This is a 21st century ghost story, speculative fiction which muddies the waters in the semi-permeable membrane between worlds. Author Michael Rutger cleverly blends the deliciously creepy aspects of a golden-era gothic ghost story with the hard-nosed realities of modern lives lived online, the quiet personal tragedies of broken families, and the delicate balancing act of fragile relationships.
Set all that against the backdrop of an archetypal X-File or Twilight Zone teaser – what are all those weird lines in the landscape from prehistoric societies? – and throw in completely contemporary concerns about child abduction and manipulation. The result is a pacey page-turner, simultaneously bewildering and absorbing. It certainly kept me sane during a hellish day of three airports and hours spent waiting for take-off.
The author is an accomplished storyteller in all of his many guises; I’ve enjoyed his writing for a quarter-century and this book is solidly up to his usual standards. He draws three-dimensional characters with whom you can’t help engaging, from the YouTube presenter in search of a breakout story to the striving schoolteacher being stifled by her everyday life. Almost all of the characters in The Possession are hiding something, and each of their secrets plays a pivotal role as the mystery unfolds…
Attempting to stay spoiler-free, I can only say that the plot involves the myths (or otherwise) surrounding witchcraft; a missing teenage girl; her unexplained return from the wilderness – claiming to be dead – and a conspiracy of secrecy in a small town on the edge of nowhere which has a history of weirdness, once a generation or so.
For all its peculiarity, The Possession is firmly rooted in our reality. There may be strange snit going on in the shadows, but most of the folk are more concerned about their social media feeds and why a lover isn’t returning a PM as rapido as usual. That juxtaposition of the everyday alongside the abnormal makes everything that happens feel uncomfortably credible.
For the most part the plot absolutely romps along, although it bogs down a bit with some of the repeated ‘lost in the weird woods’ scenes. There is a lot of metaphysical doubling back in this book; maybe too much for its own good.
In some ways, this is quite a bit like a Charlie Parker thriller – a detective story with supernatural angles – but much more of it echoes early Stephen King stories. