The Ritual

And on the third day things did not get better. The rain fell hard and cold, the white sun never broke through the low grey cloud, and they were lost. But it was the dead thing they found hanging from a tree that changed the trip beyond recognition.

When four old University friends set off into the Scandinavian wilderness of the Arctic Circle, they aim to briefly escape the problems of their lives and reconnect with one another. But when Luke, the only man still single and living a precarious existence, finds he has little left in common with his well-heeled friends, tensions rise.

With limited fitness and experience between them, a shortcut meant to ease their hike turns into a nightmare scenario that could cost them their lives. Lost, hungry, and surrounded by forest untouched for millennia, Luke figures things couldn’t possibly get any worse.

But then they stumble across an old habitation. Ancient artefacts decorate the walls and there are bones scattered upon the dry floors. The residue of old rites and pagan sacrifice for something that still exists in the forest. Something responsible for the bestial presence that follows their every step. And as the four friends stagger in the direction of salvation, they learn that death doesn’t come easy among these ancient trees…

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An Entrée to The Ritual

I have carried the inspiration for this story in my memory and my imagination since 1991. A camping and hiking trip in Wales, in March of that year, saw me and my three companions running out of daylight fast, and looking for a patch of sheltered deciduous woodland in which to pitch our tent. It was freezing, we were exhausted, and it had begun to snow. On the map we located a potential site and trespassed through a farmer’s fields to reach it. Only to discover thick bracken, dead wood and nettles were waist-high between all of the trees in the patch of woodland. Of more concern was the inexplicable site of an old car hanging from a tree top with two eviscerated sheep carcasses strung up beside it. At the time, we had no words, let alone an explanation for the reasons behind such a morbidly surreal sight. We were dead on our feet, but this spectacle added a distinct element of menace to the entire trip, as if we had fecklessly blundered into a part of the world in which we had no understanding of the rules. Of course, this was Great Britain and we would never be far from a road or a house. But it was still frightening and had the circumstances been the same, but our location in more remote and inhospitable terrain … now that would be a story.

Even now, we can’t account for the presence of the wrecked car, but the dead sheep, someone told me last year on a writer’s week in Catalonia, were probably baited with poison to kill crows. Plausible, because the nearest field grew a root crop.

I ended up spending the most uncomfortable night of my life in a snow-covered tent, pitched in a nearby farmer’s paddock (with permission), while fully clothed and shaking with cold inside the wrong kind of sleeping bag that never reached higher than my collar bones. The expedition leader’s words, uttered after the fire wood had run out and we had no choice but to bed-down for the night in the tent – “You’ll be as warm as toast in no time” – I then carried with me too, for nearly twenty years, before finding a place for those words in a story. That story is The Ritual.

Twinned with this personal experience, I’d long wanted to write a novel about psychic horror in the great outdoors, twinned with a gruelling test of survival for its characters. I’m a great admirer of Algernon Blackwood’s and Arthur Machen’s mystical stories – The Willows, The Man Whom the Trees Loved, The Wendigo, The White People (to name but a small selection) – and of Cormac McCarthy’s western epics, chiefly Blood Meridian, and James Dickey’s Deliverance. In the cinematic field, The Blair Witch Project is a film I have an unerring respect and love for. It seemed to return an element of authentic psychic dread to the genre, though one that has been chiefly overlooked since.

These influences were distilling and drip-feeding through my imagination into something that often felt as if it would never come out. Parallel to this incremental evolution of an idea in my imagination, I worked in publishing for many years and had become concerned about the time-bomb of male sub-literacy in the western world. Particularly young men who just do not read fiction. It made me want to write about men. Though not a story intended exclusively for men, I wanted to write a story that men both young and old would be tempted, if not like, to read. In fact, I wanted to write the kind of adventure novel, twinned with supernatural horror, that I would have fallen upon myself from boyhood onwards. And I wanted to write about modern men. What Martin Amis defined in an interview as post-historical men– men like me who had never been tested by war, famine, depression, viral epidemics, or any of the other horrors historical men were not only tested by, but lived in expectation of.

After then reading an interview with Cormac McCarthy, when he mentioned that his goal in writing novels was to make every page a matter of life and death for his characters, I found my entry point. A specific moment of crisis in a set-piece that would put my characters “in the now” from then on, as their problems escalated, vertically.

I began writing the novel the same week in 2008. Back then, I had no publisher, no deadline, no book deal; I was writing purely for myself, to see if I could write this novel of the great outdoors, featuring this idea that kept returning to centre stage in my imagination.

Could I pull it off? It would be different to anything I had written before and would require a new idiom – one more stripped-down, more driven by visceral physical drama than previous works. And yet I didn’t want to forsake the lyricism required to create the requisite atmosphere that would make the supernatural more acceptable to the reader. Nor could I afford to bludgeon the reader with one action sequence after another and another … it was going to be a challenge to set the right pace.

I was two third of the way through the first draft, and committed to two hiking expeditions in British mountains for research, when Apartment 16 was contracted by Pan Macmillan in a two-book deal. The Ritual became the second book in that deal, so the experiment, this test for me as a writer, suddenly became a novel that would actually see the grim light of day in May 2011. It was no longer an experiment. But like Apartment 16, it was a novel I had written for myself, and I am tempted to believe those written by the sheer force of a compulsion, or an urge, are always the most affecting.

I finally finished the novel in September 2010 and will admit to having unsettled myself with its writing. A long journey, but one not without the euphoria and terror of expeditions endured in any landscape, be it deep in the woods or deep in the mind.

It could have been tired in less skilful hands, but Nevill sinuously ramps up the tension; the dimming September light, the crooked black house sunken into the depths of the forest, the awful dark shape that follows them, horned, hoofed, powerful and hungry. Often horror loses its power when the evil is given a face; in this case it only gets more disturbing

The Sunday Times

This novel grabs from the very first page, refuses to be laid aside, and carries the hapless reader, exhausted and wrung out, to the very last sentence … superb

The Guardian

Nevill has crafted some of the tensest, scariest horror this reviewer has read in years

SFX

The sense of dread is immediate, with the reader’s sense of foreboding increasing with every new page

Irish Examiner

The Ritual is a welcome addition to his catalogue of work that will keep you entertained, as the exploratory nature of the human psychological condition, as well as that of the supernatural and horror creative imagination, propels the text along to powerful conclusion.

Spookyreads.com

I read this book in three days, which is very quick for me, and possibly the best guide as to how good a book/author is … It has been over a week now since I finished this book and it has really stayed with me and I find myself thinking about it on numerous occasions, and this is another very good sign.

Fantasy Book Review