When four old University friends set off into the Scandinavian wilderness of the Arctic Circle, they aim to briefly escape the problems of their lives and reconnect with one another. But when Luke, the only man still single and living a precarious existence, finds he has little left in common with his well-heeled friends, tensions rise. With limited experience between them, a shortcut meant to ease their hike turns into a nightmare scenario that could cost them their lives. Lost, hungry, and surrounded by forest untouched for millennia, Luke figures things couldn’t possibly get any worse. But then they stumble across an old habitation. Ancient artifacts decorate the walls and there are bones scattered upon the dry floors. The residue of old rites and pagan sacrifice for something that still exists in the forest. Something responsible for the bestial presence that follows their every step. As the four friends stagger in the direction of salvation, they learn that death doesn’t come easy among these ancient trees . . .
As I begin writing this review, two things immediately stand out. First, I will be repeating myself a lot because I can’t, for the life of me, figure out a way to get around pointing out which part of the book I am talking about. Second, there is no way I am getting out the other side of this review without sounding harshly negative at one point or another. The first part of the book, titled Beneath the Remains, is a fantastic piece of fiction that works well on its own and even provides a satisfying ending. The problem is the second part, South of Heaven, which just takes everything good about that first part and pisses all over it. The tone and quality is so drastically different that it doesn’t feel like the same story, but rather something scavenged from the corpse of some other novel and bolted on.
And on the second day things did not get better. The rain fell hard and cold, the white sun never broke through the low grey cloud, and they were lost. But it was the dead thing they found hanging from a tree that changed the trip beyond recognition. All four of them saw it at the same time.
This is what I like about the first part. Adam Nevill wastes no time at all. He digs into the story, develops the atmosphere of his ancient forest, and introduces his characters to a grim new world for them to struggle through on their way toward personal growth and probable death. From those first few lines of the story, the reader is dragged in and dragged along as Nevill pushes his story and characters along with ruthless haste. A moment’s respite is rare and almost always paired with some piece of personal history or conflict. The misery and tension is palpable and the feeling never really diminishes. Rather, it evolves into something altogether stronger as the story progresses and the sinister weirdness hidden and scattered throughout the forest is slowly revealed. Tension builds further as the weight of the situation and worries and crumbling lives eats away at the men and they begin to turn their frustrations toward one another. And then… well, and then the obvious. Death, pain, confusion, and fear–a swirling nightmare miasma that clings to the characters as they struggle to survive and escape the forest despite being horribly lost and toyed with by something unseen and inhuman.
The second part is the opposite of that. Less attention is paid to developing atmosphere, perhaps because there is little point when the majority of the story takes place in one room, and the tension from before has been stripped away. The inhuman thing that taunts and hunts our characters through the first part is replaced, for the moment, by all too human antagonists who are, frankly, ridiculous. The hurried rush that accompanied the characters’ relentless push forward toward potential survival is replaced by a cycle of waiting and violence that perpetuates until the story is ready to move predictably forward. The saving grace of this part of the book is the underlying weirdness of it, the dreams and impossible things and creatures that step in to break up the monotonous turn the book has taken. The ending… is an ending and very much the sort you’d expect from a horror film.
The four main characters–Luke, Hutch, Phil, and Dom–are fairly well written characters. They aren’t the strongest and there isn’t that much development to be found on a camping trip plagued by some supernatural thing stalking and attempting to kill you, but each character takes a significant step forward from where they were at the beginning of the book. The characterization of the women is a problem. There are only two to be met in the story and they are evil and psychotic, respectively. The others, the wives of our main characters, are only heard of, but sure enough they bring ruin to their husbands’ lives. One has suffered a mental breakdown and the other is the cliched gold-digger attempting to siphon off what is left of her husband’s assets. The one remaining wife we hear next to nothing about, but perhaps that is because:
“Maybe Hutch got it right. He kept it simple. Kept it real. Didn’t overextend himself. Picked a low-maintenance woman.”
It is a bit much.
The good news is that the majority of The Ritual is given over to the Beneath the Remains and it is more than strong enough on its own that it can carry the book through the disappointing mess of South of Heaven. That second part may not be weak on its own, but it suffers greatly in comparison to the first and that diminishes the book as a whole. The Ritual is a good book, but it could have been better and had it ended at the end of the first part it would have been great. I’d recommend the book, but it would be a mighty struggle to restrain myself from suggesting that one stop reading after chapter forty-five.