The Ritual is a gripping helter-skelter ride from the first page, where the reader is thrown headfirst into a nightmare-like situation. We’re introduced to a group of old friends (Hutch, Luke, Dom and Phil), who are in the Scandinavian wilderness for a walking holiday. However, it immediately transpires that two of the characters are struggling – they have not prepared properly for the trip, ignoring advice about going to the gym and increasing their fitness levels, and are now paying for it.
Meeting in their university days, the trip is intended as a proper reunion for the group, a chance to reminisce about the old times, indulge in some nostalgia and enjoy each other’s company, but things are different now. The guys have wives, kids, careers (or a lack of all three in Luke’s case), and we soon learn that the group has become fractured – certain group members see each other more than others, and some don’t see others at all.
The friends decide to take a shortcut through the forest and, unsurprisingly, get lost. They find an old house, but it is not the overnight salvation and degree-of-comfort they are seeking. There are bones and ancient artefacts adorning the walls of the oppressive and secretive building, the remnants of old rites and sacrifice, though this merely hints at what is yet to come. Something skilled in the art of slaughter still lurks in the forest and it soon lets them know they are its prey – closing in as if to ensnare them. This helps to develop a powerful sense of claustrophobia throughout the story.
With The Ritual, Nevill continues to focus on the supernatural, as in previous works such as Banquet for the Damned and Apartment 16. This gels perfectly with his writing style: one of Nevill’s main strengths lies in his power of suggestion. He allows the reader glimpses of the unknown beast, but shows great restraint and tact when it comes to timing the reveal. He allows readers’ imaginations the freedom to roam and fathom their own imaginings, with Nevill providing just enough flashes to get our imagination (and nightmares) going. It remains mostly hidden until we’re well into the depths of the story – the suspense nearly kills you, the dread ever-escalating, and you become nervous about knowing its true form.
Nevill explained in a This Is Horror interview that he likes to employ cinematic qualities in his writing, which is evident here. The cinematic atmosphere and urgent pace work together to wholly transport the reader deep into the story. The pace can make the reader feel as though they’re being swept along, as though things are slightly out of our control.
Nevill excels in creating a bunch of intricate and likeable individuals. A lot of the characters’ authenticity can be found in the humour and banter that the group revel in, which really warms you to the characters. When something happens to any of them it packs a solid punch to the gut.
There are genuinely unsettling moments in the book: for example, when the gang explore the empty house in the woods, with all the daunting and menacing imagery. There are also chilling nightmare sequences, which at times feel almost like Nevill is speaking to you from within your own cranium. The experience leaves the reader jumpy but exhausted – your nerves may well be completely shot by the end.
The pounding pace is one of the many reasons why this is such a beast of a novel – it thrusts you firmly into the story and holds you there. What’s even more impressive is that Nevill writes very eloquently and lucidly, despite the immediate and fast-moving pace, which is no easy feat.
You cannot foresee the directions The Ritual will go in – just when you think you’ve got it worked out, it swerves again, and smashes your theories to bits. A ruthless and psychologically brutal book, yet simultaneously restrained and controlled, The Ritual takes you for one hell of a bumpy ride.
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