Sep 11, 2012

The Ritual - Adam Nevill

The Ritual
Author: Adam Nevill
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Publication Date: February 14, 2012
(first edition published by Pan Macmillan - 2011)

Adam Nevill manages to sum up the relentlessly grim mood of his entire novel in one simple and effective opening sentence. "And on the second day things did not get better." Nor do they and, as implied, things were not going so great on the first day either. After a brief flash forward the novel picks up with four friends at the end of their tether. A hiking trip through the Scandinavian wilderness has gone badly. Two of the group are in no shape to continue on much longer. They are starting to get on each other's nerves. So it would seem the most sensible course of action would be to deviate from the planned route and take a shortcut through the ancient virgin forest to the south.

Of course, this turns out to be a disastrous move but hindsight is 20/20. They find the forest nearly impenetrable and are alarmed to discover the mutilated corpse of something stuck up in a tree. Whatever could have put it there? As they stumble upon the creepy hovel filled with pagan, possibly satanic, bric-a-brac they argue about turning back the way they came. This may no longer be a viable option, they realize that options are becoming scarce. To make matters worse, there seems to be something stalking them.

I picked this book up on the basis of the internet buzz surrounding Adam Nevill. I wasn't disappointed. This is one of the best horror novels that I've ever come across. Riffing off The Blair Witch Project, Deliverance and Algernon Blackwood's The Willows, Nevill has created a novel of sustained, elemental horror. He embraces a clarity in his straightforward prose which infuses the novel a feeling of immediacy. The characters do not drive the action so much as they are corralled into an ever shrinking series of choices. The reader is swept along for the ride.

The group dynamics are efficiently and believably explored. These four met in university and forged the type of bond that only those circumstances at that age make possible. Fifteen years later at least three of them are dissatisfied with the way their lives turned out and they have all been drifting apart but it is Luke who is the odd man out. Unlike his friends, Luke has failed to make much of his life and harbors a great deal of anger over this. To be fair to Luke though, unlike Dom and Phil he hasn't entirely let himself go physically and at least could have made the hike. Still, he's the one that the others all talk about behind his back and would probably be avoided altogether if not for the social graces of the others. As Dom angrily points out at one point, they have all moved on with their lives, Luke still gets excited when Lynyrd Skynyrd put out a new album.

For the record, I did not care much for Dom. Or Phil for that matter. Much is made over Luke's supposed insensitivity and irrational violent outbursts, but I wanted someone to hit Dom. The forth guy, Hutch, is the peacemaker and the glue tenuously holding the group together. They are all sketched well enough to get a sense of who they are. So when the soul freezing horror that is part pagan god, part satanic beast and part homage to a certain fertile Lovecraftian monstrosity begins picking off the quartet, it isn't just eating complete strangers.

insert monster here

Aside from the supernatural threat, Nevill mines the danger of the wilderness for all that it has to offer. Even without a monster stalking them, the hikers are in a dismal situation. Shortly after taking the detour into the forest, I got the impression that simply being stuck in the wilderness would have probably killed at least half of them. There is a dread of slow creeping death at play. I was reminded of Jack London's story, To Build A Fire in which that character experiences a dawning realization that he is not going to make it. In this novel, the monster is just the icing on the cake, or rather, the nail in the coffin.

The goal much of the best of dark or weird fiction is to instill a sense of awe. The untrodden landscape of the Arctic Circle is put to this effect. The monster may be supernatural in the most literal sense, but I don't think that it could appropriately be described as unnatural.  It is more like nature personified, but not simply a romantic idea of unspoiled wilderness, it is nature red in tooth and claw and very cruel to boot. It becomes clear that, if one of the characters is going to survive, he is going to have to suffer and struggle, and suffer and struggle.

Now, there is a point about two thirds into the novel that the story evolves into something slightly different. Some have noted disappointment in the latter part of the book but I find that it strengthens rather than detracts from the story. By this point something new had to be introduced or the story finished. Had the story simply been wrapped up it would not have been as satisfying. An element of the absurd is introduced, and I don't mean this in a negative sense. The situation does not become any less harrowing. There is much more suffering and struggling to come. It is like the novel goes into overtime and ups the ante. This allows Nevill to explore some elements hinted at earlier in the novel. There is still much left unexplained, but the reader is not left twisting in the wind. Then the novel ends in the only way it really could.

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