Today I’m going a little darker than usual. It’s time to talk horror with Adam Nevill’s The Ritual, published in 2011 through Pan Macmillan.
Horror is not a genre for everyone, but I like being scared. There is something about horror writing which makes my imagination go wild in a far more vibrant way than horror movies. Probably because I build my own images, creating something uniquely me from all of my fears.
Enough about me, let’s talk about The Ritual. Four middle-aged men get together for a hiking trip in Sweden. They’ve been friends since their university days as they have grown older and taken on responsibilities, their friendships have waned. Everyone has stressful jobs, kids, mortgages, marriages. All except Luke. But this camping trip is a ‘lads weekend’. A chance to renew old friendships and have a laugh. Or so they planned.
With little experience of hiking in the wilderness, they set off together into the forest and decide to take a shortcut to the river to save time. But they are quickly disorientated and lost, as the forest seems to circle around them and block them at every turn, preventing them from making it through to the other side.
To make matters worse, two of the friends are really unfit and can’t handle the physical activity, with injured knees and blisters. The planned two hour shortcut turns into days, they are lost, hungry and cold in a deep dark forest which seemed to have been untouched for thousands of years. And it rains constantly.
And something is following them, a looming presence a few steps behind them. Then the group stumble across an animal carcass strung up high in a tree, higher than any animal could reach, the body ripped open and gutted, with arms outstretched wide, almost Christ-like. Is this some type of offering or a warning?
Blistered and wet through, the four friends find an old settlement in amongst the dark forest. They go inside to find an old pagan settlement with a heavy sense of dread and a thick layer of bones strewn across the floor. They all fall asleep and each has terrifying dreams. Or they hope they are dreams.
There is a real sense of menace in this book, a feeling which kept me turning the pages. There are plenty of shocks and scares and when I reached the end of each chapter, I’d take a deep breath and comment about how good this book was.
The characters of the four men trying to rebuild their friendships, are spot on, as the difficulties mount and the cracks in their old friendships show and the niceties stop and the truth really comes out.
This is a great study of how different people react under pressure. The pain, discomfort and fear of the characters felt very true to life, as any one who has ever worried being lost in the woods at night will understand.
Now these days, I am increasingly disinterested in books with all male characters, but this was one that kept me going due to the interactions between the friends. All four men felt very real to me and especially in illustrating how people perceive relationships in different ways, your friends can move on, even if you don’t want them to and you can’t repair it no matter how hard you try.
The setting in the ancient Scandinavian forest with its folklore and pagan customs was particularly intriguing for me (perhaps it’s exotic for an Australian). The primordial forest is another one of the main characters, always moving and outwitting the four English lads, creating a nightmarish situation in a nightmarish setting.
The second half of the book was not as enjoyable as the first, but I won’t spoil it for you. Possibly because the setting slightly changes and I was so deeply invested into the first part.
If you like male friendship stories, hiking gone wrong, a general feeling of unease and being scared, can I suggest The Ritual from Adam Nevill. But don’t read this book before you go on a camping trip.
This book review first appeared as a part of Madeleine’s Speculative Fiction Review radio show on artdistrict-radio. Listen to the podcasts here.
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