The Ritual made me uncomfortable. From the opening pages to the final conclusion, a sense of wrongness pervades this story, stalking you as surely as some beast stalks the characters. This is a novel of the dark woods, ancient places, and things that are better off forgotten. Throughout, Adam Nevill does an impressive job of painting a forbidding and dangerous landscape absolutely saturated with dread.
I’ve not seen the Netflix adaptation of the book released earlier this year, and I find myself wondering how it conveys this tone without growing boring. Often, what works on the page is tiresome on the screen, and this story could easily fall into that trap. So much of the tale takes place inside the heads of our main characters. So much of the horror grows from the uncertainty of what lurks in the vast, primordial forest.
The Ritual is not a perfect book. I found Nevill’s writing off-putting at times. It’s never grammatically wrong, or confusing, or any such objectively measurable and clearly identifiable problem. It is more a strangeness of phrasing. He uses words that I know but would not have used. He places emphasis on odd metaphors. This may simply be a difference of British Writer vs American Reader. It’s very possible, more likely even, that this is intentional, a device to heighten the discomfort of the reader. It worked to make me uncomfortable, but at times it pulled me out of the story. I don’t know that I’d call this a criticism of the book, per se, so much as a matter of taste.
Where the book stumbled for me was the back quarter or so. I don’t want to give anything away, but there is a major change in the character’s situation, and once it happens, I felt like the story lost tension. We’re introduced to antagonists who feel more cliched and predictable than the earlier parts of the book would have led one to expect. The shift is not illogical or broken, exactly, but it is jarring, and I think the book would have been better without it. When the conclusion comes, it feels as if it could have been moved up a hundred pages or so, and made a much tighter, much more focused story.
Ultimately, The Ritual held my attention and kept me wondering who would survive and what would be left of them. My minor quibbles aside, the book sucked me in and filled me with dread. If you like long walks in the woods, ancient religions, standing stones, and dark mystery, this is the book for you. If you prefer your horror fast and bloody, if torture porn is more your speed, you might find something to love here anyway. And if you likes books that you leave you unsettled, uncomfortable, well slip into The Ritual.