"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Saturday, October 23, 2021

The Possessors (1964) by John Christopher

     Blair's reply barely reached them through the glass. "I don't know who to trust, Mac." He was almost crying.

     "I know what you mean, Blair." Macready forced himself to sound convivial. "Trust's a tough thing to come by these days. Just trust in the Lord."

The Thing 

by Alan Dean Foster (1982)

One of the pleasures of T. E. D. Klein's story "The Events at Poroth Farm" (1972) and subsequent novel The Ceremonies (1984) is that the "hero" Jeremy Freirs places himself in the cosmic horror crosshairs when he retreats to a quiet place in the New Jersey wilds for a summer of reading Gothic literature. 

A useful reading list can be compiled from the books Jeremy fights with when not wrangling spiders and climbing trees to make "strange gestures and faces that no one could see."

Late in the novel:

....Still no rain. Read most of John Christopher's The Possessors. Pretty effective, drawing horror from the most fundamental question of human relations: How can we know that the person next to us is as human as we are? Then played a little game with myself for most of the evening, until I—

Later in the chapter:

....Afterward, he went to the living room and watched the cats at play; the four had moved inside this morning, away from the cold drizzle and the breeze. But the animals and their ceaseless quest for amusement now depressed him. A moving sock, the sound of a slither or scrape - anything seemed to excite them for a moment, then ultimately bore them. He, too, felt bored. Borrowing the radio and holding it under his shirt, he walked back to his room. He reopened The Possessors and came close to completing it, but soon his mind began to wander to all the books he hadn't yet read that summer, and the thought of them all so depressed and tired him that he laid aside the novel and turned on the radio. He found a New York news station, but though he listened for half an hour, there was once again no mention of the previous night's earthquake. We're too small to count out here, he decided. He felt abandoned. He switched to a local station, but it was the old religious bit. Maybe, though, they would give the news; weren't they required by law to do so every hour?

The Possessors (1964) begins in high Alpine cold and ends in flames. It strikes today's reader as quaint for sf/horror, filled with men squandering advantages in chess-style struggle while women go to make tea, distract the children, and retrieve hidden stores of gin for necessary daytime sedation.

[Jane Winchmore] decided to use the time remaining before lunch to write to Wendy Gabriel. Wendy was the only one of her old Oxfordshire neighbors with whom she had remained in touch, and even this link, she was well aware, had been kept in being by Wendy, not by her. She had scribbled a brief note, in reply to two long letters, mentioning the impending Swiss trip, and another fat letter had followed her out here. It was full of news about the people who had once rounded out her life, but whose doings now failed completely to interest her. Her first thought had been that a picture postcard would provide sufficient reply, but in the aftermath of her moments of self-criticism she decided to write a letter instead.

     Consciousness of virtue got her to the point of sitting down with pen and paper and writing the salutation, but could not take her much further. The bizarreness of what was taking place up here, she found, inhibited the telling of it. To say that one had been cut off by an avalanche would be easy enough, but to go on from that and recount the rest of it—a boy apparently dead, but resurrected, the mother gone mad and attacking her other son, the father apparently catching insanity from her, and the three of them wandering out somewhere in the mist-enshrouded snow—she felt irritated by the absurdity, the irrationality of it all. Letters to be successful required the ordinary, the undemanding; as life itself did. She put her pen down with a sigh of exasperation.

     Douglas, at this point, came in from the bar, and she turned to him with relief. The letter would keep, until it was all over and could be set down briefly and tidily, bracketed by the commonplace and, if possible, reduced to it. She greeted him lightheartedly before she noticed the tense, worried expression on his face. He said abruptly, "Have you seen Peter?"

     "Peter? No. Why?"

     "He seems to have gone missing."

This is an English thriller about a house under siege. But the tone is closer to Edgar Wallace or E. Phillips Oppenheim than Buchan or Household. The authorial voice is often passive, and in the opening chapter positively supine.

The novel's SF kernel has much in common with Campbell's "Who Goes There?" (1938) and Finney's 

The Body Snatchers (1955). Christopher's characters, however, are more emotionally reticent and circumspect, less prone to panic and hysteria. No dynamite, no pistols, no flame throwers: just a long gun, kerosene lamps, and a fuel oil furnace for mortal combat in defence of the human race.

Each character taken over by a possessor has been waylaid or ambushed by another already possessed. Only one is self-seduced into voluntarily succumbing. Since the novel takes place in and around a Swiss resort chalet and is populated by chalet proprietors, staff, and paying guests, there is a limited field for operations. This works to Christopher's advantage, as he is clearly at his best in small compass and when observing (in moderation) the Aristotelian unities. 

John Christopher (1922-2012) wrote a career-spanning series of soft SF and unsplattery horror novels. His "young adult" titles are tonally indistinguishable from titles aimed at the over-eighteen market. The Possessors, unlike earlier works by Campbell and Finney cited above, is strangely flaccid. In the end, Christopher suggests the possessors have found no foothold. The same fault befalls The Possessors itself.


23 October 2021

No comments:

Post a Comment