There lurks in the pages of The Ritual something even more terrifying than the creepy crawler that stalks the novel’s protagonists: A better book. Adam Nevill’s 2011 horror novel begins with a promising premise but becomes confused, and, ultimately, disappointing. You’ve read this before: Think The Ruins crossed with Deliverance.
Seasoned readers will be familiar with The Ritual’s conceit: Four friends (as they are English, perhaps they are best referred to as “mates”) head to Sweden for a camping holiday. Their relationship is tense: Hutch takes the role of leader and peacemaker. Dom and Phil are husbands, fathers, successful businessmen. Luke, from whose perspective the story is told, is the odd man out. Dom snipes at Luke, takes swipes at his record store job, his string of failed relationships. Predictably, amid their bickering, they lose the trail near the forest south of the Arctic Circle.
The story takes an interesting turn as the crew winds its way further into the forest. Soaked by rain, with night coming on, the group — fortuitously! — discovers an abandoned shack. Only Luke, heeding his instincts, balks at the idea of taking shelter in the cabin; he is vetoed by his friends. Luke et al do not enjoy a pleasant night. The next day, demoralized, lost, low on food, and aware that they may not be alone in the woods, the men face grim prospects. During a heart-to-heart, Hutch tells Luke, “Cities don’t work,” an ironic statement, given the circumstances. Readers will not be surprised that this is the moment when things really begin to go wrong.
Nevill does many things well. He is skilled at describing his setting, in this case the heaths and boreal forest of northern Sweden. Readers will be drawn into the woods with Luke and his friends: The endless rain, the dark, overhanging branches, the rocky hills where lost hikers might hope to find gentle slopes. Nevill’s talent extends to human habitats, as well; an especially strong scene involves an abandoned church surrounded by prehistoric mounds.
Nevill wisely situates the perspective with Luke, the outcast, with whose anger and self-doubt readers are likely to identify. Indeed, Luke is the most likable of the four characters. The early dynamics Nevill establishes seem to point toward a psychological thriller in the tradition of Scott Smith’s 2006 novel The Ruins, but his analysis of his protagonists’ behavior and motivations is shallow and remains firmly located with Luke. There is some commentary on the “modern world,” especially insight into how friendship in the West has (d)evolved into “PR.” Short, punchy sentences move the story forward.
But Nevill makes missteps that weaken The Ritual and denude its potential. Perhaps the biggest of these is his decision to structure the story in two parts, the first set in the forest, and the second, well, not far from the forest. The effect is jarring, and the two parts never quite gel into a cohesive whole. The second half of the book is especially weak, and bloated, becoming a repetitive litany of horrors visited upon the characters. How many different ways can a guy hit the floor? Read and find out.
The supernatural element becomes more pronounced in the second half of the book. The peeks readers get during the scenes in the forest are effective, due perhaps to the energy Nevill devotes to creating context, and to his decision to keep things unseen, always an effective horror tactic. The reader’s imagination is always more effective than the author’s words. This truism is borne out as the story winds on, revealing (minimal) supernatural touches that are less frightening than they are bemusing. Capering in the woods figures heavily.
This is not to say that The Ritual is not a good book or that readers should avoid it. I enjoyed it, compulsively reading it over the last few days. Nevill clearly drew me in: I cared about the characters, and wanted to know what indignities they might suffer next. I likewise developed an intense (and, given the tone of the novel, unwise) yearning to see the Swedish countryside, where Nevill has clearly spent time. But The Ritual is a disappointment; it does not deliver on its promise. Like the granola bars consumed by its characters, The Ritual is a tasty treat, quickly and easily devoured, but with little nutritional value. Readers should approach The Ritual with managed expectations.