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The Possessors Kindle Edition
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Any number of novels have filled me with tension, dread, or sheer horror: I think of Intensity by Koontz, Pet Sematary by King, and Dracula by Stoker. Only two, though, have terrified me to such a degree that, at points during my first read, I had to take a breather, so afraid was I of the next page, the next chapter. One was Jack Ketchum’s Off Season; if you’re a true horror fan and you haven’t read it, let me first offer my condolences, second urge you to beg, borrow, or steal a copy posthaste, and third warn you that you are in for the gore- and terror-filled read of your life. Off Season, once read, will never leave you; it will sizzle in your psyche forevermore. (It's available here on Amazon, in paperback and hardcover, both unexpurgated.) The second, which I read many years before the Ketchum, was this now little-known jewel in the crown by John Christopher, The Possessors. Fifty years ago I read it for the first time, and it left an impression on me that remains strong to this day, fifty years later. In a very real way, this review is my commemoration of my 50th anniversary with it.
It was 1965-66, 8th Grade for me. My father was an Air Force man, and we were living on Loring AFB, now defunct, in northern Maine. We’d transferred in late spring from Riverside, California (March AFB), land of citrus fragrances on desert breezes, Disneyland, Hollywood, movie stardom in my stars, all things viewed in a golden light, and I was fully prepared to hate Maine weeks before we arrived. You’d have been equally prepared, trust me: I mean, southern California versus northern Maine? Palm trees and warm Christmases, orange groves and buttery sunshine, versus what – pine trees and potato fields? No contest. But, as I always did on a new base, I immediately set out to explore it, alone.
What I found was Stephen King Land, several years before I’d heard the name Stephen King. What I found was the landscape of his childhood. With the move coming so late in the school year, I spent only a few weeks at the base school, finishing off 7th Grade; it was too short a time to make friends for the summer, so my summer was filled with solitary exploration. Much of the base was covered with dense, piney woods, and there were ponds, some large enough that I considered them lakes. Around one such lake were cliffs, and I walked the rims of them for hours, hiking and thinking, sitting and dreaming. And there were swampy areas, too, dark and foreboding, true temptation. It was idyllic, all of it, almost a wonderland for an imaginative boy just entering his teens. It was beautiful, and vaguely creepy, too, as Stephen King Land should be: my first memory, in fact, is of a day splashing in one of the ponds, a young girl being pulled by her father from the water, a leech attached to her leg. But idyllic, oh so idyllic to me. I’d never seen so many fireflies in the dusky evenings, whole galaxies of them. When winter came in, I’d never seen the Milky Way so clear in the night sky; I’d never seen the Northern Lights at all. Before the uncomfortable cold began, I’d head to the cliffs’ edges, sit, and make up movies in my head, romantic adventures conjured by a normal 13-year-old boy, circa ’65: alien invasions, spies and counter-spies, and I was always the young hero, somehow saving the day. I even heard the music of them, odd choices gleaned from the albums I’d play at home: “Tangerine” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, or a theme by Hugo Montenegro for the television show The Man from U.N.C.L.E., “Solo on a Raft.”
Snow started falling in late September/early October, and ran until very late spring, a fact of life there. I remember climbing out our second-story windows onto the hard surface of it many times, just to walk to school. As constant and high as the snow remained for so long, I don’t remember that it was ever a problem; nothing closed down that I recall; everyone dealt with it somehow, and life went on as usual. We rode Ski-doos. We constructed igloos in the back yard. We built snowmen that survived for months at a time. As much as I’d wanted to hate Maine, I fell in love with it.
But I digress.
One day, Mom, my brothers, and I were shopping at the Base Exchange, the equivalent to a department store, and I wandered off to my usual stomping grounds, the books and magazines racks. I spun the rack of paperbacks – and I was instantly riveted by the cover art of one in particular. Perhaps it was the first paperback copy printed in the States (Christopher was British), published by Avon Books and costing a mere sixty cents! Across the top was the Chicago Tribune claim, “Makes the flesh crawl,” just above the large title, and at the bottom edge was another claim, even more tantalizing, “The most TERRIFYING novel ever written!” just above the author’s name. But it was the artwork that riveted me. In the lower left corner, very small, a snowbound Alpine chalet against a purple background, the purple of moonlight. And huge, simply HUGE in the foreground, taking up 90% of the cover, the face of a boy of maybe eight wandering well away from the chalet, his skin a bluer shade of purple. His face is devoid of expression: no pain, no smile – nothing. Dead. But his eyes are wide, pupils green within a field not of white but of shimmering blue. It’s almost as if he’s sleepwalking out in the cold night, alone, dazed, searching for something he can’t describe, doesn’t know. (At the end of this review is an image of this edition, clickable to enlarge.)
