Thursday, 12 May 2011

‘The Ritual’ – Adam Nevil (Pan MacMillan)

The nineteen eighties were a fine old time for a boy like me to discover horror books for the first time ever. Not that I ever got to read any of them (that came a little later) but my bloodthirsty eight year old self was absolutely enthralled by cover art featuring giant crabs attacking sunbathers, evil slugs oozing down people’s faces and rats ripping the flesh off hapless bystanders. What was there not to like? :o)
By the time I got round to having a little spare income to throw at the genre though... it vanished from the bookshelves and could only be found in second hand bookshops if you were lucky. It wasn’t too bad if you only wanted to read Stephen King (his books pretty much demand their own shelf space after all) but there wasn’t an awful lot else. Things got even more galling when the likes of Laurell K. Hamilton etc began to encroach on this shelf space and almost squeeze horror out of the bookshops entirely!

Luckily for us all, horror is making a bit of a comeback these days (if it ever really went away, it’s certainly raising its profile if nothing else) and it’s all to the good. Adam Nevill’s ‘Apartment 16’ found itself near the head of this resurgence and for very good reason. While it wasn’t a perfect read for me, ‘Apartment 16’ did its job very well and had me looking forward to whatever Neville published next. Well, that time has come about with the publication of ‘The Ritual’ and I didn’t hang around picking this one up. I’m glad I didn’t hang around either as ‘The Ritual’ is quite simply a superb read...

‘And on the third day, things did not get better...’

Four old university friends have set off into the Scandinavian wilderness to try and reconnect with each other and get away from problems at home. None of them have an awful lot left in common though and tensions soon arise on what was meant to be a relaxing camping trip.
Things are about to get worse though... With two of the party lacking in fitness and hiking experience a decision is made to take a shortcut that should get the party back to civilisation. Where this shortcut leads them though is into the heart of a forest millennia old that doesn’t seem to want to let them leave.
Things are about to get even worse though... The hikers are not on their own in the forest. Something is stalking them, something that leaves grisly reminders of what it will eventually do to them. Will exhaustion and starvation kill off the hikers or will the presence lurking in the trees kill them first...?

There is a time and a place for reading horror and that’s tucked up in bed, late at night, with the lights off and a torch on. Anyone who reads it differently just isn’t doing it right ;o) A teething baby (mine of course...) meant that I got to read ‘The Ritual’ in just that way and I am still reeling from an intensely scary reading experience. Neville draws you in with a simple premise and then proceeds to smack you round the head with a whole load of seriously terrifying business, all when you least expect it.

The main issue I had with ‘Apartment 16’ was that some of it felt a little too familiar and I initially wondered if I was in for more of the same with ‘The Ritual’. I mean, a party of hikers lost in the woods with something nasty stalking them? Are you thinking of ‘The Blair Witch Project’? I was...
Luckily for me though, that initial similarity was where it all ended. ‘The Ritual’ is a tale all of its own and one that’s worth the price of entry.

Neville sets the scene by showing us what our hapless hikers are up against and then tracking back to show us how they got to this position in the first place. Again, I was left wondering how effective this would prove to be. After all, instead of throwing these characters into the unknown Neville is basically telling us what they will find. As it turned out, this approach worked very well indeed with Neville widening the viewpoint and showing us the hiker’s plight before they even find the first hint that something worse is to come. We might know what’s coming but they don’t and you can’t help but get involved with their more immediate concerns; you’ll actually sympathise with them all the more with your knowledge of what is to come.

Once Hutch, Luke, Dom and Phil enter the woods Neville really starts to crank up the pressure with a combination of the overall atmosphere becoming more and more oppressive while the group dynamic gradually disintegrates. Looking at the ensuing events from an ‘outsider’s perspective’ it’s interesting to note that one character actually finds the breakup of the group a far more horrifying prospect than being lost in the woods. I guess it just goes to show that true horror can be found in any number of things that others would consider mundane and Neville displays a keen eye in picking this up.
The atmosphere within the forest itself is appropriately dark as well and that’s without the various man made items that hint at something horribly wrong. Neville does a superb job of getting across just how old the forest is and how precarious the hiker’s position in it is as a result. He also does a fine job of drip feeding us enough pointers to keep us heading keenly towards the really nasty stuff...

When it all really kicked off, ‘The Ritual’ had me in mind of some dark and evil version of the first ‘Predator’ film, twisted into something brutal and full of fear. There’s something in the forest, something that’s actually a part of the forest and has been for a long time. The hikers have no idea when it will strike next and neither do you. Every attack comes as a nasty surprise that you will never see coming, especially the scene when there are only two of the hikers left... That one stayed with me for a long time after reading. Neville feeds you enough glimpses for you to get a feel for what’s stalking the hikers but lets your imagination fill in the gaps until the climactic scenes at the end. That’s just the way it should be, something this terrifying deserves to have your imagination and fears make it all the more so.

Just when you think you’re looking at a ‘monster picking off hikers in the woods’ scenario, Neville turns things round yet again and shows us that the true horror of the piece lies within the hearts of humanity (in sequences that will take the final surviving hiker to the absolute limits of his endurance). The transition from the plot in the woods to what comes next felt a little bit choppy and slightly at odds with what was essentially a very smooth flowing read. Once you’re past this bit though, things do pick up again and Neville ties the two strands of the plot together in ways that will surprise you just when you thought you had it all under control. The final scenes drew me right into the thick of it and there was never any doubt that I wouldn’t put the book down until I was done. Even then, Neville leaves us with a tantalising glimpse that suggests certain dream sequences could perhaps be a lot more...

‘The Ritual’ didn’t just stop at sending a shiver down my spine, carrying on past that to leave me feeling all unsettled and resolved to stay away from large unexplored woods. A horror novel that leaves you feeling melancholy and thoughtful (as well as just plain scared); Neville is rapidly cementing his position as an author worth watching.

Nine and a Half out of Ten


Conor said...

The Ritual sounds like an intriguing read. I'm always interested in monster/horror books that have some underlying substance and depth. I will have to pick it up now.

Sven said...

After reading this, I've just ordered both 'Apartment 16' and 'The Ritual'. Seems like an author I have to check out.
Until now, my horror reading was almost exclusively restricted to Stephen King, and recently I discovered Joe Hill with 'Horns'. Any others I should try? I've been hearing good things about Douglas Clegg for example?...