I’m going to have to split this article in to two parts to do this book justice, its a rare book that leaves me feeling cheated, even annoyed, but this managed to do it with aplomb.
You can go read the blurb on Amazon or the writer, Adam Nevill’s own blog, there’s little point in my going in to any depth here. 4 blokes go on a walking holiday in Sweden, get lost, end up in a forest, bad shit happens.
Plot-wise, the whole first book came across as reminiscent of Descent, the British film about a group of female cavers, only replacing the caves for what is essentially a prehistoric forest, and the girls for the aforementioned blokes. The monsters get replaced for, well, a different sort of monster but I’ll go in to that later.
The first half of the book is based in the forest I just mentioned, untouched since pre-history, no management, no paths, no copsing, just raw, primordial forest. Nevill writes the forest perfectly, its the 5th character, and the main character at that. Much in the same way as China Meiville writes cities, this forest is alive. The interactions between the 4 protagonists are genuinely believable, 4 old university friends, three of which are fairly close, the other more an outsider since they graduated 10 years previously.
Due to an injury occurring to one of the party through lack of training, they take what looks like a short cut back to relative civilisation through the forest, which is predictably, where things begin to unravel.
The atmosphere between the trees is palpable, wet, decaying, ancient, it totally sucks you in and as the tensions rise when the party gets more and more lost, the forest comes in to its own as if possessing of some malevolent intelligence, angry at the trespass.
I’m going to refrain from expunging much detail from below the boughs of the forest, but for the main part, alongside the trees themselves and the party becoming their own worst enemies, the supernatural aspects are excellent. Genuinely unsettling for the main part, this isn’t re-inventing the wheel and can be boiled down to its sum parts but when looked at holistically, its terrifying. These are things that resonate with your genetic memory, bad things, things to be avoided, and when faced with them, in such a claustrophobic setting, they really come alive.
I picked this up as someone recommended it to Corehammer veteran Kev, as the author was said to be in to black metal, and it apparently showed in the book. While the dark foreboding forest is Scandinavian, and the cloying atmosphere and ancient evil could be construed as being influenced by the scene, early releases by bands like Burzum & Ulver, the second half is much more blatant. This unfortunately is where the book falls down, and it falls down hard.
The first book finishes as the forests part in the book diminishes, the second then begins. I wholeheartedly recommend you read the first half as a novella, its genuinely chilling and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Unfortunately it was the second half that left a sour taste in the mouth. Clearly, this is my own opinion, and I might not “get” it but I felt the second half was very poor for the main part, not living up to the excellent standard set by its predecessor.
There will be spoilers moving on from here if you intend to go on from the first part in to the second, I’ll warn you now.
The black metal link I mentioned before is used as a major plot device. Now two situations come to mind here, either the author isn’t a black metal fan, but read Lords of Chaos and thought it would be good material to pull from for a book, or he is a fan to some extent, and thought he’d have a laugh. Having recently read an interview with him, I think the latter is more accurate.
Essentially, there are some kids in the second half, who are ‘tropes of the kind written about by the NME in the early 90′s to sensational effect. Grishnakh and Faust are name dropped by said kids as they carry out what is essentially a series of torture scenes at its basest level. Giant inverted crosses, Gogoroth shirts, corpse paint, spikes, the full tick list is present here. All this mixed up in a lonely shack in a Swedish Forest would, to your mainstream horror audience, would be new, fresh and horrifying I’m sure, but it came off as cheap to me and somewhat lazy.
There are strains of King’s Misery here, and of Roth’s Hostel to some extent, with the kids own fictional band Blood Frenzy sound-tracking it amongst others. None of the cloying claustrophobic atmosphere on display in the previous part is present, there are some genuinely creepy scenes, well, one, when the main protagonist is taken in to the attic. Whats up there is pretty bleak to be fair, and the whole old gods angle is in theory a great idea;
Woods not touched since pre history, isolated settlements with little or no contact to the outside world for hundreds of years, ancient rituals for very real pre Christian gods, the lesser beings of the woodland and the rich vein of Scandinavian folklore, there is so much to go at here, this really could have been something special.
But it isn’t, its too blatant. Where the first part was delicate and insidious, its a sledgehammer compared with the exacto knife tension within the forest. The previous part wound its way in to your psyche before an unexpected shock or scene would flip you out, this feels like a string of wholly expected scenes which are meant to shock but fail to do so because of that.
While I’m the first to admit, the black metal scene of the 90′s and the most dangerous music in the world seems faintly ridiculous seen through today’s eyes, the second half of The Ritual almost seems to poke fun at it, but that comedic OTT vibe is not going to be apparent to readers who don’t follow black metal, and who don’t see the air of the ridiculous in a scene involving a human sacrifice, offered on an inverted cross, to a being that pre-dates Christianity, let alone devil worship. This section of the book feels mixed up, unsure of its audience, and pulls heavily from Lords of Chaos for its background and the motives of the characters, the second part just does not deliver, in any way beyond a point horror novel, which is what it feels like, in places.
As I said at the beginning, this is an article in two parts, as is the book. The first part is worth your time, it really is, just treat it as a novella and leave it once it finishes. When the second book begins, put it down, and if you have an interest in the black metal scene of the 90′s and haven’t read them, go read Lords of Chaos and Black Metal Beyond The Darkness.