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The most disturbing book I’ve ever read

As someone who visits the dark side on a regular basis for work, I don’t scare easily. Sure, I have some phobias, but I couldn’t remember the last novel that scared me or unnerved me…until now.

When I was in Maui, I stumbled upon the most interesting little store in the Queen Ka’ahumanu Shopping Center. Run by Friends of the Maui Library, it was an awesome used-book shop, crammed to the rafters with treasures. What a great idea! More malls should have used-book stores.

After clearing out their true crime section, I headed over to Horror and picked up The Ruins by Scott Smith.

I’d watched the movie version a few years back, and remembered liking it. The book was over 500 pages, making me suspect it went into a lot more depth. It was a steal at $2, so I bought it, along with some ancient John Saul novels.

One thing I love about horror is that it’s unpredictable. When you start reading a horror novel, you have no guarantee the protagonist is going to triumph. There’s none of the formula and neat, wrapped-up-in-a-bow denouements that one so often finds in mysteries and thrillers. And when you have no idea how things will turn out, the author has you exactly where he or she wants you.

<Insert evil laugh here>

The Ruins by Scott Smith will scare the crap out of you.

Smith, like Stephen King, is a master at building a sense of impending doom in a very slow, subtle way. The Ruins focuses on four twenty-somethings who are enjoying an impromptu trip to the Mayan Riviera in Mexico (the fact that I’ve been to the Mayan Riviera made the story resonate even more. Interestingly, Smith has not). When a German tourist they’ve befriended decides to go after his brother, who followed a love interest to an archeological dig near Coba, the four agree to accompany him.

And that’s when it all goes to hell.

To avoid spoilers, I’ll just say this: if you’re in a foreign country and several locals warn you away from a particular place, Listen to them.

There were moments in this book that literally gave me shivers. There were passages that I found extremely difficult to read. This novel evoked strong emotions in me, from excitement to sadness to yes, horror.

From reading others’ reviews, it appears that The Ruins is one of those things that people either love or hate with an equal ferocity. Some didn’t like the ending. Others didn’t like what awaited our unfortunates in the jungle (I personally did–it was an original and chilling form of villain that I don’t believe has been done before or since). And there were critics who said Smith didn’t give the characters any depth, so you didn’t care what happened to them.

I disagree. There were a couple of characters in particular that I cared deeply about. Others weren’t as well-drawn, but Smith’s book isn’t a character study. It’s a social commentary on the dangers of being an ill-informed, ill-prepared tourist.

It may make you think twice about that trip to Mexico.

What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read? Did you like The Ruins? Why or why not? Do you need to know the books you read will have happy endings?

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55 Comments

  1. I did read THE RUINS! It was quite awhile ago, but I remember enjoying it. I love a good horror novel/story and I’m a huge fan of Stephen King’s work. 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      Good morning, Madeline! Thanks so much for your comment. I’m glad someone else has discovered that book.

      I’m a huge fan of King’s as well. The blurb on my copy of The Ruins says, “The best horror novel of the new century” – Stephen King.

      Have an awesome day!

      Reply
  2. (re: your comment above) Wow, that’s high praise from Stephen King! I’m totally an easy scare, but I love horror none the less. I can’t imagine a villain that hasn’t been done before or since! Interesting…

    Reply
    • JH

      You should add it to your to-read list, Kyla. I promise you won’t be disappointed. 🙂

      Thanks for your comment! I’ve grown wary of King’s blurbs, as he does so many of them, but in this case, he was spot on.

      Reply
  3. I remember when this movie came out. The preview looked awesome, but I figured that was about all I needed to know about it. If a story starts with someone being taken hostage, I know it’s going to be tough to watch for me, so I don’t even go there. (That Tom Hanks movie about the boat being taken over is on TV right now on mute and I feel that way about that one, too!)

    Reply
    • JH

      Hmm…it’s not really a hostage situation. Once they get to the archaeological dig, they’re not allowed to leave, but it’s for the villagers’ protection–not an act of aggression per se. And they were warned repeatedly not to go there in the first place.

      You may like it, Stephanie, but it’s not an easy movie or book to get through, that’s for sure.

      Reply
  4. Your an excellent writer you made me want to read this book. Ok I know Stephen king is overdone but it was one of his books that literally scared me and I can’t remember the title. It is about the end of the world and the survivors all meeting up

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks for commenting and for the kind words, Lee! Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply…you ended up in my spam folder for some reason.

      The name of that book is The Stand, and it’s very disturbing. It took me a few tries to get through it–it upset me that much. The scenario was so believable (except for the supernatural aspect).

      Reply
  5. I don’t scare easily, but when I was a teenager The Shining shook me up pretty bad. I haven’t read a book since that’s really disturbed me, though.

    Reply
    • JH

      I would have said the same (and did) until I read The Ruins. That one got to me.

      Have you read it, Steven? Thanks for commenting.

