adapted it into a film. I can imagine photogenic white kids getting torn apart by a CG tentacle making some box office.


message 3: by Mav (new)

Mav Skye Yep, I remember that King had some quote across the top of the book. That is why I picked it out. It was in the best sellers list or something. I was really really angry at how dumb the characters were and how dumb the book ended up being. Most of the newbie books King recommends I enjoy. There is one I have stashed away somewhere that is one of the best horror novels I've ever read. It's called Straw Men or something like that. Need to find it.


message 4: by John (new) - rated it 1 star

John Wiswell When you dig it up, do let me know what that book is.


message 5: by Donald (new)

Donald Wow, this may be a case of the movie-was-better-than-the-novel, based on this review. I thought the film was pretty good and there was an insinuation that the story wasn't over—and that the locals were doing the world a favor by keeping the thing contained. Of course, you could also view it as a statement that we Americans wreck all we touch and thanks to us the world is ultimately doomed, but I digress. Get the film.


message 6: by John (new) - rated it 1 star

John Wiswell Some high profile review of the novel - I forget which newspaper - claimed the novel had an apt antagonist in response to global warming. Maybe they handle it differently in the movie, but in the book there's no connecting, just as there's really no viable commentary on American intrusion. It's just there, an inexplicable monster, and they haven't done anything wrong by sightseeing. Smith ends the novel in a way that suggests this has gone on for a long time and will continue, but why do I care? What of it I saw was excruciating.

I have so little desire to see this story play out on screen, Donald. Do you swear to me it's a great Horror film? Because I wouldn't even settle for a decent one on this premise. It promises to be two hours of people screaming and crying in a CG temple.


message 7: by Donald (new)

Donald I checked in with Netflix. The average rating is three stars (out of a possible five). I gave it a four rating. Apparently I liked it better than most, probably for the way it ended.


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