Hey you crazy kids! I’m back in action after a hiatus to focus on writing my own hair-raising horror stories for Heads Dance Press’s new anthology Let the Weirdness In: A Tribute to Kate Bush. If you’re looking to read some weird tales inspired by music’s most magical craftsperson, head on over to Heads Dance’s website and check it out. Speaking of weird, let’s talk about one of the most bat guano books I’ve read in a while . . .
R.R. Walter’s The Ritual is the kind of book that makes me wish there was a Paperback Horror Hall of Fame. If such a place existed, it would probably be filled with rooms devoted to long-lost gems like Mendal W. Johnson’s brutal Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ and Joan Sampson’s criminally underrated The Auctioneer. There would be a whole exhibition focused on the big-time greats: Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Anne Rice. And then, way at the back, there would be a single space reserved for the really weird stuff—the books that defy logic and good taste; the books that people are embarrassed to admit they’ve read; the books that tear through a reader’s brain with jagged nails leaving a trail of gray matter in their wake. If a Hall of Fame existed, that back room would have a special place reserved for The Ritual.
In The Ritual, Diana’s life is flipped-turned upside down when her husband, the successful photographer Johnathan St. John, takes a job documenting ancient objects from the Yucatan for a mysterious trio of archaeologists. At the beginning of the story, the St. John’s seem to have hit the lifestyle jackpot. They live in a large house right on the beaches of Florida. Jonathan’s work is so good he’s attracted two interns, Larry and Sally, who came “down from New York on their own to do what was seldom done in the photo business anymore—apprentice themselves to a master photographer.” But most importantly, the St. John family and friends are attractive, a point that Walters hammers home continuously with prose so stilted is reads like an alien programmed an AI text generator:
“The boy was perhaps fifteen, the girl fourteen, but modern nutrients and energized vitamins, combined with an easy lifestyle, had aged them four years.”
“Diana noticed how her woman-flesh filled out the shorts with a firm yet resilient sharpness that moved under the material with a rhythmical flexing, while that under her blouse, which was stretched to the point of stress, quivered gently in heavy motion.”
But as they say, the only thing constant in life is change, and by the end of chapter one every character is filled with inexplicable dread over Johnathan’s current Yucatan photography project. Sally and Diana even have a lengthy exchange about their apprehensions without ever voicing a solid concern.
“It’s not bitterness, Sally. It’s fear. I’m frightened over the whole situation.”
Sally sat silent for a moment, then lowered her eyes and said, “I am too.”
“Thank God, I’m not alone.”
“You’re not. You know that strange feeling you get when you’re certain something out of the ordinary is about to occur? I have it.
“What about Larry? How does he feel?”
“Sort of as if this whole assignment was on a teeter-totter, and could tilt toward fun and profit and new prestige or it could dip in the other direction of something very unfun and unwanted.”
All of this vague concern over the sinister underpinnings of archaeological documentation would make any reader think that these folks would be ready to spring into action at the first sign of suspicious activity. But no. Just pages later Larry returns from the beach to share the news that he’s spotted Diana’s children emerging from a shack on the beach with mouths covered in blood. Instead of heading out to find her children immediately, Diana decides to wait and discuss Larry’s grim discovery with Johnathan before their evening love making session.
In just 33 pages, the strange structure and tone of The Ritual will be noticeable to anyone who has read a single book. R.R. Walters understood that a writer shouldn’t make readers wait too long before the action begins, but in his haste to cut to the chase, he wrote a story that goes from zero to 100 in fewer than two chapters. We never get a chance to see what life is like for the St. John family before the trouble begins, and that’s not a good thing.
Alfred Hitchcock is famous for explaining the difference between a surprise and suspense. Surprise is when a bomb goes off under a table in the middle of a scene. Suspense is when the audience knows there is a bomb under the table and isn’t sure when it will detonate. In the Prologue to The Ritual, we see the St. John children, Kathy and Kevin, cannibalize a captured young woman. It’s a brutal scene, and an excellent way to tip readers off that something is not right™. But rather than forcing the reader to watch as an unsuspecting Diana discovers the horrible truth, Walters simply has Larry tell her in the following chapter. The Ritual is 218 pages of constantly exploding bombs.
Things quickly spiral out of control after Johnathan heads to the Yucatan. The children of the town, led by Kathy and Kevin, begin to hang around one of the creepy archaeologists who has stayed behind. Diana tries confronting her children several times about their mysterious disappearances, but they simply stare at her with dull eyes and refuse to fess up to their obviously sinister activities. And so the story goes around and around. Diana confronts the kids. Kids deny. Diana shares her fears with Sally. Sally says she understands. Diana confronts the creepy archeologist. The archeologist says a bunch of weird stuff about the second coming of two ancient Mexican gods. Diana goes back home . . . you get the idea.
The story comes to a head when Diana stumbles upon an archaic ritual on the beach. All the key players (who are still alive) are in attendance, including Kathy, Kevin, and the evil archeologist. Turns out that these gods aren’t looking to catch some waves. Instead, these malevolent deities are in need of a host for their devine seed. Yes, that’s right. These gods are looking to make a baby, and who could be a better mother than the supremely hot Diana?
The tagline for The Ritual is “A Novel of Sensual Horror.” I’m generally of the opinion that promotional text writers from the 80s over-indexed on words like “sensual.” In this case I think they were right, although not in the way you might expect. The story itself may end with a demonic possession orgy but it’s really Walter’s writing that’s overly focused on the sensual. The plot of The Ritual will likely fade in readers’ minds, but the author’s commitment to physical description will haunt them for days untold. Breasts get the most attention here, with descriptions of the appendage ranging from “quivering thickly” to “big, round, and firmly proud.” When Sally plays frisbee on the beach, Walters assures the reader that “All the proper female jiggles and bounces and swayings were taking place in half-naked profusion.” Even Johnathan doesn’t escape Walter’s purple prose, albeit with some notable differences to his female counterparts. “His blue eyes, sometimes dream-filled and at other times sharply brilliant, were like the eyes of those who live both deeply within their minds and in the outer responsibilities of society.
Uh, sure R.R., but what about his boobs?!
The Ritual really does deserve to be placed in a paperback horror hall of fame. Its strange pacing and irregular structure are an excellent example of just how desperate editors of the time were for new horror stories. It’s not a bad book, per se, but it’s clear that very little development time was devoted to taking Walters’ wild ideas and crafting them into the narrative they deserved to be. Equal parts outrageous and tedious, progressive and sexist, The Ritual is 80s horror fiction in its purest form.
Desperate for beach-themed horror? Try out Demon Fire . . . if you dare!