A review of Scott Smith’s “The Vine.”

‘The Ruins’ is a horror novel that proves that young, entitled twenty somethings remain the dish de jour as far as slaughter fodder in this genre.  There is a certain nihilistic pull in seeing such entitlement count for nothing in the face of some larger malignancy that eschews morality and the rules of civilisation.

This sees a group of back-packers holidaying in Mexico becoming embroiled in the hunt for the brother of a young German they meet, Matthias, last seen heading to an archaeological expedition in Mayan ruins in the jungle.

They consist of Jeff, practical problem solver and de facto leader of the group, Amy his partner, a practical young woman destined to be a high achiever, Eric the joker of the pack, a bit of a slacker and about to begin a career in teaching, and his girlfriend Stacey, promiscuous and as close to an air-head as the group have.  Later in the novel as the group discuss their predicament and joke about it being made into a film Stacey is described as the “slut” of the group destined to be killed first.  Bear with me and I’ll re-visit this point later.

So their predicament?  Well on reaching the ruins, after, of course, ignoring different warning signs from deliberately concealed paths, warnings from locals and an increasing sense of foreboding, they arrived at the titular Ruins.  Titular indeed, as we are told that it is shaped like a breast.  It’s covered in a profusion of coiling vines and star shaped red flowers.  They are suddenly confronted by armed, horse riding Mayans and a desperate local warning them away.  But Amy wants to take a photo of the scene, as you would, and in stepping back to get the whole scene in picture, steps into a mound of vines.  The Mayans become less Lassez faire in their outlook and immediately threaten the group to ascend the mountain, where they then maintain an armed guard around the perimeter, effectively quarantining the group.

The Vine turns out to be a cannibalistic, evolved intelligent  form of life that is capable of setting bait and traps, mimicking sounds including speech, and capable of lateral thinking and pro-active action.  You may not be startled to learn that the group have their numbers slowly reduced by said vine.

Firstly, what works?  Well it’s certainly an efficient page turner, and their is an amount of grisly inventiveness and some very nasty and prolonged suffering described shudderingly well in the pages.  There is a rank, fetid, oppressive atmosphere successively conjured by the writer.  You will want to take a shower yourself as you read of these poor trapped people, suffering from festering wounds and lack of bathing and sanitary facilities in stultifying heat.  The deprivations of hunger, thirst and terror are effectively portrayed, and there is a lot of description of the mental coping mechanisms the characters employ, reminiscing of better times, constructing hopeful scenarios, and so on.

But there are problems.  Firstly the premise.  The malignant plant is shown to have a number of abilities including problem solving, mimicry and indeed speech.  We can accept that plans already have evolved to create baited traps to hook prey such as the Venus fly trap being an obvious one.  And at one stage it’s hinted that it may only look like a plant, it could be something wholly other.  But that’s left ambiguous.  There’s not enough world building to give us a credible origin of this monster.  And as to why the Mayans are able to quarantine it in a ring of salt is another ill explained mystery.

Also I did not find it believable as to why the captive group do not audibly curse and rail against their Mayan captors.

And personally I did not find it a suspenseful read.  I turned the pages out of mild and morbid curiosity as to what the next horrible death would be, and if there would be any survivors.  But the outcome is pretty clearly telegraphed along the way.  It’s the lack of a credible premise and a lack of warmth towards to the characters that are principle causes of this, I think.  Also, as above mentioned, there’s a clumsy attempt at ‘Scream’ type irony as the characters describe who would play them if their predicament was turned into a film, and what type of characters they would be, i.e. the boy -scout, the joker, the slut, and so on.  Given that this was rapidly translated into a film betrays the point.  And Stacey’s character does nothing to subvert the role assigned to her.

So it’s worth a beach read, pages to whistle by quickly.  It’s just, in the end, unpleasant and unsatisfying

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