Whether they realize it or not, old university friends Hutch, Luke, Dom, and Phil have broken all the rules—the rules of horror movies, that is. Despite the fact that Dom and Phil are blatantly physically unfit, they’ve set off on an ambitious hike through the Swedish wilderness. They didn’t call ahead to the forest rangers to let them know where they were. They’re all trying to ignore the fact that single, aimless, temperamental Luke really only gets on with the ever-affable Hutch and is now completely alienated from the married-with-children Dom and Phil. After Phil’s feet end up blistered into mincemeat and Dom hurts his knee, they decide the best way back to civilization is to take a shortcut off the trail and through the forest. And when they come across the grotesquely disemboweled corpse of an animal that’s been very deliberately strung up in the trees, they still don’t turn around and go back the way they came in, despite the fact that the forest is getting thicker and more impassable by the yard. No, they keep going into the forest all the same.
Given all this, which goes down in the first dozen pages, it hardly counts as a spoiler to state that things go horribly, dreadfully wrong for this hapless foursome.
Part I of The Ritual, Adam Nevill’s third horror novel, takes a shape that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has seen The Blair Witch Project, The Descent, The Ruins, or any other “campers in over their heads” horror film of the last couple of decades. Which is not to say that it’s entirely clichéd; the gruesome, moth-eaten, goat-headed effigy that the group discovers in an abandoned dwelling deep in the forest is genuinely chilling, as is the rotting church with its crypt full of bones and a graveyard that includes a suspiciously well-kept Bronze Age cromlech and an Iron Age passage grave.
But as you might expect per the tropes of this sort of story, things go from bad to worse for our four characters in short order. There’s infighting as tensions rise among the men, all of whom have troubles at home that they were desperately hoping to escape for a while on this trip. Meanwhile, a nameless creature continues to stalk them and give them horribly vivid nightmares of ritual sacrifice—and inevitably, it begins to pick them off, one by one.
If The Ritual left off at that, it would merely be a serviceable example of the “don’t go into the woods” tale. But things take a more interesting turn in Part II, when a trio of Norwegian Odin-worshipping, black-metal-playing teenagers turns up, intent on summoning the beast that’s been stalking the campers. At their side is a tiny, unspeakably ancient woman. Is she helping them? Covertly hindering them? What’s her agenda? What is creeping around in her attic? The teenagers and the woman all have plans for the last surviving member of the camping foursome, and as he rapidly deduces, none of those plans end with him returning home to London in one piece.
There’s a lot for the horror fan to like about The Ritual in the second part as the situation gets more twisted and the nature of the monster in the woods becomes clearer. It’s almost too bad that there’s the first part to get through. It runs long, as these kinds of camping-slog narratives inevitably seem to do, and occasionally you feel just as tired of these men and their company as they do themselves. Luke, Hutch, Dom, and Phil are all drawn in fairly broad strokes; you know just enough about them to understand the stakes involved in their survival, but not quite enough to like or sympathize with them. Luke is the single guy with no particular ambition or purpose in life; Hutch is the competent one who tries to keep the peace as the camping trip goes from bad to disastrous; Dom and Phil are almost interchangeable—married career men vastly out of their depth, distinguishable mostly by the nature of their injuries. Mostly, the only reason that you want any of them to survive is so that the bad guys—particularly the psychopathic teenagers—don’t completely win.
Nevill does a good job exploiting the isolation, dreariness, and enormous age of the Swedish forest setting; the ancient landscape probably won’t be familiar to most readers, and for the most part he evokes it well. Much is made of the fact that the foursome is tramping through the one of last virgin forests of Europe—virgin but for things that were there before humans, and which will undoubtedly be there afterward. There’s something of H.P. Lovecraft’s eldritch horrors in this; Nevill finds terror in an ancient Scandinavian wood as Lovecraft did in the oldest parts of New England. And the monster that lurks in the characters’ dreams and stalks their footsteps has echoes of at least one very specific Lovecraft-named evil entity, which becomes especially clear in the final act.
The chief weakness of The Ritual, unfortunately, lies in the prose. At best, it’s serviceable, presenting without distraction the action, the setting, and Nevill’s talent for picking out stomach-churning details. But the writing is rife with awkward phrasings that occasionally pull you up short. The energy rush from a snack bar is “a slender stream of nutrients in their exhausted blood [that] allowed a brief period of calm to take possession of them.” A goat’s head mask has “coal-black ears stuck out at 90 degrees from the great motionless skull.” Technically correct, perhaps, but jarring, overly baroque in construction, or unnecessarily precise—Lovecraft’s excesses without his polish. Chapters are all very short, perhaps meant to echo the quick cuts of cinema, but resulting occasionally in choppy pacing.
I came away from The Ritual wishing that the writing had been a little more finely honed and the most intriguing ideas more thoroughly explored. There is a lot of gore and wincingly-described head-trauma (more than one person could survive, I’d think), but the characters’ inner lives really only take on true depth in the last act. What we learn of the old woman, her relationship with the goat-creature of the forest, and her ancestors are truly unnerving and tantalizing hints that made me want more. Much more could be made of the way the four campers and the black-metal teenagers are both confronting supernatural forces that they don’t understand, albeit in very different ways. As it is, The Ritual is a page-turner with some real shivers to be had, but there’s imperfectly realized potential for something truly nightmare-inducing, which makes its flaws all the more frustrating.