There are certain things one should never do if you’re a literary character. Top of the list tends to be not taking shortcuts through the woods. Little Red Riding Hood learned this lesson the hard way, and in Adam Nevill’s novel The Ritual, a group of four hikers must learn it too, with predictably horrific consequences.
After taking a detour designed to simplify their trek, the group finds itself helplessly lost in a primordial Scandanavian forest. As supplies begin to run low and tensions mount, they find themselves the prey of an unseen creature with a penchant for displaying its disembowled victims in the trees.
So far, so Blair Witch Project. What differentiates The Ritual however is its cast of characters. Instead of a company of exceptionally silly teens, Nevill’s protagonists are a group of middle aged friends from university. While this does add a more interesting dynamic to the group, with regular arguments over lifestyle choices, money and whose wife is worst, the reader is ultimately left with the impression that most of the characters could have their personalities dramatically improved by a fatal run in with the unseen monster.
This is a minor quibble, however, and one easily remedied when the creature makes its debut. At this point, the reader’s gradually increasing sense of unease reaches a crescendo that the author miraculously maintains for the rest of the book. The chapters are short, the writing is pacy and cliffhangers are used with gleeful abandon.
Partly pesponsible for such tension is the monster. Drawing from the dual influences of H.P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen, Nevill creates a truly terrifying monster that exists not on the page, but in the reader’s imagination. Its presence is felt rather than seen, both through the ominous nightmares that haunt the protagonists and the sinister mementos it hangs in the trees.
A variety of monster-related paraphenalia does however play a part in keeping the reader hanging over the edge. Eerie statues watch over ancient shrines, pagan churches hide gruesome secrets and sinister cults worship an ancient evil. While some of these scares venture dangerously close to horror cliché, Neville’s tense prose and clear knowledge of the genre allows him to repeatedly flip the reader’s expectations on their head.
Consequently, although somewhat generic in places, The Ritual offers enough thrills, chills and (unfortunately for its characters) spills to ensure the reader will have several sleepless nights.