It’s 1989 and failed detective, Syl Dixon, has returned to her childhood home in Pate, Idaho, to sell the old place she grew up in, back before her Gran mysteriously disappeared. But when the shriveled corpse of a local man is discovered inside the old silver mine the town was built around, Syl is unexpectedly asked to help investigate. She’s reluctant, but something about the town has unnerved her from the start, and she can’t help but feel that her Gran’s disappearance is connected somehow. Once on the case, she soon learns that the mystery behind the man’s death goes deeper than the old mine where his corpse was found, and involves an evil that has plagued the town for nearly a century.
Steph Nelson’s novel, The Vein, is a formidable debut in the world of horror fiction. The small mining town of Pate, Idaho has long been plagued with inexplicable disappearances including that of Syl Dixion’s beloved Gran. With the passage of time, Syl returns to Pate not only to find a full household to clean out but also a confounding crime. Despite her recent failures as a detective, she begins assisting with the investigation alongside Sheriff Roger Mock. No part of Pate is untouched by these occurrences including Dawn and her mother, Esma, a woman who is seemingly off-kilter given her belief that she possesses “special gifts.” Alternating between numerous timelines and narratives, Nelson delivers a truly haunting, mysterious plot packed with chilling scares and unpredictable plot twists.
In an effort to keep things spoiler-free, this review may come off as slightly vague. However, one of my favorite things about this book is Syl. How I could list all the ways I love an emotionally messy, gritty, headstrong female lead. I honestly wanted more time with her and to dive a little deeper into her character. She doesn’t meet the typical societal image of a woman who was married with a child, and I would love to further explore her emotional turbulence. Can we get an X-Files-esque series following Syl around, finding the inexplicable and herself along the way?
While there is A LOT going on between the various timelines (spanning the years of 1901 to 1989) in addition to a wide cast of characters, this book presents a constant, unrelenting feeling of unease. Its busyness manages to not take away from the mounting feeling of dread that escalates throughout the novel. This is in part due to the secluded nature of Pate, a town that was once dedicated to the mining boom of days past. Much like this boom, neglect is ever-present. Unconventionally, nearly every residence displays photos of loved ones who have gone missing on the outside of their dwellings, a calling card for them to return home.
The creativity behind the menacing force in this book is truly impressive. It’s a seemingly unique, original execution on a well-traveled premise. Nelson capitalizes on the one wish every person who has lost someone dreams of coming true: what if they came back? She’s not afraid to explore uncomfortable topics, covering themes of religious trauma, abuse, and violence. The plot is well-paced with exposure to the past, fueling the possible solutions to problems in the present. The cyclical nature of the violence plaguing Pate is well explored through multiple characters’ personal trauma.
“How will I know it’s a threat?” Syl had asked back then.
“It won’t stay away. It’ll keep coming up and running round and round in your mind.”
Perhaps this is the most haunting aspect of this plot; nothing stays dead. Each character is forced to reckon with the actions of their past in some capacity to confront the evils they face now. This is a well-explored theme throughout works of horror, but there is a freshness to this story that just works. I was truly impressed by Steph Nelson given this is her debut novel, and I’m truly looking forward to reading more of her work. If you’re looking for small-town, atmospheric horror, The Vein is your next read.