Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Into the Woods

The Ritual by Adam Nevill (2011): Four British friends (Luke, Dom, Phil, and Hutch) who first met in university 15 years earlier decide to go camping in Sweden for their 15th anniversary reunion. Tensions start to run a bit high, as Luke begins to chafe at what he feels is the derogatory attitude of two of the others to his low-income, high-freedom lifestyle. But when the group finds an animal so mutilated as to be unrecognizable hanging fifteen feet up in a tree, social frictions gradually start to seem less important. Something is out there, and they are lost because the most competent of them decided to try a short-cut. Oops.

In the small but sturdy sub-genre of 'camping trips gone wrong', The Ritual is a humdinger. Nevill has a sure hand with characterization, giving all the characters reasons for their behaviour, and eliciting sympathy in the face of whatever it is that's out there just beyond the firelight.

One of the things that elevates The Ritual above the run-of-the-mill is Nevill's careful attention to describing the problems of navigating a forest that hasn't been navigated by people for hundreds of years, if ever. His characters are pursued through a forest that has reduced their speed to a near-crawl. Whatever it is that pursues them is never seen clearly. And the forest seems only to want them to go on one specific path -- to a moldering house, an ancient graveyard complete with an ancient dolmen and a passage graveyard, and beyond.

There are glimpses of something in the trees improbably big, and sounds of trees crashing down in the distance. Food and water run scarce. Two of the four are injured and unable to make good time. Night keeps arrving too soon.

Nevill acknowledges the influences of both fiction and non-fiction work -- this may be one of the first novels to owe a debt to both Into the Wild and Arthur Machen's "The White People." But this is a striking work on its own, perhaps in need of a bit of trimming in its second half, but overall a riveting horror novel. Highly recommended.

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