In The Ritual four old university friends reunite in an attempt to rekindle their past friendships and escape from the stress of their everyday lives, by embarking on a hiking trip in the Scandinavian wilderness. Unfortunately they have all moved on and find it difficult to relate to each other. To make matters worse most of the party are ill prepared both mentally and physically for the arduous adventure they have embarked upon. When one of them is injured they take an ill conceived shortcut and plunge into primal forests that have not been disturbed for centuries and find themselves stalked by an ancient and implacable evil.
Survivalist horror of this kind is a well trodden path so it is a testament to Nevill’s craft that he manages to imbue the tale with a powerful and palpable dread which pervades throughout the novel. Nevill is a master of suspense and description and the forest itself becomes a living menace as the hapless party plunge deeper into its dark heart.
The first part of the novel is a slow burn and it takes perhaps a little too long to get to the meat of its story. Though I enjoy some character development in a tale of this nature I felt Nevill went overboard with his endless explorations of his protagonists psyche and their relationships with each other. It is obvious from the start that few if any are going to survive this ordeal and I couldn’t help thinking that Nevill was exorcising his own demons at the expense of the novel’s pace. Despite this I found this act to be both gripping and delightfully dreadful.
Just as the tale reaches a terrifying crescendo the novel takes a surprising and jarring change in direction and pace. New protagonists are introduced who are stereotypical and one dimensional in comparison to the painstakingly described characters Nevill has introduced us to previously and the steadily building impetus of mounting dread and terror is brought to a grinding halt. It almost feels like reading another novel which has been tacked onto the end. Despite containing some moments of absolute spine tingling fear the last act does not sit well with the rest of the novel and the ending is disappointing anticlimax.
Though I thought the book was deeply flawed it does however succeed where many horror novels fail. Rarely have I read a story which so powerfully describes and inspires such feelings of dread, despair and terror. Nevill is a talented writer who is capable of ringing visceral fear from a well worn concept, but I found the novel ultimately disappointing. Reading this novel there were moments where I was completely absorbed by the story, Nevill excels at description and his craft is so well honed that I shared the plight of his characters in a way that I rarely do, but the constant ruminations of his protagonists wore thin after a while and their poor decisions took me out of the story, shaking my head in disbelief. I believe that the books main failing is that whilst it is essentially a simple tale of survivalist horror it also tries too hard to be an existential exploration of the human condition which for me at least was not a happy marriage.
Despite some obvious reservations I would still recommend this to the patient reader. Nevill’s prowess as a horror writer makes this a book to read despite it’s flaws and he is an author I will be following in the future.