On a list of the things I hate, from personal experience, camping trips and journeys into Scandinavian forests rank fairly high. Add a male bonding session, and you’ve pretty much got my concept of Hell. Throw in a heady ritualistic atmosphere however, and genuine, life-threatening menace to this mix, and there’s a good outline for a horror novel that I’d certainly green light, were I an editor.
Adam Nevill has chilled many a reader with his earlier two novels, supernatural outings Banquet for the Damned and Apartment 16, and cemented these with a spattering of well-crafted shorts. His ability to set a dreadful scene, lace it with menace and doubting, creeping insanity have been noted. In The Ritual though, he takes a less familiar setting, and sets a pace and tone that’s far more active and ‘in-your-face’.
Friends since university, now well into their later thirties, the four men whose excursion we follow have changed a lot over the years. And that’s not just in terms of the middle-aged spread that’s affecting half of the party (which is to the detriment of the others as the story proceeds). Some have families, most careers, but all have issues of one sort or another.
Luke is the free-spirited but nonetheless troubled one. Dom and Phil, who’ve gone on to financial success and to have families both seem to carry the weight of the world upon their shoulders. Then there’s Hutch, the general all-round nice guy who holds the team together and leads the trek.
There’s a sense of irony in the wide-open, wilderness forest setting in which they now find themselves. Despite the space, the pressure cooker nature of the friends interrelationships is on the boil from the start. It’s this interplay between the four that’s at times as troubling as whatever is lurking with them in the wilds. And despite the space available to move, the group really are more trapped than ever.
From the start of their journey, dark weirdness is thrown into their path. An ominous, threatening marker in the form of an animal corpse is strung up in the trees before them. It plants a seed of threat and doubt in the friends’ minds as they continue on their journey. Then there’s the ill-prepared diversion that the group’s leader has planned out, and the fact that they’ve not properly informed the relevant authorities of their planned journey. Added to this, the idea that something is following them. All factors gel together to inflict a large dose of discomfort.
Nevill’s previous books have been set in far more urban locations, and the nasty things which lurked at their boundaries were often of a creeping, and definitely more subtle (though nonetheless still threatening and absolute) nature. It’s like that dead mutilated creature in a tree at the start of The Ritual is an exclamation mark, only one at the beginning of a sentence, to let his readers know that this book is quite different.
It’s more in-your-face, its threat far more substantial, and though the suggestion of its horrors do lean toward the slightly subtle at times, they’re mostly spread between the run and grab, and jarring screams in the night variety. The pace does settle up somewhat toward the last half of the book, which takes a marked and different direction, and here elements of Nevill’s more supernatural creativity leaks out onto the page, but still in an environment more visceral to the active and directly engaging style of writing.
As the group advance through this epic and ancient behemoth forest they encounter hints of human habitation. Though they’re disturbing, these places are initially sought after by the campers, who become more dishevelled as the trip continues: several of the party are lacking the proper equipment, not to mention fitness levels, to continue. As well as the perceived physical threats out in the wide and vast yonder, a more typical Nevill-style mind-mess does occasionally occur via more traditional mechanisms.
Nonetheless, The Ritual is a definite about-turn in style for its author. That’s a good thing in many ways, it allows for gestation and inception of new ideas, which are then brought to terrible fruition. I am a big fan of Nevill’s earlier writings, the hypnotic and brooding flavour of text in earlier books such as Apartment 16. I found reading those is like smoking a fine cigar, one that has matured well in a humidor. Yet still, the sharp and tactile change felt here is welcome.
A reader of horror fiction is never going to be disappointed with anything Adam Nevill writes. Based on his first book alone I knew the genre had a writer who could pull the stops out and deliver quality, class-A grade, supernatural and horror prose on tap. The Ritual is a welcome addition to his catalogue of work that will keep you entertained, as the exploratory nature of the human psychological condition, as well as that of the supernatural and horror creative imagination, propels the text along to powerful conclusion.