'A watcher may remark that after sleeping for so long, the building appears to have been roused.'
Once again, as is now becoming traditional, Halloween has brought us a brand new book from Adam LG Nevill. The Vessel is his eleventh novel and once again has been published by his own imprint Ritual Limited as a limited edition hardback, paperback and electronic editions, and there will be an audiobook coming very soon.
Like its predecessors - The Reddening, Wyrd and Other Derelictions, and Cunning Folk - The Vessel features another strikingly eerie cover from the brilliant Samuel Araya. Now sad to say we have been living through something of a dark age in book cover design, with lazy photoshopping and big fonts replacing the glorious painted covers of yesteryear. However this run of covers for Nevill’s recent works have been a fabulous return to truly evocative art, and Araya’s cover The Vessel is something of a masterpiece. It’s a textbook example of what good art should do for a book - it provides a visual first tantalising taste of the story, a single image to beguile your imagination, to set you wondering what intriguing tale the pages hold.
Of course the joy of a new Adam Nevill book is that you are never entirely certain what courses will be served up in this latest banquet for the damned. He has never been content to plough the same furrow, something amply demonstrated by his latest three novels, which all can be described “folk horror” and yet are very different tales of terror. The Reddening gave us a gruelling epic with multiple narrators falling into the shadow of a very ancient and bloody menace, while last year’s Cunning Folk, drew on different aspects of old English magic and witchery. And where The Reddening gave us a tense tale of survival horror, Cunning Folk was a more intimate story of creeping dread and liberally laced with some potent black humour.
And now we have The Vessel, which can also be described as contemporary folk horror, but gives us something very different again. As is deftly suggested by Sam Araya’s cover, this is a more spectral sort of tale. Young single mother Jess is having a hard time, stuck in a grotty area, struggling to make ends meet, her ex Tony being more of a hindrance than a help, and her daughter Izzy is being bullied in school. However a new job as a residential carer promises to be the long sought solution - steady work and enough money to move to a better area, send Izzy to a better school, and to put the troubles of the last few years behind them. The job in question is doing shifts caring for an elderly lady, Flo who lives alone in a once grand vicarage, Nerthus House. Flo is wheelchair-bound and seemingly lost in a world of her own. However as Jess will discover, Nerthus House holds many secrets and its past is not going to lie quiet…
Naturally this being a Nevill novel, this is no straight-forward tale of spooks and spectres. For while there are seemingly paranormal happenings and even apparitions, this is as much a story about the spirits of a place as it is the lost souls of the dead. Without giving about any spoilers, a good point of reference would be the eerie tales of Algernon Blackwood where the essence of landscape and location loom large, becoming potent and sentient, spectral and ethereal. Likewise there are touches of Arthur Machen here, where what is manifesting is not so much a returning spirit but a survival of something from an ancient pagan past.
However The Vessel is no modern pastiche of either Blackwood or Machen, and as in his previous forays into folk horror, Nevill very much brings his own distinctive and imaginative vision to the tale. Refreshingly this is not the usual story of a city dweller venturing into the countryside and coming face to face with chanting pagans re-enacting The Wicker Man. Rather when Jess takes the job caring for Flo at Nerthus House, what follows is a carefully constructed series of odd incidents creating an atmosphere of encroaching weirdness, and slowly weave together a story of some strange and troubling survivals.
And survival is a key theme in The Vessel. Obviously there is the central menace, which I won’t reveal, but suffice to say it is something from an ancient time of forgotten rites and primitive worship, that has lingered into the modern age. However there are also other survivals too, the strange figures and images conjured up the gloom in Nerthus House, what MR James’ Mr Abney would term “the psychic portion of the subjects”. Likewise Nerthus House and the sleepy village of Eadric still endure too, despite new developments and modern estates getting ever nearer, and the halcyon days of the village seemingly being long past now.
On another level, it is also the story of more personal survivals. We have Flo’s situation, infirm, nearly immobile, and perhaps lost to dementia, yet still surviving all these indignities that time can inflict upon us. In contrast this old lady at the end of the days, we have young Izzy who is just beginning hers, but she has trials and tribulations too - she's a child still learning about the world but also having to come to terms with separated parents and facing bullying at her school.
And then of course there are various survival challenges for Jess. For as ever in an Adam Nevill excursion into dread, the weirdness and supernaturalism are firmly wedded to the real world. For despite being troubled by the strange events that begin to escalate around her, she can’t afford to quit this job. As it is she is struggling to get through the aftermath of her relationship with Tony collapsing. But then as she starts her new job, there are odd incidents, and haunting dreams, and a client who is apparently active in a most unusual fashion. All of this is indeed very disconcerting and increasingly troubling, but also looming over her is the threat of being unable to provide for her family, to pay the bills, to keep her daughter safe; things that may prove to be larger and more immediate perils. The twin spectres of poverty and failure can more than give the horrors haunting Nerthus House a run for their money.
However as I have mentioned nothing is to be taken for granted in an Adam Nevill novel. For, as is often the case, this tale has one particular moment, when we get what I have in the past called the Nevill swerve. This is a scene that will radically alter the expected shape of the tale he is telling. For time and time again, he deftly manages to anticipate where the reader thinks the story is going, and then, at just the right moment, will throw in something that changes the course of the narrative. And the swerve in The Vessel is a belter, a scene that is genuinely shocking and seems to come out of the blue, although on reflection you will realise the path to getting to this stunning moment was carefully laid out right from the beginning, and you have been expertly guided to this pivotal moment.
But what follows this particular scene is equally surprising, building logically to the story’s memorable conclusion. Now in many ways The Vessel is a very compact tale but it is also a masterclass in storytelling. For while the storyline might seem simple at first, there are subtle complexities here, connections that only become apparent after a little reflection. Certainly it is a novel that will reveal deeper secrets on a second reading. And while the tale concludes in a very satisfying final scene, with various plot threads all neatly coming together in ways one may not have anticipated, there is a kind of transcendence in the finale, with awe joining the horror.
And there are ambiguities here about the nature of the powers lingering around Nerthus House, for like the ancient mysteries called up in the works of Blackwood and Machen, what may seem terrifying and otherworldly may not be not necessarily evil, and indeed where and how we draw lines of morality when assessing the haunting events of The Vessel are questions that will linger with many readers. The Vessel is a tale of surviving practices and powers that reveals far more than the usual elderly gods and monsters stalking the fields and furrows. Rather it is a story concerning how, and indeed why, some things are not forgotten. It’s a tale that embodies some truly ancient pagan ideas, that events fall in patterns, often becoming cyclical, coming around again and again like the seasons. And the turn of this wheel shapes both the present and the future. This is folk horror with imagination, intelligence and heart, and highly recommended.
Plus for more coverage of the works of Adam LG Nevill check out my podcast series on his books