The Vessel is Adam Nevill’s eleventh novel and the third to be published by his own imprint Ritual Ltd. In keeping with those previous releases, the book features amazing cover art courtesy of Samuel Araya (with the hardback once again giving the image the prominence it deserves by omitting the title from the cover); a truly unsettling portrait of an old woman, rendered in the now familiar red and black palette which is a trademark feature of the Ritual covers.
The story concerns care worker Jess McMachen (no prizes for guessing from where that surname derives) starting a new job at the wonderfully named Nerthus House (an eminently Google-able name whose derivation will offer tantalising titbits about what is to come), situated in the village of Eadric - the outskirts of which provided the location of Adam’s previous novel Cunning Folk - there to look after the former vicarage’s resident, the elderly and disabled Flo Gardner.
Anyone who has watched Rose Glass’s hugely impressive directorial debut St Maud will find these opening scenes familiar, but once the scenario has been established, the stories which follow are very different. From the off, it’s obvious that there is something not quite right about Flo; wheelchair bound and virtually comatose, the arrival of Jess – and in particular her daughter Izzy – seems to bring about a reawakening in the old woman and with it the formation of a bond between her and Izzy.
Clues are subtly woven into the narrative to suggest Flo’s true nature. Small shrines, pagan in nature, are discovered by Jess scattered around the house and Flo invokes the name of Erce – an Anglo-Saxon earth goddess. When talking to Izzy Flo uses the wiccan phrases “merry meet” and “merry part” rather than a simple hello or goodbye.
In common with a number of Adam’s female characters, Jess has a troubled past in the shape of a violent ex, Tony. His re-entry into the new and better world Jess is trying to create for herself and Izzy acts as a catalyst for the action of the novel, setting into motion a terrifying sequence of events; ones which find a resonance in the dark history of Nerthus House.
We’re well and truly in folk horror territory here, in keeping with the previous two Ritual Ltd novel releases The Reddening and Cunning Folk and the feeling of dread at what must surely, inevitably happen mounts and mounts as the narrative progresses. There are echoes of Adam’s earlier novel House of Small Shadows here, with a young woman being drawn into, and under, the influence of a house’s elderly resident but whereas in that earlier book it’s Catherine, the protagonist, who is the victim of Edith Mason’s malevolence here it’s Jess’s daughter Izzy who falls under the spell (possibly literally) of Flo, with some kind of connection being made between the young girl and Flo’s own daughter Charlotte who died as a child.
The Vessel features all the genuine creepiness and disturbing imagery readers have come to expect from one of Adam’s novels and its narrative of folk horror, ritual and ancient gods marks it out as archetypal of his oeuvre. At the same time, however, it is very different indeed to his other books – that difference being the way in which the novel has been constructed and written. Like Cunning Folk which preceded it, The Vessel began life as a screenplay but whereas the former was adapted and added to in order to make it more novelesque, what we see and read in The Vessel is pretty much the film as it would play out on screen presented on the page.
Changes have been made of course, the book does not read as a screenplay with attributed dialogue interspersed with paragraphs of action direction but, compared to all of Adam’s novels, this is a slim volume indeed, clocking in at just under 150 pages. The reason for this brevity is that – because this is a representation of what would be seen on screen – all inner monologues and pages of introspection describing the protagonists’ inner thoughts and emotions have been stripped out. Any clues as to what the characters are feeling or thinking come solely from what is seen and heard by them.
It's a bold move, and one made possible by the author having full creative control over his work, something which allowed the “experimental” collection of short stories Wyrd and Other Derelictions, stories in which there were no characters at all. Wyrd worked brilliantly, (and I still believe that the format of the derelictions should be regarded as a new sub-genre), and it has to be said that The Vessel is equally successful in achieving what the author set out to do.
I have some reservations of course; one of the things I find most impressive in Adam’s writing is the tension he creates and then maintains (see The Ritual and No One Gets Out Alive in particular). Much of that tension arises from getting inside the characters’ heads of course, something which doesn’t happen here and, while there are scenes within The Vessel that create their own tension what we have here is a much faster paced read which rattles along from one chilling development to the next.
That said, the characters in The Vessel are far from cardboard cut-outs, simply there to progress the plot. They are all of them fully formed and Jess’s backstory is more than adequately explained. In true cinematic style, using visual clues, her current and past experience is summed up in a single line:
With fingers reddened by cleaning agents, she habitually worries an old scar that cuts her top lip and extends to her nose.
As succinctly as that, light is thrown on Jess’s relationship with her ex, Tony, giving an insight into his character even before we meet him, painting a picture of him in readers’ heads that manifests as unease whenever he appears.
There are a number of visual references to circles in the novel too; the window above the door of Nerthus House, hand gestures made by Flo, even the layout of the village of Eadric itself, all of which play into a notion of circularity, of wheels both literal and metaphorical slowly turning, of ends becoming beginnings – history repeating itself.
The cinematic style and form of the novel is reflected in its short chapters, each representing a scene in the film that would have been. As the book hurtles towards its climax there’s even rapid cutting between action in different locations within a scene. At one point, there’s even the literary equivalent of a jump scare, a sudden jolt of action and sound (yes, sound) that managed to startle me. I have to say that it’s a device I hate in films but I was certainly impressed by this one. There’s a nice use of bookending too, a sequence which opens the book closes it too, a fitting use of the technique given the motif of circularity which runs through the narrative.
I enjoyed The Vessel very much. It’s true that I missed languishing in the Nevillesque for an extended period of time (I polished it off in two sittings) but the skilful way the narrative has been constructed here is impossible not to admire. It’s refreshing to see an author refusing to rest on their laurels and try different things, especially when those efforts result in something as clever and entertaining as The Vessel.