The Ruins (2006) by Scott Smith

There’s an unfortunately common trope in horror where beautiful white Westerners vacation in a Foreign Land only to be slaughtered by STRANGE EXOTIC HORRORS, which more often than not simply The Natives. The premise of The Ruins seems like it’ll fit that bill, but from the first few pages you can tell it’s something different. Basically, The Ruins (the novel, that is) is a story about how some privileged fucks get what’s coming to them. They’re doomed before they even arrive at the titular ruins. And if that wasn’t cool enough, it’s also about some nasty, mischievous, no-good man-eating plants.

I’m getting ahead of myself. The Ruins follows a group of tourists (Jeff, Amy, Eric, Stacy) vacationing in Mexico. The four Americans are celebrating their last summer at some resort before starting jobs or entering med school (which kinda tells you what you need to know about them) is joined by Mathias, a German tourist, and a non-English speaking Greek tourist who they call Pablo (sure, whatever, it’s fine).

above: these guys suck!

The events of the story are set in motion when they decide to embark on an adventure to find Mathias’ brother, who left them a map to some archaeological dig in the middle of the jungle. What follows is our intrepid crew just BARRELING through one-way gates that truly couldn’t be more clearly marked. There’s even the classic horror staple: an old man who blatantly tells them “hey it’s dangerous, go home.” But no, our heroes won’t be deterred from their Cool, Authentic Mexican Adventure! Besides, what do the people who have lived in this area for generations know?

Things come to a head when our heroes make it to the titular ruins, which stand tall, decrepit, and are absolutely encased in some ivy-like plant,  only to be confronted by an Entire Mayan Village who try to force the crew away. And here’s where the bear-trap truly snaps shut. As the confrontation gets more heated, one member of the party thinks, “hey . . . my friends trying to argue with these Mayans would make a good photo!” And in trying to achieve the perfect disposable camera angle, she steps into a tangle of vines. Now, the protagonists don’t know that this contact with the plants is what causes the Mayans to pivot from “hey get away from the Ruins” to “we will kill you if you leave the ruins,” but truly, I can’t think of a better way for their lives to be forfeit than ”whoa, a group of indigenous people furious as me and my friends? I need to take a picture!”

The Mayans force the group into the ruins and set up camp to prevent them from leaving (later, we find out, to prevent the spread of this sinister plant life), thus beginning an exceptional cruel and bloody survival horror story! I mentioned “nasty, mischievous man-eating plants” and they’re here, babey!! The vines launch a wild and violent psychological campaign against the heroes, employing everything from “mimicking their voices” and “making them think there’s a cell phone in the depths of the ruins” to simply “slurping up vomit” and “infesting their open wounds.” In practice and in theory, the ruins are just one big carnivorous plant. Pitcher plants of the Sarracenia genus, for example, will attract prey with aromatic, sweet nectar. And when the insect gets too close,,,oops! It slips and falls into the pit where it drowns, digesting at the plant’s leisure. That’s what happens here. Nectar isn’t enough to attract the kind of prey The Ruins want though. So how does the Ruins stay fed? Why, by enticing tourists into its domain with the promise of adventure. When they fall into the trap, they’re slowly torn apart as the ruins dangle the chance of escape, preying on the belief that they’re The Heroes, the Protagonists of some big story so they can’t die.

The biggest offender of this is Jeff, the de facto leader and token Eagle Scout. His girlfriend, Amy, notes the following about him after they’ve been lowered into the depths of the ruins in hunt for the “phone” they keep hearing:

“He was enjoying this, she realized. Even with everything that had happened in the past twenty-four hours, somehow he was managing to find pleasure in this. He was like a little boy, with a little boy’s passions: the illicit joys of things underground – caves and hideouts and secret tunnels.”

Keep in mind, here are some of the things that’ve happened in “the past twenty-four hours”:

  • They discovered the corpse of Mathias’ brother along with dozens of other bodies
  • Their friend Pablo broke his back trying to descend into this same pit
  • They twisted his entire body lifting him up into a sling to try him get out of the pit (this part made me cringe, it’s great)
  • The vines tore away all the flesh on his legs
  • Jeff amputated Pablo’s legs after smashing them with a big ol’ rock and searing the wounds shut with a frying pan (“[Jeff] wanted to do it; Stacy could see this.”)
  • They learned the plants are sentient and messing with them, to the point where literally everything about the Ruins is intentionally designed and placed to wear them down (including, may I add, the pulley system they keep using to descend into the ruins)
  • like a lot more but just read the book

this seems like a cool and hot idea

Jeff is the perfect mark. The Eagle Scout who feels he’s been preparing his whole life to survive against the odds in a situation like this. As such, he’s the one egging his party on, telling them that he’s just trying to keep them alive. But really, I think Jeff is trying to win. He’s obsessed with asserting dominance and feeling like he has control over the situation. Spoilers: he doesn’t. And when Jeff dies, it’s kind of funny.

