The Vessel opens with protagonist Jess McMachen in a desperate situation. Having separated from her violent husband, she supports herself on meager wages earned weekly as a caregiver for the elderly. Her primary school-aged daughter Izzy is mercilessly bullied by her classmates, but Jess’ irregular work schedule prevents her from being as available for her daughter as she would like. Her ex-husband is also constantly lurking around the periphery, paying surprise visits to their daughter that violate the terms of their divorce agreement. A new job opportunity offers a chance to escape this tenuous situation, however. If Jess can stick with it, avoiding a repeat of the vaguely hinted-at disaster that spoiled her previous posting, she could earn enough to move into a new house in the countryside, far from her ex-husband, where her daughter can play outside and get a fresh start at a new school.
Upon accepting the new job, however, the situation quickly goes from bad to worse. Her client, Flo Gardner, is in the late stages of dementia. She lives in Nerthus House, a once beautiful mansion that (mirroring its owner) has deteriorated over the decades, dimmed by unreplaced burnt-out light bulbs and crammed with a lifetime of clutter. Jess soon discovers that—during those fleeting moments when Flo isn’t completely catatonic—she’s verbally abusive without provocation and unpredictably violent. Flo also proves surprisingly mobile for a supposedly frail wheelchair user, appearing in unexpected places in the dead of night. Jess keeps discovering strange shrines in neglected corners of the house. Birds act strangely in the surrounding woods, and ominous shapes move in the overgrown garden at night. There is a sense that both Nerthus House and its resident are awaiting something. The eerie events Jess experiences escalate even further when, after her babysitting arrangements fall through, she finds herself with no choice but to bring her daughter into Nerthus House and into contact with Flo.
Much like Nevill’s The Ritual and No One Gets Out Alive, The Vessel deals with an isolated protagonist trapped in a simultaneously miserable and threatening predicament. “Why don’t they just leave?” is a question that horror writers and filmmakers frequently have to grapple with, and Nevill always has a ready and convincing response. He combines empathetic character portrayals with a singularly claustrophobic atmosphere, effectively immersing the reader in his beleaguered protagonists’ shoes.
Apart from its sudden and intense finale, The Vessel is more about inevitability than surprises. Rather than blindside the reader with twists and unexpected reveals, the events of the story seem to follow an inexorable, perhaps even preordained sequence. The reader is kept one step ahead of Jess throughout the story, enhancing the feel of dread.
Only slightly longer than a novella, The Vessel is a short novel intended by the author to be read in one or two sittings. While I appreciated that it wasted no time getting to the exciting supernatural bits, it also felt like the novel would have been perhaps even more effective with some more meat on its bones, so to speak. In the book’s enlightening back matter, Nevill reveals that the narrative’s leanness and almost stage-like presentation were an intentional experiment on his part. Ultimately, whether that experiment was successful will depend on the perspective of each individual reader, and I will refrain from spoiling Nevill’s stated goal for the book.
The Vessel is a taut little exercise in folk horror. Reader’s familiar with Nevill’s other work will find his strengths on display, and newcomers with a taste for folk horror in the tradition of Arthur Machen (slyly referenced in Nevill’s heroine’s surname: McMachen) and The Wicker Man are sure to enjoy this tale. The old gods of Britain may have faded from sight, but that doesn’t mean they have disappeared.