I suspect that one of the reasons why I do not read much horror fiction is that it just does not get at me. I can (and quite often do) tear up over a good Romance novel, but horror fiction, while I can appreciate and enjoy it intellectually, for the most part leaves me cold emotionally. Which The Ritual, Adam Nevill’s third novel (and his second one I have read), also did – but in the sense that it was giving me the chills. And on a hot day in July, too. This really is one scary novel, and if it even impressed me who am usually indifferent to that particular aspect of the genre, I assume that it will frighten the beejesus out of afficionados (unless they already are too jaded and barely twitch an eyebrow at even the scariest of tales).
The Ritual is really two novels in one – there is the novel in which four feckless friends from Britain try to re-awaken the magic of their university days by undertaking a hiking trip through the forests of Northern Sweden, and instead encounter quite a different kind of magic, namely a nameless, faceless supernatural horror that pursues them relentlessly and mercilessly kills them off one by one. And then there is a novel where a single guy has to fight against a group of teenage Death Metal cultists as well as the ancient, forgotten god they worship. The shift is very noticeable and occurs about two thirds into The Ritual; it will likely throw off most readers at first until they have managed to regain their bearings and adjusted to the different pacing. I imagine there might even be a few readers who find themselves catapulted out of the novel entirely, but for me at least it works, and it makes perfect sense within the framework of the plot.
Adam Nevill is an excellent writer, and equally adept at evoking the atmospheric horror of the first part – the uneasy, paradox sensation of being out in open nature and but at the same time being closed in, the dread of having stumbled into the province of something Ancient that does not play by our modern, enlightened rules, and the sheer fright of being prey to an unseen, preternaturally strong predator – as well as at describing the more tangible fright (and, let’s not forget that, occasional humour) of the second part – the frustration at being held captive by what is obviously a bunch of lunatics, the despair at being heavily wounded and close to dying, helplessly subject to one’s captors’ whims. He is also a sure hand at nuanced character description – none of the four British friends is exactly heroic, they all come credibly across as your average blokes from next door, and the band members who make their appearance in the second part, while obviously not quite sane, still are human beings, as opposed to being mere plot devices. Nevill took the time to form protagonists as well as antagonists as distinct indivuals, with their own stories, their strengths and weaknesses, quirks and foibles, and this effort pays off for the reader – the characters’ very humanity offsets the supernatural dread that is constantly looming in the background (only to erupt with sudden and brutal viciousness) and makes it all the more visceral. Maybe I should read some more horror fiction in the future, but I will definitely be reading more of Adam Nevill’s work.