After all that talk about surviving until help comes, he decides to just make a break for it and run past the Mayans.

“To turn back would be to accept yet another failure here, and Jeff couldn’t here, and Jeff couldn’t bring himself to do that.”

What’s the worst that could happen?

“He heard the [Mayan sentry] shout.

He’ll miss, Jeff thought. He’ll –

The arrow hit him just below the chin, piercing his throat”

Oops. But he’s fine, right? He’s the protagonist!

“He was instantly back up on his feet thinking, I’m okay; I’m not hurt

See??

“while his mouth rapidly filled with blood.”

It’s…It’s fine.

“He managed three more steps before the next arrow struck him.”

F.

His last words: “Please . . . help . . . me.”

Tragic! But also, this is the first time Jeff asks for help. He’s the dude who refuses to ask for directions because he can’t accept he’s lost. It’s only when it’s literally too late that he realizes he might not be able to beat this. Pour one out for our man.

 I’m not arguing (nor do I think the book is arguing) that fighting til the end, struggling against reality is inherently futile or childish. My favorite characters often end up being the ones who defiantly challenge their fate. There’s some honor and admiration to be found in struggling against forces outta your control. Buuut, that’s not really what’s happening here. I think there’s a difference between the aforementioned and believing you’re entitled to safety and control. Near the beginning of the book, Stacy recalls the words her drunk uncle once told her when she was seven:

“If you’re not careful, you can reach a point where you’ve made choices without thinking. Without planning. You can end up not living the life you’d meant to. Maybe the one you deserve, but not the one you intended”

The planning he’s talking about isn’t Jeff’s whole survival preparedness thing. It’s being thoughtful, it’s thinking about your choices. All the way up until the point they enter the ruins, the characters are thinking “this isn’t a great idea” or “maybe we should stay at the hotel,” but they ignore those thoughts. Because I mean, what could go wrong? It’s them.

 This is what I mean when I say these folks are doomed from the start. It’s ultimately not really an action that seals their fate, but their character. If they weren’t the kind of people to treat another land, another environment, another culture as their playground or something to Defeat and Overcome, then this probably wouldn’t have happened. If they had treated this place as worthy of respect, maybe their vacation would have ended differently. (To be fair, their “we can do whatever we want” attitude probably served them well in the U.S.) The surface-level horror of The Ruins is this impish lil plant that laughs at you for letting your friends die, but at the cold, dark heart of the story is a group of people who believe that they’re Special And Different and how that gets them systemically and utterly destroyed.

And let’s remember what literally led them here in the first place. Mathias’ brother was meeting someone at an archaeological dig happening at the ruins. An archaeological dig on some Mayan ruins in the middle of the jungle nearby a populated Mayan village, huh? Here’s my question: do you think they asked if it was OK for them to just start excavating a presumed cultural site? I think either:

  1. Whether or not they could communicate with the villagers, they didn’t care (or think to care) about asking permission, or
  2. They could communicate and simply chose to ignore the villagers in favor of continuing their dig

It should be obvious how plausible both of these options are if you’ve ever been to a museum. We’re all too ready to consume another culture while ignoring the actual people of said culture. The real sympathetic characters of this story are the Mayans; attentively standing guard over this leafy hell and when their warnings go unheeded, staying put to keep it all contained. And while Jeff and company are debating the ethics of curing their dead friend’s meat so it’ll last longer and keep them from going hungry, what are the Mayans doing?

“They were clustered around their smoldering campfire, some of them napping in the slowly diminishing line of shade at the edge of the jungle. They were talking and laughing; one of them was whittling a stick, just carving it down into nothing, a bored man’s task, a way to occupy his hands while time ticked sluggishly by.”

They’re fucking bored. The implication that they’ve done this so many times because people keep just ignoring them is both absurd and hilarious. They just want this latest crew of dummies to die so they can go home. (As someone who works at a bar, I can highly relate.)

Jeff posits that no birds or animals land near the ruins because over time, they’ve learned not to. In other words, the animals that didn’t know not to were selected out of the population. Maybe eventually, the Jeffs of the world will all go extinct and the plants will finally starve. That’s a cruel thought (or wishful thinking), and it’s also he only solution the book suggests… Because the last scene of the book is Pablo The Greek’s friends arriving at the ruins, beers and boom box in hand, in search of their missing pal. The cycle continues. There’s no need for a sequel or a follow up, we’ve seen this all before.

A note on the 2008 film adaptation: it’s fun but it flattens what’s particularly interesting about the novel. It’s still worth checking out, if you’re in the mood for a solid and stylish survival horror movie.

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