      Reply
  6. It’s been ages since I’ve read a horror book that actually scares me so needless to say I’ve ordered this.
    I’m currently reading Peggy the Doll by Jayne Harris which so far has it’s moments but that’s more freaky because it’s real rather than a good old fashioned scare factor
    Debbie

    Reply
    • JH

      Hmm, Peggy the Doll sounds like it has potential. I take it it’s about a creepy doll?

      Hope you love The Ruins!

      Reply
  7. Yeah, this book did it for me — just the right kind of horror, suspense, mindless terror and surprises. I had a good feeling about Smith anyway, because he wrote a cracking bag-of-money book called “A Simple Plan,” which I thoroughly enjoyed reading and seeing as a movie. That said, I did not have any interest in seeing “The Ruins” on film. Excellent book. Not the one that scared me the most, but one that totally did its job!

    Reply
    • JH

      Good to see another Smith fan! He hasn’t published many books, but those he has have been off-the-charts successful, as you said. The Ruins isn’t a bad movie, but the book is definitely better.

      Reply
  8. I haven’t read any scary books in years, though I do love mystery and thriller novels. Never heard of this book or the movie.

    Reply
    • JH

      It’s worth checking out, Denise. The best horror has strong elements of mystery and thriller, and I’d say this has both.

      Reply
  9. I have not yet read the ruins, but after reading this I want to! Maybe I’ll bring it along with me as I’ve got some travel coming up… It will serve as a good reminder to listen to the locals. 😉
    As always, great post!

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Crystal. If you give it a go, let me know what you think.

      Reply
  10. Scariest book I’ve ever read? Anything by the Kardashians…I have to admit that I’ve not read “The Ruins” but intend on doing so in the near future after reading your review. I agree with you 100% about endorsements by Stephen King. He raved about the movie “The Witch.” I saw it and thought it should have been called “The Why” as in why did I just spend good money on this?

    Reply
    • JH

      Agreed, Dave. And yet, people are STILL raving about that movie. Why? I don’t get it.

      As for the Kardashians, that’s a different kind of horror.

      Reply
  11. Great review/commentary on The Ruins. I have not read it, nor seen the movie. The most suspenseful book I’ve read so far is Stephen King’s The Shining. I was pleasantly surprised by how riveted I was to the story, and the things that gave me the chills. I just started The Stand, on audio, and your book, City of Ghosts. All good. I like what you said about the horror genre, that it doesn’t follow a formula and that we aren’t guaranteed that the protagonist will prevail. Makes it much more suspenseful.

    Reply
    • JH

      Agreed, Mary! Thanks for picking up City of Ghosts. You made my day! I really hope you enjoy it.

      The Shining is an excellent book, as is The Stand. I tried to read The Stand a few times before I got through it. When I was a kid, I found it too realistic, and therefore, too upsetting.

      Reply
  12. I don’t know this book – would I read it if it fell into my lap? Probably, or rather possibly. The one book that scared the living daylights out of me was Scott Peck’s The People of the Lie, non-fiction but a deep insight into how we as ordinary human beings allow terrible things to happen under our watch … and, as you say, listen to the locals .. 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      Non-fiction is always the most terrifying, and that book sounds particularly horrific. I’ve read tons of true crime and books on genocides, seeking understanding. It’s hard to get scarier than that.

      A much more difficult feat when it’s fiction.

      Reply
  13. I honestly don’t know what the scariest book I’ve ever read is. I know the most gut wrenching one’s that come to mind tend to be flash fiction or short ones. That said, a smile genuinely crept across my face on this one. Definitely adding Ruins to my collection. I thrive on creepy shit. 😉

    Reply
    • JH

      Awesome! Creepy shit it most definitely is. I hope you enjoy it–let me know what you think.

      Reply
  14. Now you have me intrigued as to who this mysterious villain is in Scott Smith’s book. Sounds like a good read. I have a great deal of respect for anyone who can come up with an imaginary universe in their head and translate that into a novel.

    Reply
    • JH

      It’s a good one, Lisa. Not only is it a unique story with a great sense of setting, it’s also very well written. Smith is extremely talented.

      Reply
  15. I haven’t read The Ruins (sounds freaky) and, although I enjoy some horror, I don’t like horror with heavy violence (especially if it’s gore and sexual violence). I’m not sure where The Ruins fits in the “spectrum” of horror, but it sounds intriguing, particularly the main antagonist. Might just have to read it. As far as one of my favorite scares in literature, I like the chapter in Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine about The Lonely One. I remember reading it for the first time in college at the library in a little cubicle. It kept building suspense and apprehension and fear. And then right at the end with the reveal, my skin crawled and I literally had to get up and calm my fears. It was awesome!

    Reply
    • JH

      That sounds incredible, James. I’ll have to seek it out–I haven’t read that one. My writing gets compared to Bradbury’s, but sadly, I’ve never read his stuff. Must rectify that.

