In conversation, writer Scott Smith is such an appealingly modest Midwesterner, you wonder how it is that he is thriving in megapolitan New York City. After all, he is a guy who says things like, "I always liked writing. But I never entitled myself to the idea that I could make a living being a writer. Growing up in Ohio that seemed hubristic. Just not allowed." Or, regarding his writing habits, "I'm very distractible, but I am comfortable with my distractibility."
On the other hand, Smith is the same fellow who, fresh out of the Columbia University MFA writing program, penned the mesmerizing best-selling novel, A Simple Plan, a harrowing morality tale of a sort-of-normal, sort-of-understandable progression of evil in which nine people end up getting murdered. Smith then went on to write the screenplay for the somewhat different, but equally chilling movie version of A Simple Plan, directed by Sam Raimi and starring Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton and Bridget Fonda. And now he has completed the deeply scary (and sometimes darkly humorous) horror novel The Ruins. For which he is, of course, writing the screenplay.
So perhaps some deeper, darker (and more darkly comic) current flows through Smith's veins - an effervescent sort of ice water, perhaps - that allows him to live as comfortably as a New Yorker as he once did as a Midwesterner.
But if Smith is aware of the deep fissure that yawns open between the memorably creepy products of his imagination and his friendly, sincere, self-effacing, humorous and somewhat bemused conversational self, he's not copping to it during a phone call to his apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. He tiptoes to the brink of admission when he remarks that his wife, Elizabeth Hill, a writer he met in grad school, is his first reader and the reader he has in mind when he writes his novels, and then adds, deadpan, "Even though she's my ideal reader, she's not my ideal reader, since she hasn't finished either of my books. They make her too uncomfortable. I guess."
For readers who enjoy being so discomfited that the hair on their neck stands on end, however, The Ruins is just the book to curl up with on a dark and stormy night. Unfortunately, what is best and most interesting about The Ruins - particularly the way Smith toys with our expectations about what a horror/survival tale should be is impossible to discuss without stealing from would-be readers the novel's most hair-raising pleasures.
In The Ruins, two young couples on a post-graduation vacation in Cancun agree to help a German youth they've met on the beach locate his brother, who has impetuously gone off with a pretty archeologist to a dig at nearby Mayan ruins in the jungle. The five, plus a happy-go-lucky Greek tourist they meet along the way, set off on their little dirt-road trip, despite increasingly ominous signs, and are soon trapped at the hilltop ruins, awaiting rescue, while a very scary entity tries to lure them to their deaths. From there things go from grim to grimmer.
"I had a short story idea about a group of archeologists who dig up a disease that sickens everyone back when I was in graduate school," Smith says. "Scraps of paper, an idea I never did anything with." He stuck it in a folder and went on to other things.
After completing A Simple Plan, Smith worked for five years on a novel about a feud in a small town. He ended up with over a thousand pages, which, he says, was about a quarter of the imagined book. A monstrosity. "I couldn't stop writing and I knew it wasn't going to work, so I fled to screenwriting. The opportunities were there after the movie of A Simple Plan came out, and I had a sense there was a window of opportunity that was going to shut very rapidly."
He worked on a number of projects with Ben Stiller, who at one point had planned to direct A Simple Plan. He adapted a history book about Edwin and John Wilkes Booth. He worked on a comedy. He adapted the Richard Stark novel Backflash. "I've been lucky in terms of the people I've worked with," Smith says. "They've given me a lot of leeway. I haven't had any of those horror stories that you read about between studio executives and screenwriters."
When Smith decided to attempt another novel, he opted to do a genre-based book with a strong plot. "I had just seen the movie Signs and thought it would be fun to create that horror movie chill effect. When I went back through my folder of ideas and came across this archeologist idea, I thought, what if they dig up something that isn't a disease but has a horror element instead."
The Ruins, as the author points out, is "oddly internal" for a horror novel. Smith allows readers to peer intently into the psyches of his four main characters as their love and friendships begin to crack under the pressure of the threat to their individual survival. This adds greatly to a reader's growing sense of doom. "When it came to choices, I would always opt to push it further," Smith says, "because I have an instinct that if I'm uncomfortable with it, I should do it."
Yet according to Smith, his seemingly well-crafted horror novel just sort of happened, without anywhere near the degree of planning and plotting that went into his first novel. Asked, for example, about a darkly comic and deviously resonant scene in which the central characters imagine who will play them in the movie version of their escape tale, Smith says, simply, "I needed them to have something to talk about. And that just came the day that I wrote it."
But then again maybe one needn't - or shouldn't - probe too deeply for the sources of this casual, dark inspiration. Maybe it's enough simply to echo the cover blurb's exclamation that the product of Smith's inspiration and labors is "unputdownable."
Unputdownable? Is that a word? "I wondered about that myself," Smith says laughing. But real word or not, it's an apt description of Scott Smith's The Ruins.
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.