On “The Ruins” and Limits

I finished Scott Smith’s “The Ruins” last month. Quite a book. I don’t have the right words to describe how I’m feeling about it. Unsettled, perhaps – or drained. This book isn’t for everyone, and I would never recommend it to anyone in my own circle to read because unless you’re ready for that type of experience, it’s a lot to digest. And it’s horrifying. I read one of the most frightening scenes of my life in this book. Well done, Scott Smith, for crafting that experience.

In one scene, the protagonists were in the bowels of a temple, their torch illuminating a terrifying scene in a darker pit below them. The descriptions were fantastic in terms of capturing the senses and having me forget I was reading.

There are criticisms that cite pacing and dialogue as major flaws. I don’t disagree, but I didn’t read it expecting a strong story of character development and progression. Not to say that “The Ruins” lacks this completely. My opinion may have been different if I had different expectations.

“The Ruins” came from my search for the scariest novel ever written. As I dig deeper, I’m finding a world I never knew existed (Thomas Ligotti, for example, but that’s for another time). I wanted to see how far other writers push the limits. Not that I intend to push them as far in my own work, but I want to know I’m not alone. I’m now on my own path to figure out how to write the scariest novel ever written – scary on my own terms: an unsettling atmosphere with cosmic potential.

I found an interview where Smith describes his wife being unable to finish the first draft. He also noted when he was unsure if he should go further with a certain scene, he continued to push the limit beyond his own comfort zone.

For writers seeking to improve their craft on description and how to set a haunting, unsettling scene with efficiency, “The Ruins” is a great resource – as well as a terrifying story, if you can handle it.

Update: I finished “The Ruins” two weeks ago, and the unsettling feeling has only gotten more intense as several scenes still haunt me. Specifically, how Smith describes the vines pulling a character into themselves. I won’t spoil it, but the details will stick with me for years to come.

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