Review: The Ritual by Adam Nevill (13/9/2011)

Publisher: Pan-MacMillan

ISBN: 978-0-230-75492-8

Four former university friends, now in middle age, go on a walking holiday together in Sweden. Two of them are not, perhaps, as fit as they should be. Certainly not as prepared. It seems obvious, now they are in the wilderness, that the route they had planned is too much of a challenge, so they decide to take a short cut. Just a quick detour through a few miles of primal untouched pine forest and they’ll almost be home. A few miles, that’s all. And that’s where it all starts to go horribly, horribly wrong.

Colours to the mast: Adam Nevill writes the kind of horror I like. His tongue isn’t rammed into his cheek. There are no wry knowing looks. There isn’t much gore and the horror isn’t thrown in your face. Nevill’s approach is subtle and straight and rooted in his characters – a creeping unease, little whispers that something isn’t right the slowly build into an understanding that something is, in fact, terribly wrong. The “monster” is never fully revealed, only ever glimpsed. For the most part, the atmosphere of unease is built and maintained by seeing the world through the eyes and imaginations of story’s protagonists. This is the kind of horror I like, it worked for Nevill’s first book, Apartment 16 (except for the chapter towards the end where Stephen explains everything, grrr, Adam, grrr!) and it works for The Ritual.

For the first half of the book, there are no characters apart from the four hikers themselves. Four middle-aged men with middle-aged lives and middle-aged problems; Nevill picks them up, one by one, and squeezes them until they break. They are lost, short of food and shelter, creeped out by the discovery of various old pagan remains and the growing sense that something is in the forest with them. It’s expertly done, with the focus very much on the characters and their own degeneration, and reminded me of early Stephen King, The Fog in particular. Where Nevill breaks into descriptions of the disquieting relics they find, the language is positively disturbing and crafted to make the reactions of the four protagonists all the more believable as the true nature of the forest and their plight unfolds. This part of The Ritual has some of the best horror writing I’ve read in a very long time.

After the tautness of the first half, I found the second somewhat less compelling. There’s a change of setting and some new characters are introduced along with a lashing of nordic death-metal culture. Neither the setting nor the new characters used in the second half achieve the depth and the claustrophobia of the first. The continued degeneration of the lead character continues to work well, though, the forest itself continues to exude menace and the ending is delightfully ambiguous.

A finely crafted, creepy and disturbing piece of horror.

(originally written for Vector)

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