Book review: Vessels by Kealan Patrick Burke

Vessels is the last Timmy Quinn book that I will read, and also likely will be the last book I read from Kealan Patrick Burke. In a way, this bothers me because the first in the series, The Turtle Boy, was such a good introduction to the main character and his ability to give power to spirits thirsting for revenge. But the second book The Hides took some massive missteps for me, and Vessels doubles down on these problems while also making me aware of what’s truly missing from the series as a whole.

There’s no emotional investment in the characters. There never has been, but at least in the first book it was easy to miss because of how quickly the story unfolds. But with the second and third books, it becomes clear that far more attention is given to the locations than to any of the characters, Tim included. The writing is always good, but there’s loving attention to the details of the locales and homes that people inhabit, while the people themselves are so flat as to seem two dimensional.

Maybe I’m being unfair because these stories are all in a short novelette/novella format, but I still feel like these could have added a few more chapters to flesh out the characters, which would help build the mood and create some sense of dread. But after the first book, the sequels both have the exact same too fast plot. Tim goes somewhere to “get a fresh start,” and then bam, here’s a ghost. The only difference is that in the second outing, Tim’s parents forced this decision on him, and in the third, he’s making this choice on his own. I think this third story says Tim arrived a couple weeks back, but it skips the little bit of quiet time that could have been used for character development and moves right into the same haunting routine.

Tim has now grown to be a middle-aged man who rather than coming to terms with his abilities is still looking in vain for a place where no one has ever been murdered. This is a lost cause, really. The only way finding such a sanctuary would be possible is to journey to a place where humans have never been before and to live alone forever. Instead, Tim has opted to go to a remote island, and the story leaves no breathing room to get to know the locals before Tim is once again encountering angry ghosts.

The big question that had hung over the first two books is finally answered here, but not in any satisfactory way. It’s just touched on for a very brief passage, and then it’s dropped to move on to the next move to a “clean start.” There should be more to this moment, to Tim coming to terms with this thing that’s supposedly been hanging over his relationship with his father for years. But the whole thing boils down to a few quick lines of dialogue, and then it’s forgotten.

Another thing driving me bonkers is how Tim has absolutely no life to mention between these books. At one point a cop takes out Tim’s files to read about his past cases, but it’s only the events from books one and two in an extremely condensed form. This makes no sense. Tim’s supposedly famous for his abilities, and yet the only examples the cop can give from his past are the two we’ve already seen. Like, nothing else has happened to him in the last fifteen years? If that’s the case, why would he have spent so much time looking for sanctuary? No, of course something else happened, but building a backstory doesn’t seem important.

There’s a reunion with a previously mentioned character, and I felt nothing about this precisely because they were a name drop in the last book at best. So they’ve barely shown up when “Oh noes, they’re in danger from the ghost.” Why? It’s supposedly part of the plots that the ghosts only show up to get revenge on people who’ve wronged them. But this ghost is different. Why? Oh, “The rules are changing.” Why? Nah, don’t bother explaining this mess, let’s just go to another action scene.

This is the problem with all the characters. Here’s a name, and this is what they look like, and let’s move on to the “good bits.” When the shit hits the fan, as it is obviously meant to do, I feel nothing for any of these people. In this way, each of these books has taken on the feel of a lazy puppet show. The backdrops have been painted with exquisite care, laced with intricate props, and lit with great attention to every little shadow thrown. But for some reason the producer opted to use sock puppets with faces drawn in black fabric marker. It robs the story of any emotion or sense of urgency.

It doesn’t help that the ghost calling on Tim actually deserved their death. But as I said, in all this time, Tim’s never bothered learning anything about his abilities, so he’s always at the mercy of the ghosts. He’s a pinball, pinging off of ghosts and rolling away to strike another. He makes a bullshit speech about being an instrument of justice, but the ghost he’s enabling is–no shit, seriously–a child molesting cannibal murderer. The only way this dude could seem more evil is with a Hitler moustache or by rubbing his hands together and practicing a muah-haha kind of laugh. But so what? The people who had a legitimate reason for killing him are cast as a bunch of backwater assholes, the ghost is unleashed, and then it attacks Timmy. Why? Fucked I know.

I think the big reveal of this book was supposed to make me scramble to read the next in the series, Peregrine’s Tale, but instead, it made me debate giving up even though I was almost done. Of course what’s happening in this series isn’t some natural phenomena. It’s all being conveniently manufactured by someone else, and Timmy is just a reactive pawn in their plans. Despite having close to two decades of experience with these encounters, Tim is still just so helpless that his only alternative is to go seek out the source of these hauntings and…do what? Blubber and plead for mercy? I can’t imagine him doing anything remotely proactive at this point.

And…I don’t care to find out what he does next. I’ve never been given a chance to connect to Tim or to any of the people in this series, so the most vivid descriptions of attacking ghosts isn’t going to evoke an emotion in me. It’s an elaborately painted monster attacking a sock. I’ve read much better horror quite recently, and what made those stories effective at scaring or horrifying me was an established connection to the people being harmed. I have so little connection to these people that it becomes a farce, much like a familiar scene in Attack of the Killer Tomatoes:

“There’s a giant tomato.”
“I didn’t knew they grew so big.”
“I wonder where it’s going…they got little Timmy.”
“Poor Timmy.”
“They e’t him all up.”

And that’s about how I feel reading the “scariest” moments of this book. Oh, the ghost done attacked Timmy Quinn…poor Timmy.

I give Vessels 2 stars, and I’d only very tepidly recommend it to folks looking for something to read after finishing the latest Odd Thomas book or looking for something as a slightly scarier alternative to The Ghost Whisperer.