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Another fine mess

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The Ruins - Scott B. Smith Over the weekend I read through two recent horror novels. I didn't like them. One was slick, movie-ready, utterly familiar stuff -- high-concept big-pitch plotting, and then action histrionics. Yawn. ('Though I will almost definitely see it when it's a movie. Read the book as a script treatment and maybe it's better, but....) The other tried out some tougher, grittier character stuff... but it was still kind of familiar, and it felt like a potentially damn good short story. But it was a novel. (Both are on goodreads, so... meh. I won't bother writing reviews that will just dismiss.)

The latter was about (maybe) killer plants, and that reminded me of a book I actually dug. So I searched around for some old thoughts on this novel by Smith--

I’m hesitant to give much away, but–I suppose the suspense is not much in the unveiling as in the enactment. These recent college grads follow a recently-met German friend into the Yucatan sticks, looking for German friend’s brother. They are searching for some ruins and a dig–but once there they become trapped on a hill covered with a strange plant. The plant is up to no good. Sounds ridiculous, don’t it?

It isn’t. What I assume may not be others’ cup of tea is exactly that pat silliness: a plant? A friggin’ plant? It sounds like an archaic, simplistic version of the monster movie: a small group of people, trapped in distant location, threatened by some Thing. (And, as you’ll recall, in the first movie the Thing was, indeed, a plant.)

What I like about Smith are two things. One is detail: Smith piles up a sense of how people behave by carefully showing how they behave. The events of the novel take place over three days, and not much really happens–there aren’t big set pieces. The suspense is in the careful delineation of the desire to survive: how do you set up watches for night, divvy up the supplies, collect rainwater, plan this and that then that attempt to escape the hill? In each instance, the unreality of the plot is grounded in a carefully-, richly-detailed realistic depiction of behavior.

Smith foregoes chapters, instead every couple pages shifting point of view, from character to character. And as each character engages in some action, we get small, careful details of how they think, how their memories and self-doubts and self-reflection creep into their every action. There aren’t any big set-pieces here, either: no one has grand Dostoevskian reveries, no one goes batshit Big-Emotion. The characters despair but drag themselves from action to action, trying to survive. They're not even that interesting--they're stock-type teens.

So you can see I’m de-emphasizing the “horror”, the big scary thing — because in many ways, in this book and his last, Smith is very good at taking a neat genre conceit and using it as a psychological realist would, to understand how people exist, how their sense of self is revealed as in some ways false (and in some ways true) by their actions, how they try to deal with the Big Picture (ethics, death) by doing the day-to-day.

And this is the part I found so lacking in these recent reads. But this isn't some 'transcendent' better-than-its-genre piece of fiction; in fact, what I really like about Smith's novel is that it is very much a solid genre fiction: I like the (crude?) mechanics of plot, how there is a Premise and a set of Conventions in which the characters are trapped. The rich detailing of character and action heightens my desires to see the characters escape, enriches my sense of that entrapment. But the slow but steady turning of the plot is toward increasing malevolence, unsensationally but fully detailed accounts of bodies being harmed (and even more fully detailed accounts of people trying to salvage the bodies–there are a couple scenes of d.i.y. surgery that are gripping).

And, again, stepping away from horror, or noir (Smith’s other novel), there’s this tension I love in fiction between the desire to escape and the inevitability, inexorability of no-escape. Plot closure is both deliciously pleasurable and absolutely terrifying, because the aesthetic delight of neat closed narrative is coupled with the ethical horror of inescapable death.