      The Ruins does have some gore, but it’s not gratuitous. I wouldn’t describe it as being heavy on the violence, and there is no sexual violence at all. If you give it a try, let me know what you think.

      Thanks for commenting! Welcome to my blog.

      Reply
  16. I saw the movie years ago. This is good because the book’s plot will be mostly a surprise. There is good and bad with having a bad memory. As always, looking for a good Halloween read. Thanks for the tip. 😉

    Reply
    • JH

      You’re welcome, Anna. I think you’ll enjoy it. I’d love to hear what you think.

      Reply
  17. You are a talented writer, because your review made me think, for just a moment, “wow, I should read that.” But no, I never read horror, and for good reason. Though part of me wants to just read the ending so I will know about that unique villain 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      Give it a try, Rebecca. Since I became a writer, I’ve tried lots of genres I thought I hated–from romance to sci-fi–simply because my friends write books in those genres. I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

      Horror done well can be absolutely riveting and powerful.

      And thanks for the compliment!

      Reply
  18. I stopped reading scary stuff in grade 6. RL Stine did me in. Lol But we encourage every genre in this house and my 13 year old is bravery than me now!

    Reply
    • JH

      That’s very cool, Kate. One of the best things my mom did for me was not censor my reading as a child.

      Reply
  19. Thanks, auto correct.

    Reply
  20. Anything archeological is one of my writing sweet spots, so off to buy. Thanks for the recommend!

    Reply
    • JH

      Awesome, Kari! Hope you enjoy it. Please let me know what you think.

      Reply
  21. I don’t read horror books because I get too easily freaked out just like movies. I have had many nightmares after reading something scary or watching a movie. Now, I do read ghostly tales especially true stories and I do get excited to go somewhere that might be haunted. I live near Niagara On The Lake which is the most haunted town in Canada and enjoy the haunted walks.

    Reply
    • JH

      Well, you know my books are supernatural suspense featuring ghosts, right? Not horror. 😉 *shameless plug*

      I haven’t had any luck on haunted walks. Ever experience anything spooky?

      Reply
  22. I haven’t read The Ruins, though reading the synopsis gives me terrible flashbacks to that awful Amy Schumer movie, Snatched.

    I can’t think of any book that has really “scared” me since those “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” books I read as a kid. The Bible, maybe?

    Reply
    • JH

      That’s a scary one. As is the nightly news. Brr!

      Reply
  23. Another book for my to-be-read list. Some of the scariest books I’ve read include Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Onion Field. Also anything Stephen King writes. I do not need (nor want) happy endings, but the endings need to be satisfying.

    Reply
    • JH

      Agreed on the ending, Lee. So many books are riveting all the way through, only to completely mess up the ending. I love Rosemary’s Baby–comfort food for the brain. I’ll have to check out The Onion Field. I know nothing about it.

      Thanks for the recommendations!

      Reply
  24. The book sounds intriguing. Especially after it gave you – the mistress of horror stories – the chills. 🙂 I’d never think of feeling unsafe when heading into the jungle with a group of people. I have done so in the past, with strangers, in Asia and Central America. And, going to a foreign country ill-prepared… I assume that happens quite often to tourists, but usually nothing happens.

    I haven’t read The Ruins, but I’m not sure I would like it, since it might put me off exploring new places ill-prepared (with the “let’s see what happens” attitude), which sometimes is half the fun. 🙂 Would you still go to Mexico after reading the book? Do you see things with different eyes there after reading The Ruins?

    Reply
    • JH

      Oh, it definitely didn’t scare me off Mexico. It’s only fiction. And yes, exploring new places is a big part of the adventure, BUT if everyone in a village warned me against a certain place and acted terrified of it–which happened in the book–I would listen to them.

      It’s rare that a book gets under my skin these days and truly bothers me, but this one did. It’s unsettling.

      Reply
  25. I’m trying to think of a novel that disturbed me and it’s tough. I find non-fiction to be much more disturbing because it is real. Books like Into Thin Air or Helter Skelter or even headlines that the insect population is taking a nosedive in certain parts of the world disturb me.

    Reply
    • JH

      Oh, for sure the news is the most terrifying thing out there. It’s so scary I can’t bear to read it most of the time.

      Reply
  26. Particularly disturbing about the Onion Field is that it’s a true story.

    Reply
  27. This book sounds crazy, but then your warning makes sense. I’d totally listen to the locals. Not sure what the scariest book I’ve read it, but then, I don’t read a lot of them.

    Reply
    • JH

      Doesn’t that make it easier to narrow it down? 😉

      Reply
  28. I do have this book and the one before, ‘A Simple Plan.’ I liked it more. I think they’re the only two books he has released. He also, I believe wrote the screenplays.

    Reply
    • JH

      Welcome, Doug! I wish he’d write more books.

      Reply

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