Book Review: 'The Ritual' by Adam Nevill

Updated: Aug 22, 2019

Reader, tread carefully: beyond here may be spoilers.

I mean, there may be better ways of opening up a horror novel, but a flayed animal hanging from a tree in the middle of nowhere must be up there in a top five. It's creepy and that's what I like about The Ritual: it's macabre, it's intriguing, and straightaway we get a sense of danger. A dead animal is one thing, but one stripped and strung up so deliberately is likely not the work of predators, although the possibility of it being done by other animals remains a possibility -- just enough that it can be dismissed away as unthreatening. Of course, there is still a sense of urgency and immediacy with the observation that "It was a fresh kill."

And in the thin light he saw the bones. All of the bones. The bones strewn about the dirt floor. Some still wet and dark. Bones gathered amongst the stones.

Despite the whole "getting lost in the middle of the woods in a foreign country", the primary conflict evolves from the tensions between the four characters. Differences arise early: the two main characters, Hutch and Liam, are physically fit and prepared for the journey, whereas Dom and Phil (who sometimes feel like filler characters) are London slickers with wealthy lifestyles, pudgy bodies, and a stunning naïveté. One of them is wearing jeans, for heaven's sake. To make matters worse, Dom and Phil are slowing the pace even more through injury -- a twisted knee and blisters -- and I got a real sense of Hutch and Liam's frustration. It's usually me slowing people down (hey, I like to wander instead of march) so I could easily sympathise with both pairs. Even more than his irritation with the delays, Luke's jealousy of Hutch's easy familiarity with the other two isolates him, and their anxieties about their situation is compounded by their petty rivalries over preferences, lifestyles, freedom, wealth, and relationships. But as the trail disappears and the darkness pulls in, staying alive trumps other petty concerns, although the cracks between them grow wider under pressure.

He hated them with such a black intensity, he could only hope that he might suffer a stroke and deny them his final screams, his abject terror at the end.

It's a familiar horror tale: a group gets lost in the woods, someone or something is after them, and they are picked off one by one. There is a definite Blair Witch vibe that I very much enjoyed: is there something supernatural out there, or it only occultists who believe in something supernatural -- or even random hillbillies who enjoy torture for the heck of it? Are the woods keeping them lost, or is their own disorientation confusing them? Both seem likely. SPOILER: Highlight to reveal: [The finale is reminiscent of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and the violent fervour of it is satisfying after his victimised trawling through the woods.] Luke is a typical horror protagonist that we can get behind (although initially I thought another character was destined to be the hero): he struggles, he fights, and he is broken, up to the point where death is preferable, and even then he overcomes.

They cried out for him to come down and do the turning before the black stones, under the white glare of the sky.

It can be hard to get the right amount of writing in a horror. Too little description and we can't appreciate the full horror of the situation; too much, and it's difficult to maintain tension. Nevill remains detailed yet present, although sometimes a little too verbose for my liking. It's a particular style, and yet it never reads as if he's going off on a tangent.

Fear and big white eyes inside a suit of dirty skin: that's all he was now.

To be truthful, the most disappointing thing about this book is that that little orange circle in the corner that looks like a sticker and says "Now A Major Motion Picture'? Yeah, that's not a sticker. If I'd known that it was part of the design, I wouldn't have bought this version, particularly since there are so many gorgeous alternatives that I found on Instagram (the first one has to be my favourite -- wish I could have gotten my hands on it!):

Photo by @randaparties (Instagram)

Photo by @mypeculiarw0rld (Instagram)

Photo by @sion_84 (Instagram)

I'll be honest: I hadn't even know the film The Ritual (2017's Halloween competition for IT) was even based on a book. I never got around to watching the film when it was out at the cinema, but hopefully Netflix will bring it out -- if not, it certainly seems like the kind of film Film4 would be interested in acquiring. After reading the book, I checked out the IMDB trailer, which left me a little ... confused. There's a strangely unnecessary backstory: blunt opportunity knocking for the main character to redeem himself, which feels more like American heavy-handedness than the simple story-telling we get in the novel. Rafe Spall as Luke is surprising, since I always pictured him as a kind of dark, lean Peaky Blinder (OK, my father made me watch Peaky Blinders).

Even though I'm still meaning to check out the film, I couldn't resist peeking into the IMDB Trivia page, which gave me the useful nugget that the original tagline (as seen on my copy) of "They Should Have Gone to Vegas" has, since the October Vegas shooting been changed to 'They Should Have Gone to Ibiza'. I kinda hate both tags, since it seems to be trying to draw in the Hostel crowd, and the guys we meet in The Ritual don't seem like the type to have gone to either Vegas or Ibiza, especially when you consider their personal circumstances. A small gripe, sure, but it kind of feels like someone just read the blurb and cobbled together a tag -- which is probably what happened, but I like to believe they at least glanced through the book.

I was drawn to the film because, hey, horror (and occultists; I love occult stuff) but also because of the setting. I take a lot of trips up to Scotland, and anything that can capture the beauty of the wilderness is a read for me. The Ritual hasn't been my favourite book of the year but it's an evocative horror that should make us wary of/intrigued by taking the road less travelled and exploring that suspicious-looking bothy.

OK, now I really want to go hang out in a bothy.

Adam Nevill has a website and can be found on Twitter here: @AdamLGNevill.


© 2019 Laura Maria Grierson

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