Written by: James Keen
“The last thing we want is to be in here again at night.” – The Ritual.
Four old friends all nearing middle age decide to get together for a short trek through the largest forest in Europe. Close during their University days back in England the trip is a chance for them to re-connect and hopefully pretty much pick up where they left off all those halcyon years before. It’s a fairly standard set-up for a modern horror novel and one that appears to have an evergreen appeal for authors who delight in exploring familiar group dynamics while simultaneously developing their chosen horror element/threatening conceit. What author Adam Nevill has crafted here is a tale that takes those recognizable tropes and runs with them in such a demented literary fashion here you’ll likely be nervously snatching at the pages and possibly finding yourself swearing under your breath as his nightmarish narrative appropriates a breathless and unforgiving pace.
Introducing his small cadre of displaced characters in agreeably economic terms initially, Nevill fleshes out the underlying tensions that exist between the four as the horror is gradually ratcheted up. It becomes apparent that as the odd instances and strange events accumulate along the way that perhaps the bond of the friendship between them all isn’t as harmonious or as steadfast as they’d all like to think; the more they get progressively lost in the forest, the clearer the tenuous nature of their relationship with one another becomes.
From the ominous opening where Nevill presents us with an unnerving and gruesome little scene our four travellers bear witness to, to the violent, bloody finale there’s an admirable paucity of narrative fat to the novel when taken as a whole.
There are ruminations on the state of how fragmented society has become, what one character refers to as ‘the corporatization of experience’ – our preoccupation with social media, societal disconnect and the potential for some sort of redemption through the experience of horrific circumstances. Coupled with this is an interesting running theme of isolation throughout the novel – the desperate need on the part of one character to fit in, to be accepted, which becomes more acute as the text hurtles on, as the terror mounts.
However, where the book arguably stumbles is often due to a few instances of repetitive anguish on the part of one particular character who, though understandably has been pushed to the limits of his sanity by the gruesome litany of events, becomes somewhat tiresome, threatening to sabotage he reader empathy. It’s a minor quibble given the terrific final result: a book that probably should not be read late at night and one that is likely to put you off camping trips involving strange forests without decent cell phone coverage.
Part James Dickey’s ‘Deliverance’ crossed with the grim sensibilities of a ‘Blair Witch’ type scenario, Nevill’s gift for ferociously compelling storytelling and the relentless building of narrative tension is – by and large – quite simply, superlative.