The Possessors by John Christopher (1965) 222 p.
Well-written sci-fi potboilers by authors like John Christopher, John Wyndham or Stephen King are my literary comfort food. Sometimes you’ve had enough of multi-generational American family sagas or WWII-set Booker nominees. Sometimes you’re a bit overstuffed with beautiful prose that effortlessly reveals deep aspects of the human condition. Sometimes you just want to read an old paperback thriller about an isolated group of people facing an alien threat.
The Possessors is set in a British-run holiday chalet deep in the Swiss Alps, with an eclectic cast of characters (many with ~~Dark Pasts~~) gathered together for a few days of skiing. Naturally an avalanche cuts their valley off from the outside world, then one of the children appears to keel over dead, only for his body to vanish overnight, and then return, wandering in from the snow with a cold temperature and oddly flat and emotionless voice, etc. Before long his strange sickness appears to be spreading among the others, and those as yet unaffected realise they’re struggling against something alien and hostile. (I feel comfortable giving all of this away, since the prologue is told from the point of view of a dying parasitic alien race which releases spores through the galaxy, one of which lands on Earth.)
The Possessors naturally brings to mind the classic Carpenter movie The Thing, which of course came long after it, but was based on a short story by John Campbell from the 1930s. It also has touches of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And really, to a modern reader, it’s not going to seem all that different from thousands upon thousands of stories where a monster or monsters prey upon an isolated group of people, picking them off one by one. But who cares? Christopher knows how to write a compelling, engaging thriller that sucks you in and makes you miss your stop on the tram.
There are some odd aspects to the book; I welcome Christopher’s attempts at rounding out the characterisation (never a sci-fi writer’s strongest point) by switching the viewpoints between various characters and introducing us to their personal lives when they’re not on holiday, but it dragged a bit when the the group was still dwelling on their own messy dramas even as the threat becomes truly dire and the novel approaches its climax. And I may be something of a problem drinker myself, but I was gobsmacked that even as the group dwindles to a handful of people and is at the point of nailing up the doors and windows, they still drink enough to kill a herd of elephants – and in fact Christopher details precisely what everyone is drinking all the time, which made me wonder if he wrote this while trying to stay on the wagon. I also thought the characterisation of the Swiss house staff as ignorant peasants (Swiss, really!) was amusingly British.
Despite that, and despite an ending that’s possibly a bit too neat and quick, I enjoyed The Possessors a lot. Does what it says on the tin. I wouldn’t recommend people go out of their way to find a copy, but if you chance across it at a library or second-hand bookstore, by all means pick it up.