A group of blokes are trying to recover the lost magic of their friendship with a good old-fashioned camping trip in the wilds of Sweden. Luke, Phil, Dom and Hutch used to live together in Birmingham. Since then, they've gone their separate ways. Luke, the protagonist, has turned into the John Cusack character from High Fidelity - a slightly too-cool-for-school noncommittal type, just becoming aware of his immaturity. The others have all grown up, but in some cases, they've gone a bit too far.
Initially, The Ritual is wonderfully, radiantly eerie. The untamed wilderness dominates the book's atmosphere. The men, overwhelmed by their surroundings, turn insular. They bicker, they squabble, then they collapse into violence. Like the forest from Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood, there's something about the relentless, overpowering presence of nature that presses modern man down into his essence.
Of course, this is horror, not classic fantasy. In Holdstock, distilled man-cider is a mythic and aspirational archetype. In Nevill, scrumpy man is filled with rage and venom.
Of course, our four protagonists aren't really the only folks out in the woods. In-between their descent into intra-party chaos, they stumble upon fragments of, for lack of a better word, civilization. Strange figures are woven into the landscape and crumbling buildings hide around bends in the (lack of) path. The foursome spend a long, tense night in some sort of primordial cottage, cluttered with tiny fetishes and an immensely disturbing icon (in a crib, for bonus icky).
Mr. Nevill captures the isolation and the terror of the forest in a way that hasn't been done since The Blair Witch Project. There are still "dark spaces" on the map, and The Ritual yomps straight into one. The group marches further and further away from the known. Their panic leads to a disintegration of both social standards and their understanding of the real. They no longer trust either one another or the world around them.
The second half of the book is a dynamic sequence of unexpected twists. Rather than being the tale of the group's dynamic and (possible) survival, Mr. Nevill singles out Luke and transforms him into a reluctant hero. The misty evil of the Scandinavian woods solidifies in a variety of unanticipated ways - ranging from the breath-takingly fantastic to the bizarrely banal. The Ritual becomes a series of curtains. Each time Luke closes his eyes, turns a corner or falls unconscious, another one is ripped away, revealing an even-odder Evil shuffling its feet in anticipation. The book eventually concludes in zippy cinematic action. The all-pervasive horror of the woods was an unstoppable force. But once evil takes form, it can thump and be thumped.
This isn't meant to be dismissive of the later part of The Ritual. The book is a strange fusion of two different forms of horror story. Each, on its own, is very good. But in their concatenation, The Ritual loses a great deal of its strength. The action-packed physicality of the conclusion is overshadowed by the ancient and intangible evils of the first half. And the book's atmospheric beginning is belittled by the corporeality and, indeed, the substantiality of its ending. It is Mythago Wood building up to the Battle of Helm's Deep.
Mr. Nevill proves - twice - with The Ritual that he's at the top of his class for modern horror writers. He has the rare ability to craft a nebulous atmosphere of terror, as well as to capture cinematic slasherpunk in the written word. Both are incredibly rare talents. The Ritual is slightly unfortunate in that both are on display. I still recommend it - in both halves of the book, Mr. Nevill is clearly a master at work. But taken holistically, The Ritual felt incomplete.