How close does Stephen King come to writing mysteries? Is a suspense novel with a sci-fi or fantasy twist ever considered a mystery?
I ask, because a few days ago I read an advance copy of The Ruins, by Scott Smith, and after the first 24 hours of shudders, "larger questions" came to mind ... some of them as follows.
Yes, it's terrifying; yes, it moves fast and has such horror to it that it merits another Stephen King comment, the way Scott Smith's earlier novel A Simple Plan did ("best suspense novel of this year"). And when I finished reading The Ruins, way too late at night, because I couldn't stop, I genuinely worried about what kind of nightmares I'd earned.
After all, the slow slip into horrifying consequences is something we all know about. And Smith's grim premise, that two young couples on vacation in Mexico could make just enough bad judgment calls to put them into danger, makes perfect sense. I could feel the potential for it happening to me, or to someone I love. If the phone had started ringing as I was reading, I'd expect the caller to be sobbing and saying, "You've got to help me!"
There's an edge of science fiction to what actually invades the lives of the four relatively nice people here. Yet again, the known reality edges close: Who would have guessed, a few years ago, that an ordinary mosquito bite could send viruses into your bloodstream that would give you West Nile Fever? Or that a tick bite suffered years earlier and maybe not even noticed would be the opening for a silent invasion of your nervous system, crushing you with Lyme Disease?
These are the things I dreaded before the book, and dreaded more as the emotions from reading it settled into my chest. But on the morning after, pondering how easy it is for Smith's people to fall into a danger that not only horrifies but can't ever be escaped once you've been close enough to see it, a deeper dread crept into me.
Because there really are things that, once you see them, cling inside you with their slime and appalling threat. Witness a bombing, or the Twin Towers on fire; endure a rape or re-live, with a friend, a rape or mugging that happened to them; listen to a stranger quietly threatening a child, that person's own child, and realize you're listening to the dreadful threats of a child abuser out in public.
The nightmare under the skin in The Ruins is no less real than all these. Reading this intense, never-lets-you-go suspense, you'll recognize two things: a master storyteller, and the danger of being human in an unpredictable and sometimes awful universe.