This is a non-spoiler review because I’d never ruin an Adam Nevill book for anyone.
Struggling with money, raising a child alone and fleeing a volatile ex, Jess McMachen accepts a job caring for an elderly patient. Flo Gardner—a disturbed shut-in and invalid. But if Jess can hold this job down, she and her daughter, Izzy, can begin a new life.
Flo’s vast home, Nerthus House, may resemble a stately vicarage in an idyllic village, but the labyrinthine interior is a dark, cluttered warren filled with pagan artefacts.
And Nerthus House lives in the shadow of a malevolent secret. A sinister enigma determined to reveal itself to Jess and to drive her to the end of her tether. Not only is she stricken by the malign manipulation of the Vicarage’s bleak past, but mercurial Flo is soon casting a baleful influence over young Izzy. What appeared to be a routine job soon becomes a battle for Jess’s sanity and the control of her child.
It’s as if an ancient ritual was triggered when Jess crossed the threshold of the vicarage. A rite leading her and Izzy to a terrifying critical mass, where all will be lost or saved.
Oh my Dark Lord, this book. THIS BOOK, YOU GUYS! According to Nevill’s newsletter, there are very few copies of the hardcover left, and if I were you, I’d go right to his website and get one before they’re all sold out!
Goddamn, I’m excited to talk about THE VESSEL. As per usual with Nevill’s work, I read this in one sitting, and let me tell you, it was a joyous reading experience.
Earlier this year, I said that Cunning Folk was probably the best thing he’d ever written. It was not only my favourite book of the year so far, but the best book I’d read in years (and I’ve read some amazing books). I really REALLY love Cunning Folk. So imagine my delight, my ecstatic joy, my elation, when I realised that THE VESSEL has blown Cunning Folk out of the water. It has not only been topped, but absolutely smashed by THE VESSEL – and that’s not to take anything away from my former favourite, it’s not any less amazing. I just simply cannot believe that I’ve read something else that has impressed me this much, and from the same author, no less. This is a particularly great year for Adam Nevill stories.
The cover, as usual, is both gorgeous and creepy. I’m not sure how the cover design process goes between author and artist, but Samuel Araya is a master at perfectly capturing the feel of Nevill’s stories.
Nevill’s writing is beautiful, his setting descriptions unmatched, and he establishes tone and terror with an exquisite level of skill. It’s about a third the length of his usual novels, and the approach he took in writing this story was a gamble that paid off in the best ways.
In the afterword, Nevill talks about writing this as a screenplay first, without the benefit of each character’s inner monologue, and then applying the same principle to novelising the story (I’m paraphrasing and grossly oversimplifying). As a character-centric reader, my favourite thing is usually the inner monologue, but I think I was almost at the end before I even realised that Nevill hadn’t utilised it. Instead, he utilises the “show, don’t tell” rule – in fact, in abandoning the method of telling the story through the thoughts of the protagonist, he HAD to. The result of this approach made for some truly gripping, satisfying, and wonderful reading.
The character introductions are perfect. Our protagonist, Jess, has a difficult relationship with her ex-husband. The first time we meet him, we are hit with a surprisingly vivid idea of why, without being told a single thing about him, their marriage, or why it ended. We are just told her reaction to his presence, and that’s enough to open up a picture of what went on between them. And each character is introduced this way: through their own actions and dialogue, and the reactions of those around them, Nevill creates backstories and opens up the world of this story and everyone in it without going into their histories. It is honestly masterful how much detail he feeds us about these people without actually telling us anything. The book itself might be short, but the story is vast.
Speaking of the story, please indulge me while I rave about it. This, for me, is the scariest thing Nevill has written. There are scenes in which the imagery is so creepy that I was frightened out of my lamp-lit reading nook. I went downstairs to read under the harsh lights of the living room instead, where I could hear my partner shooting up zombies with his friends on his PS5. You know, for some comforting background noise. Still had nightmares though – which is always what I seek but rarely get from a horror novel.
THE VESSEL somehow simultaneously takes its time to build, and benefits from quick pacing. The chapters are short and always leave you dying to get to the next one. The main story – Jess’s caregiving relationship with the elderly Flo, and the mystery of what the hell is going on inside her house, is an intriguing nightmare, complimented by the “B” plot of Jess’s own familial issues. The way it all draws to a close surprised me, despite the fact that I’m one of those annoying readers who scrutinises everything in a bid to predict the ending. And what a thoroughly satisfying ending.
I’ve tried to be concise with my thoughts, lest I ramble forever. Since I don’t have Nevill’s writing talent, I don’t have the words to sufficiently explain just how impressed I am by his latest offering. I’ve just never loved a horror novel like I love this one, or been this jealous of a writer’s talent.
Nevill never disappoints, but always impresses. Something I really admire about his work is the way that he continues to go out of his way to learn and develop his skills, take chances, and experiment with writing techniques. His “usual” style is plenty good enough, but instead of falling back on what would be an understandable “if it aint broke, don’t fix it” attitude, he’s brave enough to take risks and deviate wildly in order to offer us something different (case in point, his mindblowing short story collection, Wyrd and Other Derelictions – it’s incredible). Gifted writers who don’t seem to know they’re gifted are wonderful to read, but gifted writers who work their asses off in a continuous bid to improve, despite their obvious, already-existing talents are my favourite.
At this point, I don’t think I need to bother telling you that I wholeheartedly recommend this book but yes, I wholeheartedly recommend this book. THE VESSEL is probably most appealing to you if you enjoy ritualistic, cult, and/or folk horror, underdog stories, dark mysteries, or the supernatural. If you’re already a Nevill fan, I think you’ll love this. If Nevill isn’t your usual bag, I’d still nudge you to give this one a try anyway. It’s wonderful, scary, spectacular story-telling.
If you’d like your own copy, you need to be quick if you want the special hardcover edition, which you can get here:
Otherwise, it will be available in paperback here:
If you’d like to check out Adam Nevill and his other works, and/or subscribe to his newsletter, you can find him on social media, and at his website here:
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