Thursday, 28 April 2011

Book Review | The Ritual by Adam Nevill

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When four old University friends set off into the Scandinavian wilderness of the Arctic Circle, they aim to briefly escape the problems of their lives and reconnect with one another. But when Luke, the only man still single and living a precarious existence, finds he has little left in common with his well-heeled friends, tensions rise.

With limited fitness and experience between them, a shortcut meant to ease their hike turns into a nightmare scenario that could cost them their lives. Lost, hungry, and surrounded by forest untouched for millennia, Luke figures things couldn’t possibly get any worse.

But then they stumble across an old habitation. Ancient artefacts decorate the walls and there are bones scattered upon the dry floors. The residue of old rites and pagan sacrifice for something that still exists in the forest. Something responsible for the bestial presence that follows their every step. And as the four friends stagger in the direction of salvation, they learn that death doesn’t come easy among these ancient trees...


If you go down to the woods today, whatever you do, heed this one warning: don't take The Ritual with. It'll scare the sense of adventure right out of you.

Hot on the heels of last year's smash hit horror Apartment 16, rising star Adam Nevill returns to wreak havoc on your dreams once more - and on career-best form, for The Ritual is superb. It is from start to finish a far more ambitious book than its predecessor, for the larger part a substantially more effective one, and wreathed throughout with such wonderfully evocative exposition as to engender an atmosphere equal parts awful and exquisite.

But let's meet the gang.

Our main man, Luke, is in truth a bit of a layabout. Having bounced from job to job back home, and woman to woman - but of course - he looks back on his years at Uni, when he shared a Birmingham bedsit with Hutch and Dom and Phil, as "the best days of his life. Of all their lives, he liked to think." (p.45) But that was lifetime ago, and though he and Hutch have kept in touch, hiking together all their adult lives, Luke fears he's grown apart from Phil and Dom... or else them from him. He's right to be afraid.

One drunken night at a wedding reception, the former flatmates plot to renew their acquaintance. Six months later, they meet together in Sweden, to tramp and camp in the pristine wilderness of the North. All too soon, however, tensions begin to flare, and it becomes apparent that neither Phil nor Dom are fit enough to blaze the trail our dab hands had planned. A short-cut is negotiated, through a forest a ways away from the beaten track. The boys go "off piste," where "there are no trails." (p.9)

Bad move.

Because something is waiting for them in the woods. Something so horrific none of them can even begin to conceive of the harm it must mean. Something "from times before symbols and languages could depict such things that hunted and meant murder." (p.208)

The unremitting wilderness of sub-Arctic Sweden is of course a landscape far removed from the luxury London apartments of Adam Nevill's last effort, and it is a grand conjuration indeed; grand and quite, quite terrifying. Luke and his cronies of old quickly find themselves lost in a world stood still, utterly apart from all we can comprehend, and therein the unknowableness of the night, and the horrors it could hold, come front and centre.

Rather too front and centre, as it happens, for in the last act the evil is exposed and explained, and unmasked, the thing loses much of its darkly sparkling lustre. Come to that, the entire last third of The Ritual marks an abrupt about-turn in tenor and in tone so sustained that it serves to dispel the massing thunderheads of terror and tension Nevill so delicately evokes in the early-going. Without getting all spoilery, the aforementioned evil, as it happens, turns out to be "inevitable, relentless and predictable. Imaginative, he'd give it that much, but soulless." (p.341)

That said, the sense of place Nevill establishes in The Ritual is simply excellent; to a one, his characters are naturalistic, and easy to believe in; and the horror that haunts them, before it is so rudely revealed, is truly a chilling thing. Thus, The Ritual can only come highly recommended. It has its faults - foremost amongst them the profoundly unhelpful compulsion to explain what should by all rights be inexplicable and a few lamentably transparent attempts to instil in the reader a pre-existing sense of foreboding (see p.25) - yet these are familiar Achilles heels in horror, and it is in the final accounting tremendously easy to overlook the selfsame issues the genre's grandmasters still stumble upon in an author with such promise and talent and ambition as England's answer to Stephen King, Adam Nevill.


The Ritual
by Adam Nevill

UK Publication: May 2011, Pan

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  1. The ending's unfortunate, but I'm still incredibly jealous of you right now. I want this book!

  2. Great review! I agree thoroughly - I really liked the book but also found the ending a little perplexing. It belonged to a completely different book. I would've liked that book too, but bolted together? Very strange.

  3. Glad you enjoyed, Jared.

    And yes. Very strange.

    In fact so strange I wonder if it wasn't bolted on after the fact, either at an editor's behest or an author's second-guess. I'd be plum fascinated to hear directly from Adam about that, actually - if you're still with us, Adam, and you don't mind talking in such terms?

  4. Thank you for the review, Niall. And the kind words. The question of the South of Heaven section in The Ritual keeps cropping up in the early responses. But here's the rub, the outdoor section could not have taken one more day in that environment without losing all of the tension. Also, my inner reader's patience would have run aground on any further survival-in-the-wilderness scenes. And I have to trust that reader, always. He never flatters me or deludes me. That part of the story also concluded naturally, at the will of something "unnatural". My decision to move the action of the story indoors for the last survivor, I believe unequivocally, was the right one. The reader's understanding of what the mystery is, is still only imparted through Luke's POV - what he is told, deduces from the environment, and what he dreams in a place that is on the borderland of this world and somewhere far worse and much older - so nothing is explained in stone. It is still one character's interpretation until the end. Luke can only guess at what he is at the mercy of. Also, I know from experience, had I not suggested an interpretation of the horror in this much detail in the second half, cries of "it doesn't make sense" and "the feels unfinished" and "the writer ran out of ideas" would have rung more loudly than feelings that all should have remained inexplicable. I suggested as much as I was willing to, and not one word more. But, in short, as a writer one cannot ever win, and must stay true to one's inner reader. There are ten drafts of this novel in my files and I never felt the second half didn't fit. I deliberately changed the idiom, though, to measure the survivor's changing perspective and situation - he was getting increasingly "pared" down. This will happen in hours of engaging on a gruelling physical test. I know it from experience. You change. And you do, after all, think and feel things differently indoors to when you are outdoors.

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