Well, for the next novel in this month’s horror marathon, I thought that I’d take a look at Adam Nevill’s 2011 novel “The Ritual”.
This was a novel that I spotted when looking for second-hand books and, since I’d heard that there had been a film adaptation of it (which I’ve only seen the trailer for) and because the title sounded hilariously melodramatic, I decided to get a copy.
So, let’s take a look at “The Ritual”. Needless to say, this review will contain some MAJOR SPOILERS.
The novel begins with a short scene showing four hikers discovering a grisly animal carcass dangling from a tree in the middle of a forest, before flashing back to several hours earlier.
Luke, Hutch, Phil and Dom were flatmates at university. About fifteen years later, they decide to have a reunion and go on a hiking holiday in Sweden. Of course, tramping through rain-soaked fields and sleeping in tents isn’t the relaxing break that they had somehow expected it to be. And, with tempers fraying and Dom’s knee acting up, Hutch decides to call the holiday to an early end.
So, after checking the map, he proposes taking a shortcut to the next town through a wild patch of unmanaged forest. What could possibly go wrong?
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is one of the most compelling, creepy and atmospheric horror novels that I’ve read recently. Imagine a mixture of horror stories by Dennis Wheatley, Shaun Hutson and H.P.Lovecraft and this might give you the vaguest hint of what to expect. It is also one of the very few genuinely scary monster novels I’ve ever read.
In terms of the novel’s horror elements, it contains a gloriously unsettling mixture of suspenseful horror, location-based horror, atmospheric horror, occult horror, monster horror, claustrophobic horror, camping-based horror, paranormal horror, psychological horror, bleak horror, character-based horror, gory horror, sadistic horror, cosmic horror and survival horror (yes, survival horror, in a novel).
Seriously, whilst this novel might not outright shock or terrify you that often, you’ll probably be in a constant state of nervous unease throughout most of the story.
The novel also manages to make the monster genre scary too. In part, this is because it uses the Hollywood trick of not directly showing the monster that much. But, it is also because of the fact that the novel has such a realistic tone and atmosphere that, for large parts of the story, you aren’t really quite sure whether the monster actually exists or not. The novel also makes sure that the monster isn’t the only source of danger and fear that the main characters encounter. Seriously, it’s a scary monster novel 🙂
Plus, if you believe that tent-based camping is only appropriate for music festivals, then this novel will be a chilling source of realistic horror too. Seriously, the novel’s depiction of the squalor, bleakness and general misery of camping in something other than a caravan is terrifyingly accurate. Likewise, the novel’s woods are a really claustrophobic, creepy and menacingly atmospheric location too.
However, if you’re a fan of heavy metal music, some of the later parts of the novel might either be scarier than you expect and/or might make you roll your eyes. The second half of the novel focuses on something similar to the violence and political extremism that the metal scene in Scandinavia was infamous for during the 1990s, with the novel’s human villains being members of an extreme metal band called Blood Frenzy who wouldn’t exactly be out of place in that context.
Given that this is the scariest and most disturbing part of the metal genre’s history, I can understand why it would inspire part of a horror novel – although it is kind of annoying that the novel doesn’t really contain a more nuanced, modern and/or realistic portrayal of the genre and it’s fans, given how infrequently heavy metal turns up in fiction these days.
Thematically, this novel is fairly interesting. This is a novel about alienation, loneliness, time, ageing and death. It’s a mid-life crisis story about how friends drift apart and how there is no right way to grow older. Yet, surprisingly, the story doesn’t drift into nihilism. It is a story about how life is valuable and meaningful, even if it is often harsh and apparently meaningless. This theme is handled well and it really helps to add a lot of extra depth and emotional impact to the story.
In terms of the characters, this novel is brilliant. Not only is the realistically complex, and often antagonistic, friendship between the four hikers a major source of drama, but all of them get more than enough characterisation to make you care about them. Likewise, the main characters also suffer from realistic problems (eg: Luke has depression/anger issues, two of the characters are going through divorces etc..), which add tension and character-based drama to the story too.
Plus, even though the novel’s metal band are caricatures, they still become suitably chilling villains as the story progresses. Likewise, the monster is left mysterious enough to remain frightening, but shown enough to be dramatic 🙂
In terms of the writing, this novel is brilliant 🙂 Whether it is how the novel’s third-person narration sometimes contrasts elaborate formal descriptions of the forest and more informal “matter of fact” descriptions of the characters trying to survive in it, or the disorientating nightmare sequence that somehow uses first, second and third-person perspective within the space of a couple of pages, this novel is really well-written 🙂
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is interesting. At 418 pages in length, the novel can feel a little long at times. Seriously, the first half of this book would almost work as a gloriously efficienct short novel 🙂 Likewise, although this novel is a moderately-paced horror story, the consistent use of suspense gives the story more of a thriller-like quality that keeps it compelling. Seriously, I was absolutely riveted during some parts of this story 🙂
All in all, this is a really brilliant horror novel 🙂 Yes it could have been a bit shorter and, if you’re a metalhead, some parts of it will make you roll your eyes. But, this aside, it is a wonderfully atmospheric, well-written, constantly chilling and utterly gripping horror novel 🙂 Seriously, if you want to see a scary example of the monster genre, then read this book!
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.