The Ritual by Adam Nevill is 240 pages of bad ass horror awesomeness. Unfortunately, the book is 418 pages long.
The premise is simple: four friends head into the remote Swedish woods for a vacation and encounter something dreadful. You know…primordial forest, ancient evil, derelict shacks, profane rites. That stuff. It’s an overdone horror formula and I was worried this was just another shortcut-gone-gruesomely-wrong story.
Balls to that, dear reader. Mr. Nevill has put together some spooky shit here. Yes, the characters are wandering around lost. Yes, they’re low on food and water. Yes, the tension between them is predictably rising. And, yes, something monstrous lurks in the woods. We all know this story. But the atmosphere of this novel is just overpowering. The picture Nevill paints of the forest made my spine prickle. Constant rain, barely a glimpse of sky through the thick canopy, dense trees forcing the characters deeper in – it was fantastic. After just a few pages I felt damp, cold, lost, nervous, and utterly isolated.
Then it got scary. Hey, look! An abandoned house! Let’s stay here, fellas!
Fuck that house. Nevill wove all the standard threads together: creepy shit on the walls; evidence of pagan partying; horrible dreams; hey, don’t go up the stairs. But he did it so deftly it was like I’d never seen the formula before. The author shocked me back into horror virginity.
“Oh, no. Don’t go upstairs, Phil. Don’t go upstairs!”
And then Phil went upstairs and it was awful. That ambience from the forest was still going strong. Nevill consistently made the old standards terrifying. I was reading this in bed and, when those guys were in the house, I was too freaked out to get up and pee. It was nerve-wracking.
Fine. The author has taken typical, somewhat worn-out themes and invigorated them. Could he keep it up? Could he make me uncomfortable all the way to the end? If you read the beginning of this review I’m sure you suspect the answer is “no.”
The wheels abruptly flew off in the second half of this book. And the vehicle the wheels were attached to crashed into something mildly tragic, like a busload of mimes. I didn’t even know what to do with this thing. It was like a different book that was partially related to the first one. Sort of like the food you eat is related to the poops you take.
It’s not even that the second half did things badly that the first half did well; it didn’t seem to do anything. The story it told was flat and lifeless and just didn’t fit with everything that came before. It had none of the chilling, oppressive darkness that seeped into my bones from page one. The opening whisked me right into the nightmare and I wanted desperately to know what was going to happen. Once the second half started, I had no idea what was happening and I no longer cared.
The front end of The Ritual is a precise tale crafted with true mastery. It showed there aren’t any tired old ideas, just tired old authors. Adam Nevill blew the dust off several of horror’s most banal themes and filled them with black, evil life. A simple story about a monster in the woods made me cower just a bit, under my covers. I semi-cowered. And I loved it.
The second half meandered off to nowhere in particular and I just wanted it to end. But it wouldn’t. In addition to being pointless, it was also overlong and drawn-out. It shuffled along like a zombie in an obstacle course, confused, obviously trapped, but tirelessly in motion. I finished it out of spite.
I cannot recommend the first 240 pages of this book enough. Read them right now. But, whatever you do, don’t read any further. Just turn out the light, pull up the sheets with your trembling hands, and let your imagination finish the story. I guarantee it’s better than what actually happened.