I must have been a good boy earlier that week – Mom bought it for me without a fuss and we left the BX with me feeling like I was carrying gold, something precious, in my small bag. Home, and no sooner had we finished clearing up dinner than I raced to the bedroom I shared with my two brothers, dived into the lower bunk of the bunk beds, and began to read…
I read that Avon edition so many times over the next several years that it fell apart; eventually I had to trash it, there were so many pages missing. Many, many years later, in my early 30s, I was browsing the tables at a street fair in Lambertville, NJ, when I came across the same edition, the same cover, in the stacks of a used bookseller’s wares. Now I’m in my 60s and I still have that copy hidden away, safe and sound, because it too began to fall apart. I’ve upgraded, of course, to the larger paperback edition one can order here on Amazon, but the abstract artwork of this newer edition will never replace, in my mind, the lurid artwork of the Avon. Truth be told, I've found still another edition or three recently, and one has an even more elegantly terrifying cover: a young boy's right eye in extreme close-up, so close one can see the individual hairs of his eyebrows, and in his pupil, staring out of him, yet another eye.
I’m not sure any longer how many times I’ve read The Possessors; 30, 35, somewhere in that range. It has ceased to terrify me as it did the first few times – but it has never ceased to freeze the blood in my veins and send icy tingles up my spine.
Perhaps my age had something to do with the terror. Perhaps the Maine winter didn’t hurt, the wind wailing at the windows in the wee hours of the night. Perhaps, as in Off Season, it was the slow build of tension, getting to know and understand the characters in a vaguely depressing manner before the true terror explodes. Unlike splatter-punk, there’s no gore; the terror is deserved by the plot, the isolation of the setting, the inner workings of the characters’ psychologies, the constant rise in pacing, and the sheer brilliance of Christopher’s prose, so subtle, so dripping with dread.
One thing I can say with certainty is that The Possessors hasn’t aged – it’s as frightening now as it was then. Today, a group of vacationers could arrive at a ski chalet in the Alps (or the Rockies or the Green Mountains of Vermont) to spend a relaxing week of gentle ski instruction or simply lazing by the chalet fireplace with a good book. Today, an avalanche could cut off the road away from the chalet, leaving them stranded until the road is cleared. Today, that glowing blue bubble the size of a tennis ball, that delicate ball of alien energy and intelligence, could be buried inches below the surface of the snow and waiting, as it has for centuries, for the approach of another life form. Today, a young boy could fall from a toboggan to meet it, to absorb it, to seemingly die because of it. And tonight, that young boy could wake from his human death as an inhuman, possessed thing, an alien thing, and steel off into the night, away from his family, away from the other vacationers, to gain its bearings, to understand its thought processes, to learn its musculature, to consider its horrifying mission. IN ONLY HIS PAJAMAS. Tomorrow, his mother could see him out there in the snow, out there in the cold, and steel away too, to meet him. And in a matter of days, the vacationers in the chalet could see dead faces peering into the windows at night, hear dead voices beckoning them out into the cold…
I anyone was a fan of the "Invasion of the Bodysnatchers" idea this book is for them. The story opens with the near extinction of the Possessors, a race of beings who have no physical bodies of their own except that of a strange blue glowing orb that houses their seed. One of they're seeds floats though space for eons only to arrive on Earth where it waits for more eons encased in ice and snow to be discovered, of course, by a small boy vacationing with his parents in the Alps after an avalanche traps them and several other guests at the local chalet. So one by one the guests, who are trapped and isolated there until the snow is cleared, are possessed by the possessors whose goal is to ultimately take over the whole human race.
John Christopher develops the characters very well in this one I think. The only thing about this book I didn't care for is the amount of seemingly padded scenes that comprised the segments between the action sequences. I realize the author did this for character development, but it was excessive. The other drawback with the book that doesn't hinder the story much is the fact that given the book was written in the 1950's or 60's, and in another country (England I believe) the slang and terms used a lot in the book are harder to understand if one is younger and American or other. That aside, great book for nearly all ages and worth reading if you like classic type science fiction.
This book is one of his best. A group of people snowed in to a small resort while something alien takes them, one by one. There are moments that frighten as well as a movie. The story builds with a quiet suspense, just under the surface, and pays off with a plausible, strong ending.
I like gory, flashy Stephen King novels a lot. But John Christopher's English, stoic, thoughtful horror/science fiction is a great change of pace. This one will stay with me for a long time.
Other great John Christopher books include No Blade of Grass, if you can find it, and Wrinkle in the Skin.