The inside flap of Scott Smith's horror novel The Ruins doesn't reveal much beyond a vague description of the book's setup. Four American grad students meet some friendly Europeans while on vacation in Cancun, and when they head deeper into Mexico in search of ancient Mayan ruins, something goes terrifyingly wrong. The nature of that "something" doesn't really manifest until about a third of the way in, by which point readers have been drawn into the trap right along with the protagonists, in a breakdown-of-society-in-the-face-of-calamity scenario that echoes Lord Of The Flies, The Blair Witch Project, and Alien, without being specifically like any of them. And though it wouldn't be fair to spill the secret here, it's worth noting that if the book jacket were more forthcoming, a lot of potential readers might never pick up The Ruins.

And that would be a shame, because it's one of the best scary stories since the heyday of Stephen King, when horror fans bonded over making it through the hobbling in Misery or Danny entering Room 217 in The Shining. The Ruins' survivors can now share the agony of the moment when one of Smith's traveling party begins to cut himself with a dirty knife, or the scene where the mysterious entity plaguing the heroes begins to laugh. If nothing else, this book is a sublime creep-out.


But like Smith's debut novel, A Simple Plan, The Ruins has more going on than just chills and nausea. Smith begins the book at a disturbing remove from his main characters, barely even letting them talk. Then, as the story unfolds, he gradually shifts to their rotating perspectives, observing from the inside how a crisis fractures relationships by widening flaws that were already there. Throughout The Ruins, Smith details the step-by-step process of a disaster in the making, as his heroes become undone by their certainty that unimaginable awfulness occurs to other people, not them. Ultimately, theirs is the same loss of illusion that we've all gone through in the past half-decade of terrorist attacks and catastrophic hurricanes. It's the slow realization that, holy shit, this is happening.