I have a mixed history with Nevill’s work. I enjoyed Banquet for the Damned. I moved from that to Apartment 16 but had to stop as, while the writing was good, the content made my morning sickness worse. And again I didn’t make it through No One Gets Out Alive, but for different reasons: having been a young girl and currently raising one, I found this book too uncomfortable to read. That shouldn’t make you think it was bad writing though; in fact, it was exceptional and frighteningly realistic, which is why I couldn’t finish it. So I got The Ritual out of the library on a whim when I saw it. I nearly took it back without reading it, but then I thought, “What the hell?” and I opened it. Thirty pages in and I was wondering how I could have been so stupid as to think about taking it back unread.
The plot follows four university friends now grown up – Phil, Luke, Dom and Hutch – as they set off on a camping trip destined to end in disaster. A typical horror set up, yet what follows is not a standard horror novel but an exceptional one. My pulse was racing in several sections and reading as much horror as I do, that’s no mean feat. The flaw with most horror novels is that they can be predictable. That is not the case with The Ritual. Nevill keeps you guessing to the end – not just as to whether his characters will survive but, if they do, whether they will do so whole in both mind and body. Nevill writes brilliant characters, sowing just the right amount of familiarity to make the set-up plausible while at the same time inserting enough discord and enmity to keep the tension ramped up. Then he throws this fracturing group into a sinister forest, far from help and with something stalking their every step. Watching everything fall apart and seeing how the characters deal with it (or don’t), is mesmerising reading.
From a stylistic point of view, as the friends get further into the forest, Nevill’s writing starts to get disjointed; his sentences are abrupt and sometimes confusing, but that’s not a criticism. Nevill is using style as much as content to show his characters’ descent into darkness and confusion, and it just adds to the intensity of the experience. I don’t really think it’s a spoiler to say “four men go into a dark forest, and only one of them makes it out alive”. That’s pretty standard. But Nevill’s tale doesn’t end there. In much the same was as From Dusk Til Dawn changes halfway through from a violent road-trip movie to a vampire-killing fest, so halfway through The Ritual our lone survivor finds that while he may have left one threat behind him in the forest, he has nevertheless stumbled into something just as deadly.
In No One Gets Out Alive, Nevill focussed on how one young girl’s options grew fewer and fewer until she got into an impossible, inescapable situation. He applies the same skills here; the reader follows the characters’ descent from jolly jaunt into dismal danger and physical incapability in terrible yet credible increments. When the lone survivor is at his wits’ end, you’ve followed him every step of the way; not only do you understand completely how he got there, but you’re sitting there with him, in the dark, dripping forest, with those yipping barks echoing around you. My only mild issue with this is that I wondered whether Nevill perhaps took his survivor’s physical state beyond the point where he would have been able to act and function as he did. But then, I’m no expert on the reserves that the human body can call upon when pushed to its truly final limits. The question certainly didn’t detract from the chilling enjoyment I got reading about his continued struggles and rooting for him. One passage in The Ritual deserves special mention. When the first camper is taker, his fate is uncertain for a few pages. We can guess what’s happened, we’re just waiting for the big reveal. Nevill did this so suddenly and so bluntly, I was genuinely startled. It was a beautiful moment of writing and revelation.
If you like your horror with plenty of suspense, a smidgeon of the supernatural and a splattering of gore, then you should check out this book. You won’t be disappointed.