REVIEW: The Vessel of Terror

You couldn’t pay me to go on a submarine.  There’s something inherently frightening about the deep sea, a location rife with dramatic potential that is still somewhat underutilised in fiction, some high-profile exceptions aside.  There are quite a few parallels with the more overt science-fiction of spaceships – the confined spaces, the clearly defined cast of the crew, the isolation, the presence of crushing death all around outside – but stories set in the dark waters of the abyss just seem less sexy, perhaps because it’s a destination more attainable and therefore more mundane.  Or perhaps because it just seems to feel more threatening – maybe it’s the psychological kneejerk response to, instead of soaring upwards to the heavens, sinking downwards to what lies below.  The Vessel of Terror is an original graphic novel from Markosia that takes that metaphor and runs with it, creating a masterful, genuinely frightening slice of horror fiction.

There is a set formula to these type of stories that works very well.  Establish your ship and your crew, entrench them in their remote location, and once they’re pushed down deeper and darker past the point of no return, subject them to threats, both exterior and interior, and escalate the tension of there.  Perhaps the finest example of this I’ve read in the comic medium is Sub-Mariner: The Depths, by writer Peter Milligan and artist Esad Ribic.  A Marvel Knights reimagining of the Prince Namor character against the backdrop of Victorian-style horror where the Sub-Mariner himself is barely seen, and even then mostly as a nightmarish shadow within the black depths, I’d rank the miniseries as an overlooked gem, and one of the best comics Marvel has published in years.  Upon beginning to read The Vessel of Terror, I was acutely aware of how difficult it would be for this book to follow that same formula and not suffer in comparison to Milligan and Ribic’s story.

It’s a good thing, then, that writer Magnus Aspli takes the story that abandons the formula and takes the story in a new and surprising direction, one that’s even more horrifying.

You see, this isn’t horror unfolding in a safely isolated deep sea abyss.  The research vessel Alesia is no deep-faring submarine, but rather a surface-sailing ship that finds itself docked once more at shore at a relatively early point in the script.  And thus the dynamic is altered: rather than watch our protagonist set out to face the horrors of the deep, the horrors of the deep are brought up to meet us on our doorstep.  What follows is not the typical man VS monster smackdown the early arrival of the giant squid might have you believe, but a much scarier psychological onslaught, a terror of the mind, as our central cast are plagued with bloodcurdling visions and begin to lose their grip on sanity.

Aspli does a good job of building up a varied cast of characters well-defined and vulnerable enough for us to form an emotional attachment to before we watch them go bonkers and/or die horribly.  Of particular emotional resonance is the relationship between young Jonas and his grandfather Mikael, a story which initially seems quite disconnected from the unfolding drama on the ship, but comes more centrally into play as the narrative progresses.  But beyond the present-day narrative, Aspli gets to flex some different writing muscles with a parallel narrative set in 1349, with a diary entry style of narration which recalls Victorian horror and the works of H.P. Lovecraft. This subplot adds a new dimension to what is going on in the present, painting the squid creature as a demonic, even Satanic force that is all the more frightening for not being clearly defined.

The whole story is brilliantly paced, with a steady escalation of dread in the narratives of both past and present, culminating in a horrifying finale for each.  Aspli’s mastery of pacing goes beyond narrative structure, though, right down to the way his pages are laid out.  The shocks and nasty apparitions that jump out at characters are framed around page turns so as to make them genuinely come out of nowhere and shock us too as readers, while in many a tense set-piece Aspli has an acute understanding of when to not say anything and let the artist do the talking.

Which is as good a point as any to transition into praising the stellar work of artist Dave Acosta.  From the very first page – a skillful zoom-in on the base of the ship from the sea below, a squid-POV shot that visualises the aforementioned “horrors of the deep coming to meet us on the surface” metaphor – Acosta demonstrates an atmospheric, cinematic style, ably supported by the luminous coloring of Jeremy P. Roberts and Goran Kostadinoski.  Apparently, Roberts colored up to page 22, and Kostadinoski colored the rest of the book, but it’s a credit to the synchronicity of the pair that the transition felt utterly seamless.

But it’s as the story progresses that we really get to see Acosta strut his stuff, going beyond the cinematic into the realm of the surreal.  At various key moments, Acosta is called upon to deliver images that are haunting, gruesome and ethereal, sometimes all three at once.  And he more than rises to the occasion, crafting tableaus so powerful and potentially iconic that are already seared into my mind’s eye.  Even with simple touches like the recurring close-up of the squid’s soulless black eye, a sense of dread is effectively conveyed.  Acosta’s dark imagination seems like the perfect match for horror, and I’m already excited to see what other nightmares he can bring to life in the genre.

I read a lot of independent, creator-owned books for review purposes, and while I typically enjoy what I read, it is easy to fall into a sense of dutiful routine – gotta open up another PDF so I can write a review for this week.  But when treated to a comic like The Vessel of Terror, it reminds me of why I’m passionate about doing my little bit to showcase quality creator-owned comics.  The Vessel of Terror is a fantastic graphic novel, with what deserve to be starmaking turns from both Magnus Aspli and David Acosta, and when it’s released in October, you should definitely do what you can to get your hands on it.

The Vessel of Terror is now available for pre-order from Markosia’s official website.

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