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The Ritual by Adam Nevill

Four old university friends reunite for a hiking trip in the Scandinavian wilderness of the Arctic Circle. No longer young men, they have little left in common and tensions rise as they struggle to connect. Frustrated and tired they take a shortcut that turns their hike into a nightmare that could cost them their lives.

Lost, hungry and surrounded by forest untouched for millennia, they stumble across an isolated old house. Inside, they find the macabre remains of old rites and pagan sacrifices; ancient artefacts and unidentifiable bones. A place of dark ritual and home to a bestial presence that is still present in the ancient forest, and now they’re the prey.

As the four friends struggle toward salvation they discover that death doesn’t come easy among these ancient trees…

This week I am taking a breather from new releases so I can review a horror novel that has been sat unread on my books shelves for far too long.

Luke, Hutch, Phil and Dom are taking a break from the rat race. They are getting back to nature, and away from the trials of modern living. Though they have known one another for years, they have grown apart. Some time in the great outdoors seems like the perfect way to rekindle old friendships and reconnect. The Ritual by Adam Nevill is a cautionary tale about four men who make an epic mistake. Sadly for them, it turns out that once you’ve made one huge mistake, making more is way too easy.

My favourite aspect of the novel is watching how the characters deal with the escalation of events. Initially, any weirdness is shrugged off or ignored, but as they travel further off the beaten track a realisation dawns. The forest is toying with them, there is something out there watching. There is a distinct evolution of emotions that each man experiences. Disbelief, panic, and shock evolve into a tired acceptance in some or a refusal of the inevitable in others. There is a scene later in the book where Luke, the main character, has a moment of perfect clarity. All the horrors he has endured, and there are many, bring him to a life changing epiphany.  He gets the opportunity, however briefly, to re-evaluate his life. It’s quite remarkable that Nevill has managed to perfectly capture the depth of a character in what is essentially just a single beat. I’ve spotted this in the author’s other novels. The inclusion of secondary details that flesh out a character’s backstory and make them that much more human. When they are forced to confront their horrors, you find yourself that much more invested in their ultimate fate. I have to admit I was wholly impressed. Luke is just a normal man. He gets angry, he makes mistakes, he suffers from the same failing that we all do. It is only when he is truly tested, pushed way beyond his normal limits, that his will to survive is revealed.

I have a few rules in life that I think we should all live by – (1) Never play cards with a person whose first name is the same as an American city or state (2) Always be courteous to individuals who work in any service industry and (3) Most importantly, DO NOT under any circumstance take a shortcut through the seemingly innocent looking forest. The characters in The Ritual make a rookie error, they ignore rule three. Joking aside, I think the forest is the ideal location for this story to play out. Untamed nature has become an anathema to modern man. The forest evokes that feeling of mystery and the inexplicable. Can you imagine finding yourself smack bang in the middle of nowhere. Normal rules no longer apply and your mobile phone is no use. How would you cope? Could you make a fire? Ration any supplies you had? Survive against whatever wildlife you might meet? I reckon I’d last about twenty minutes if I was lucky.

When it comes to horror it’s not really blood and gore that freaks me out. Sure, there is no denying they are unpleasant but for me they’re not really that frightening. Real horror is psychological. The fear of the unknown, the realisation that a situation feels inherently wrong. That notion of having to face something that is beyond all comprehension is terrifying. Adam Nevill is a master at capturing the elements of this in his storytelling. Luke and his three friends spot almost immediately that they have made an error in judgement. They all pick up on their animal brains screaming that the forest is off in some way or another, but they choose to ignore it. They can’t quite pinpoint the source of this wrongness, so rather than turn around and head to safe ground, they persevere. From that second onwards things go from bad to much, much worse. The key lesson to be learned here? Always go with your gut. You subconscious will do whatever it can to ensure you survive.

Just when I thought I had everything sussed, the plot veers off in an unexpected direction that ups the ante even further. I always like it when an author catches me off guard. I love horror that sets my nerves on edge. I genuinely believe everyone needs to be unsettled from time to time. It helps you better appreciate the good things you have in your life. I can sit here and enjoy that little frisson of fear safe in my comfy little Hobbit hole. Secure in the knowledge that the chances of me being offered up as part of some sort of pagan human sacrifice ritual are relatively slim.

Over the last couple of years, Adam Nevill has become one of my favourite modern horror writers. I’ve been working my way through his back catalogue slowly, relishing each book that I’ve read. I’ve not even managed to get to Apartment 16 yet, and based on the book blurb I cannot wait to read that. There is little doubt that The Ritual is a disquieting experience. Its nail-biting, creepy as hell and deliciously dark. Take my advice – if you’re a horror fan and you are not reading Adam Nevill’s writing already, you need to rectify this gross oversight immediately. The Ritual is the fiftieth book I have read in 2017 and I can’t think of a better choice of story to help me achieve my annual goal.

In a break from tradition, I’m going to recommend a musical accompaniment to this book that I’ve not actually listened to yet. Risky move, I know. The movie adaptation of The Ritual is released tomorrow* (it’s almost as if I timed my review to coincide isn’t it) and the soundtrack is by one of my favourite musicians, Ben Lovett. I can’t wait to hear it and I can only assume that if the soundtrack works for the film it will probably work for the book. Seems logical to me anyway.

The Ritual is published by Macmillan and is available now. My advice is read the book, see the film and enjoy being petrified multiple times. Highly recommended.

*I have to admit I’m curious to see just how the movie differs from the book. Based on what I’ve seen of the trailer, there do appear to be some changes, but tonally it’s bang on.

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