When The Ritual arrived, I spent a good five minutes admiring the cover art of an ancient Scandinavian forest. It has a constricted, sinister feel to it, achieved through multiple layering and ‘ancient green’ colouring. It’s a place humans avoid, a primordial place best left alone, to coil and knot in and around itself. I did, however, find myself looking hard for the faint image of some being between the murk and branches. There is one thing I have a little gripe with however, and this is the unnecessary paganesque ornamentation hanging from one of the branches. It appears tagged on and puts the rest of the cover imagery somewhat out of balance. Other than that, the designer, Blacksheep have done well to portray a true sense of foreboding.
The premise of the story is as follows; four, old university friends decide that they need to reconnect, and agree that a walking holiday in a Swedish forest would be the best way to go about this.
‘This is one of the last parts of the Boreal coniferous belt. Goes all the way from Norway to Russia. It’s what grew after the Ice Age…They don’t let forests get this old anymore.’
However, limited fitness, inflated egos and a regrettable short cut leaves the men in a nightmarish situation. Lost, hungry and surrounded by ancient woodland, they encounter a slaughtered animal hanging from a tree.
‘Above them, beyond the reach of a man standing upright, the dead thing sagged. Between the limbs of the spruce tree it was displayed, but in such a tattered state they could not tell what it had been. From the large rib cage drooped the gut, wet and blue in the light seeping through the canopy of leaves.’
The Ritual has that ‘Blair Witch’ feel to it, and Nevill admits to having an ‘unerring respect’ for the film. The feeling that the forest is slowly strangling you is paramount throughout the novel. Nevill works with the night, nature and dark forces to keep our hearts in our mouths, and has been open with the fact that he even unsettled himself during writing the novel. I was interested to read that the idea first started to erupt over twenty years ago, and is twinned with personal experiences of a grim camping holiday in Wales, where Nevill and his friends encountered strung up animal corpses of their own.
The first half of The Ritual is utterly terrifying. There are untimely ends, intimidating effigies and a stalker as old as the forest itself. I didn’t realise how tense I actually was, until I closed the book and observed the dents in the cover and pages. I read late into the night, and finished this book within two days. The second half of the novel is a complete turnaround, one which I wasn’t expecting. New characters are introduced, and for me, they took away the dark magic. I’m not one for spoiling stories, they’re too precious, but I think the fact Black Metal is an important part of my existence, weakened the story immensely. It didn’t scare me anymore. Despite this setback, The Ritual was satisfying, and it’s not often that you find fiction authors quoting Darkthrone lyrics in their acknowledgements.