The Ritual – A Post on Clarity and Perspective

(written as a participant in the Rainier Writing Workshop)

The Ritual
Adam Nevill

         The Ritual by Adam Nevill is an astonishingly well-written contemporary horror novel. Good fiction always starts from the premise of “what if,” and good horror always takes that question to a darker level. What’s interesting about The Ritual is that it is so well grounded in a very basic terror – that of being lost in a dark forest – that by the time slightly more supernatural elements emerge, the reader is fully enmeshed the characters’ problems, because the forest environment is so well described and so visceral. In the small careful nuances and descriptions in his story, Nevill makes you believe utterly what is happening to his characters — both in their inner lives, and the extreme conditions they are suffering.

I read The Ritual as a “fun” break from academic fiction and more “serious” fiction (such as Robinson’s Look Me In the Eye and Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy) and yet I quickly found myself taking copious notes on Nevill’s descriptions of the forest, because I need to add this level of detailed realism to my novel The Eagle Tree if I am going to have my readers believe in my tale to the same degree, and find value in my characters.

The story is solidly grounded in the reality of four friends lost in a Boreal forest. Early on, the clarity of their condition is illuminated by Nevill: “The rain fell hard and cold, the white sun never broke through the low grey cloud, and they were lost” (3). Instead of dwelling in drama and in emotion, Nevill instead focuses on the rain, the sky and the lack of sunshine (an element that one seeks when backpacking) and ends with that precise and pitch-perfect death-knell: “they were lost.”

As the story progresses, even more precision is applied to the physical conditions of the characters, as in this description of one man’s face: “squinting through the fine drizzle that made his square features shiny. The rain and his sweat created a froth around his mouth” (Nevill 6). I began to take more notes at this juncture, because I realized that my writing about the forest in my novel Eagle Tree was not detailed enough, much less my descriptions of my character’s activities, faces, and reactions to being among the trees. The Ritual definitely shows how people look and act in the woods, and I need to apply the same level of rigor to my descriptions.

It’s also important, I realized, to demonstrate what the interactions between “static” flora of the woods and moving people looks and feels like. For example, a few pages after the rain description, I found this description of one of the travails of walking through the woods for hours: “Tears streamed down his cheeks. Bits of powdery bark kept getting under his eyelids” (Nevill 12). Bark, pine needles, resin, pollen, and all the rest of the natural world’s defenses are inimical (or can be) to human beings. To establish the veracity of my character’s experiences in the woods, it’s necessary to show such clarity. Here’s a further example of Nevill’s great clarity on the difficulty of traveling at speed through the woods: “They were wading through ivy, nettles, broken branches, oceans of wet leaves, the impenetrable naked spikes formed by the limbs of smaller trees” (17). Here again, Nevill doesn’t apply much emotive language, he just describes the experience in emotionally rich descriptors. Thus, by not layering emotion into it, he actually makes the experience more powerful, because the reader can empathize with the character’s difficult experiences in such an environment. A great example of Nevill’s art in this capacity can be seen here:

Dead wood snapped under their soles and broken pieces were kicked away. Branches forced aside snapped back into those walking behind. Phil fell and crashed into the nettles…. Twigs whipped faces and laces were pulled undone, but they kept going…. a tiny clearing. A brown place where the dead wood and leaf mould was shallow and the thorny vines no longer ripped into socks…
(Nevill 11)

What makes this passage work so well is that it is showing how the woods themselves make it difficult to move through, and that the people are bouncing off of – or interacting with – the trees, the nettles and the vines. Although the environment could be essentially static, the interlopers are not greeted with kindness, and this in itself creates drama. (It’s worth noting that because this is a “horror” novel, the descriptors tend towards the portentous, but the point remains that a static environment can be full of drama, if described in the right manner.)

It’s also worth pointing out that even as the novel progresses in plot – with further character interactions, Nevill never loses that care for the precise description of the forest. Here’s an example from near the end of the book: “Mackerel light silted down through the tree branches. Dappled with shadow, Dom’s face was perfectly still” (Nevill 308). This precision in description makes us believe, and thus, when the book drifts into supernatural territory, we are willing to follow. Famous horror novelist M.R James describes this technique in his own work:

“Let us then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage." (Adam LG Nevill site)

What I learned from the precise and vivid descriptions in Nevill’s work was that giving this clarity and perspective to your characters makes your readers believe in them more, and thus, your readers will go almost anywhere with those characters. Nevill writes with a convincing contemporary verisimilitude, and a sense of care for his characters that is sadly all too often lacking in contemporary fiction, and that makes you feel their every shudder, grieve their every loss, and strive for their every triumph. I hope to do the same in my work.


Works Cited

“ADAM LG NEVILL.” Adam LG Nevill. Macmillan UK, n.d. 17 Nov. 2013. Web.

Hayes, Ned. Eagle Tree. Unpublished manuscript. 2013. Print.

Nevill, Adam L. G. The Ritual. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012. Print.

Robison, John Elder. Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s.

New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007. Print.


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