Filler content with young Americans

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #1:-

Corgi paperback, 432pp, £6.99

To me it looks as if the marketing men have decided to pitch this as a thriller, but that’s a crock of something or other. It is, and make no bones about it, a horror story in the tradition of Hodgson, Blackwood et al.

Four young Americans on holiday in Mexico agree to go with their German friend Mathias to look for his brother, who wandered off with a girl to an archaeological site in the jungle. Jeff and Amy, Eric and Stacy, Mathias and their Greek friend Pablo arrive at a Mayan village near to where an old mine is supposed to be. Friendly at first, if not welcoming, the Mayans soon turn hostile, forcing the strangers to climb a vine covered hill and keeping them prisoner there, without food or water. They find evidence of previous prisoners – abandoned tents and supplies, skeletons hidden in the undergrowth. But as the days pass they become aware that their situation is more perilous than they could ever have imagined and their Mayan captors are the least of their worries.

This is not vanilla horror, with the answers all parcelled up and presented to the reader at the end, or chainsaw chic with its quota of beautiful young things slaughtered before the inevitable feel good resolution, but a grim and unrelenting tale in which things start badly and just keep getting worse. The title is a red herring. The eponymous ruins are not an issue. The real terror is something else, and I shan’t spoil things by giving away its nature, though you could do worse than imagine John Carpenter’s The Thing transplanted to a tropical setting.

Smith misses no opportunity to crank up the tension that extra notch, gifting his nemesis with new and ever more chilling abilities with each day that passes, inflicting plagues of Biblical proportions on his characters. A particular strength is the way in which, not content with their physical situation, he catalogues their psychological unravelling as well. Switching viewpoint between the four Americans, the book cleverly lets us into each one’s head, showing how vulnerable they are – Jeff, who thinks he has to be the leader and is even enjoying their situation somewhat: Eric, who is convinced that the enemy has got inside of him and is cutting himself open with a knife: Amy, who thinks that everything is her fault and Stacy whose promiscuity and feelings of inadequacy threaten to unravel her psyche. They play off each other, demonstrating Sartre’s dictum that hell is other people, adding an extra frisson to the mix. With moments of genuine horror and outrage, and a feeling of claustrophobia that inevitably mounts, the whole playing out to a background of screams from Pablo, wounded in the opening pages, this is an unremittingly bleak book, with a subtext of despair, but for all of that it is never less than believable and compelling for the reader. Recommended.

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