After an absurdly long fallow period, literary horror is showing signs of a return to commercial success and cultural visibility.
As you might expect of a cultural milieu that is only just starting to re-imagine itself as a thriving creative community, critics and literary historians have looked back to by-gone eras of commercial success in search of insights into what went right and what went wrong. For example, see Grady Hendrix’s Paperback from Hell for a wonderful overview of the publishing industry’s increasingly desperate and doomed attempts to ride on the coat-tails of Stephen King.
As wonderful and satisfying as this narrative may be, it is worth bearing in mind that there have been a number of failed attempts to re-ignite popular interest in horror literature and most of them ended in failure. Multiple generations have discovered and re-discovered King’s work but the industry has always struggled to find a second or third author towards whom King’s readers might be channelled.
About fifteen years ago, Adam Nevill (a.k.a. Adam L.G. Nevill) was the next big thing in literary horror. It turns out that fifteen years is a long time.
Back in the 2000s, many giants in the field saw their finest works released in small, expensive, and hard-to-come-by editions put out by small presses, while Nevill’s work was being released by Pan with a full-court media press. Awards followed, and so did cinematic adaptations but while Nevill undoubtedly retained his visibility within British horror, he seemed to struggle with American readers and never quite managed to escape the genre and connect with mainstream audiences.
Clearly, someone at Pan believed that Adam Nevill was worthy of investment and while I am in no position to determine whether or not that investment paid off, I think it is interesting to note that 2019 saw Nevill drop out of contract and start self-publishing. It is also interesting that this happened around the time when literary horror’s commercial stars were starting to align and it’s definitely interesting that none of Nevill’s self-published novels have been picked-up and re-issued by mainstream or even small-press publishers.
As someone who has been dipping in and out of Nevill’s work since the publication of his first novel Banquet for the Damned, I am not all that surprised by his failure to escape the genre ghetto:
Firstly, his novels tend to be rooted in social realism and aspects of English life that American genre readers have historically refused to tolerate. Non-American readers have spent decades suffering through Stephen King’s eerie obsession with 1950s small-town New England but ask an American to read a novel set in Birmingham and they’ll act as though the contents of the book were smeared in human shit on the walls of a Victorian insane asylum.
Secondly, Adam Nevill has always struggled with endings. His best-known novel The Ritual won a Derleth Award for Best Novel and was adapted into a moderately-successful horror film but while the story of a load of old friends getting lost on a hiking holiday absolutely explodes out of the gate with loads of atmosphere, characterisation and some really memorable set-pieces, it changes both tone and subject matter about two thirds of the way through. This problem recurs in No One Gets Out Alive, a novel about an impoverished middle-class girl living in a haunted house in a shitty part of Birmingham that suddenly becomes a novel about a wealthy author dealing with a haunting in her palatial country mansion. It’s not that the stories are poorly-written on a sentence-by-sentence level or that Nevill runs out of ideas… it’s just that he has a weird tendency to produce stories that collapse at the end of the second act, forcing him to graft a more-or-less unrelated short story onto the spine of the novel in an effort to pad his manuscripts out to the kinds of lengths expected of conventional novels.
Despite being his shortest novel to date, The Vessel shows that Adam Nevill is still struggling with endings. Despite being only 170-pages long, the narrative of The Vessel comes apart about two-thirds of the way through and suddenly becomes a very different novel, which is a real shame as both stories are intriguing and well-realised when considered in isolation.
The novel opens with Jess McMachen struggling to keep her head above water: On the one hand, Jess’ daughter is being viciously bullied at school and the school expects Jess to drop everything and collect her daughter every time she gets into a scuffle. On the other hand, Jess is not in full-time employment meaning that she is living from shift-to-shift with very little margin for error. If Jess prioritises her employment, then her daughter will suffer. If Jess prioritises caring for her daughter, then she will not be able to work and so her daughter will suffer. To make matters worse, Jess’ estranged husband has recently re-surfaced and his desperation to get ‘his family’ back is putting severe strain on Jess’ relationship with a daughter who misses her dad and doesn’t understand why he doesn’t live with them anymore. This feels very much like a Catch-22 and it’s this kind of social realism that keeps me coming back to Nevill’s writing. Where a lot of horror writers reach for genre tools to do all of their affective lifting, Nevill’s best work is rooted in fears that are both tangible and realistic.
