I saw the film adaptation of this novel before I read it, so I was slightly wrongfooted coming into it. I wasn’t, for example, prepared for how metal as fuck the original is.
Yes, it’s still a story about middle-aged guys having a failed bromance in forests so offputting they should be marked HERE BE DRAGONS on the topo map they’re using to get around. But the film adaptation – which was just fine, and plenty creepy on its own – lacks a certain corpsepaint madness that makes the novel so appealing.
The novel focuses on four friends who’ve taken a trip to Sweden. Decades have passed since the university days where they first met, and various levels of snideness, fitness and financial security abound. The quartet are hiking through the Swedish woods, but varying levels of fitness – fucked feet and busted knees – have necessitated a short-cut.
Short-cuts in these kind of settings are never great. And in the mysterious, virgin woodlands, directions become a curious muddle, and animal corpses appear waaay up in the trees. And then there’s the feeling that there’s something else out for a stroll, too.
The novel quickly becomes a story of survival, and of foiled plans. The tension ratchets up internally, as stresses from within begin to take as much a toll as those from without, and it’s all told believably. The discussions the characters have, either en masse or internally about how their lives are going, about how the promise of youth gives way to the disappointment and fixity of adulthood hit home with a depth I’d not expected in a spooky forest tale. It’s a pleasant surprise.
It makes sense that Nevill – alongside climbing and wilderness writers – thanks the authors of Lords of Chaos, the Feral House-published tome about black metal and church burnings in Norway. The spirit of older times and incursion of horror into everyday life that features in that book is very much along for the ride in The Ritual.
Of course, the book is still, for all its insights into Being A Middle-Aged Dude With A Fucked Knee, a thriller. It’s perfect airport fare, and reads compulsively. There’s a feeling that there’s two books welded together here, albeit well, and a fair degree of suspension of disbelief is required to get through. But the real talk of the group of friends coupled with the rich vein of folk horror that flows through the work was more than enough to see me through.
Even when it’s dealing with shit that really should not be, I believed what was going on, and wanted more. I don’t want to go for any forest walks any time soon, mind.