by John Christopher.
Sphere Books 1978 (1965)
The Possessors had a long memory, but not long enough to encompass their origins.
With this opening sentence Sam Youd, writing as John Christopher, establishes that this is speculative fiction. But for all its SF credentials, The Possessors is grounded in human relationships and idiosyncrasies, exposing how a disparate group of individuals isolated in a skiing chalet cope with personal demons and with each other when the chips are down.
With its setting in the Swiss Alps near the fictional village of Nidenhaut we are at times reminded of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; but when an avalanche cuts the chalet off from the village the group quickly have to develop a siege mentality as, one by one, the residents start to become other, forming a threat to those left and, ultimately, humankind. Are they changed because of a physical trauma, a psychological weakness, an unknown virus or, as the two locals fear, possession by devils?
Make no mistake, the author is misdirecting us with the title, for this novel is not really about the Possessors: it’s about the possessed.
The prologue informs us that the spore of an alien species has been lying dormant, buried in the ice and snow of the Swiss Alps for untold ages until an avalanche brought it to the surface in 1965, ready to parasitise any sentient being which came into contact with it. From then on it would be free to continue infecting that species, assuming control of its hosts so that they’d perform the collective will of the parasites.
In successive chapters we then follow the point of view of most of the nine individuals from England, along with the English couple who own the chalet; two locals, Peter and Marie, perform most of the menial tasks though we don’t get to get into their minds as we do the others. As each individual succumbs to the alien parasite and rescue from outside is delayed by inaccessibility and bad weather, anxieties rise, tempers fray, and personalities are exposed in all their vulnerabilities. Pretty soon we learn what possesses each of the party, whether it’s a sense of loneliness, unrequited love, a roving eye, or an addiction to alcohol, for instance; and that’s before we get to alien possession, a realisation that slowly dawns on those who are left as their numbers steadily reduce and they consider what has really transpired.
This is an effective novel on so many levels. It maintains the suspense of whether any of the party survive right through to the end, a tension ably choreographed though each chapter. It also throws a light on its times in terms of social expectations and habits: a still rigid gender divide in terms of roles, for example, where the men have status (one is an ex-officer in the RAF, another a plastic surgeon, plus a solicitor and an industrialist) and the women don’t (reduced to office work, or being a widow, a wife, a mother). The amount of drinking, both social and secret, where certain individuals are concerned is shocking to me but, for all I know, may well have then been par for the course. All in all though, I felt some sympathy for most of the group, at least those of the thirteen whose points of view we share; flawed and damaged some of them are, disappointed in love, miserable because they’re missing siblings or deceased partners or children abandoned abroad, aggressively blustering at perceived social disparity, or prey to more dominant personalities.
The Possessors is set in the Alps, which also happened to feature in the author’s famous Tripods novels, such as The White Mountains. In addition it is the setting for parts of Frankenstein, a novel in which new life is created from the bodies where life had been previously extinguished. I’ve no doubt that the unstated parallel with Mary Shelley’s novel is intended: as with the Creature, Christopher’s symbiotic entities seek out other humans to contact, lurk outside human habitations, aim to create others of their kind, and find extremes of cold no barrier to existence.
I don’t think that we’re meant to identify the views expressed by any of the characters in this novel with the author’s own—he was much too subtle and sensitive a writer for that—but he does accurately reflect many of the attitudes and mores common to that period. Yet the 1960s are not so different from the 2020s that the possible exigencies arising from winter sports in a remote place are incomprehensible, nor the expectations that rescue would soon be at hand despite any break in communications. In particular we have all now been made alert to the dangers of contagion and transmission in a way that renders the situation faced by the narrative’s holidaymakers all too vivid. Except that there may be fates worse than chronic illness or death — such as the loss not just the loss of individuality but also humanity.