Desperate for any kind of steady income, Jess agrees to work for a private nursing company that appears to only have a single client. This client, now lost to dementia, lives in a decaying vicarage where she demands round-the-clock care. While there is a ‘night-carer’ in place, the woman seems completely checked-out meaning that Jess is forced not only to contend with a dark, jumbled, and decaying house but also a patient with secrets of her own. This part of the set-up is just as well-grounded as the emotional dynamics around Jess and it reminded me quite a bit of Nevill’s earlier novel House of Small Shadows in that both deal with dementia, aging, and the way that old age often finds people mired in the detritus of their former lives. The atmosphere is stuffy, claustrophobic and menacing.
The first act is dominated by Jess trying to balance the demands of her job as a carer with the demands of her position as a mother as well as the myriad complications thrown into the mix by the presence of the ex-husband, the daughter’s problems at school, and the challenges of working as a carer when the company that employs you refuses to give you adequate support. This aspect of the book is also really well-grounded as Jess’ appeals to her co-worker are met with resentful scorn while any appeals to the boss are met with threats and high-handed finger-wagging about how she should be jolly grateful to have a job in the first place.
Adding to this already troublesome situation is the fact that Jess’ client, an elderly woman named Florence, is not just demented but violent, abusive and unpredictable. However, despite Florence’s unrelenting savagery, Jess finds herself taking an interest in the old woman and starts trying to unravel her personal history: Does she have any other family? What happened to her children? Who established the baseline conditions for her care?
Jess’ curiosity about Florence is rooted in the fact that Jess comes across as a woman who is deeply caring and desperate to do the right thing. She tries again and again to make a connection with Florence only to be met with violence until her precarious home-life forces her to bring her daughter with her to work and while Jess struggles to make a connection with Florence, the daughter makes one right away.
It’s at this point that you can feel the novel starting to slip through Nevill’s fingers as there’s no real basis for Jess’ interest in Florence beyond economic necessity and while Florence’s connection with the daughter is well-rendered and nicely creepy, I suspect most people in Jess’ position would take it as a reason to look for another job rather than a reason for becoming more engaged with the shitty, abusive job they have. Also problematic is the way that the ex-husband seems to goes from meddlesome ex to violent psychopath at the drop of the hat and this forces Jess to transform from a cowering victim to an angry lioness just as quickly.
When I say that The Vessel feels like two short stories forced together, I mean that the opening of this novel feels like a character-driven study of emotional and economic precarity while the back end of the novel feels like a short story about a suburban witches’ coven. Both short stories work quite well and the details on both are really well-rendered but the connection between the front-half of the novel and the back-half of the novel is completely mishandled.
Clearly, the narrative component responsible for handling the transition from the first half to the second half of the novel is the break-down in Jess’ relationship with her ex-husband and how the impossibility of reconciliation turns the ex-husband nasty. Had The Vessel been a longer novel written by another author, you can imagine this section of the novel being both intensely psychological and conspiratorial as Jess’ sanity would start to fray and the witches would start seeing her as a source of renewal whose actions and fate might be worthy of investment. The problem is that this section of the novel has not been written: On one page, Jess’ is biting her tongue and refusing to stand up to her boss, then she’s murdering her ex-husband with a poker. There’s no psychology here: No narrative arc, no character development, and no dramatic weight. It’s just that the part of the novel where Jess needs to be a cowering victim ends and the part of the novel where Jess needs to be a ruthless supernatural agent begins.
The lack of connection is also evident from the way that the front-half of the novel makes a number of references to fairies and plays with such fairy-adjacent ideas as fugue-states and disappearing children. Meanwhile, the second-half of the novel suggests that all of Jess’ hardships might have been part of some initiation process but that is simply not present in the first half of the novel: There’s no real character progression or even a sense that her fate was being manipulated to put her on a collision course with the coven. Simply stated, the first half of the novel does not connect dramatically with the second half while the second half is completely unmoored from the first half.
The Vessel is a short novel that is well-written on a sentence-by-sentence basis, it is socially-grounded, intermittently creepy, and has some really powerful imagery. The individual elements are all strong but the connections between those elements are weak, under-developed, or outright bungled. Having finished The Vessel, I would love to know more about Jess’ psychological journey and the workings of the coven but neither of those things is in this book and so I am left both disappointed and frustrated.
I find it sad that Nevill is evidently struggling with the same technical problems that weakened his early novels. It is also sad that these technical problems have persisted despite him choosing to start publishing his own work as it means that there is most likely nobody in his creative life with the power to compel him to confront those problems and become the author he deserves to be.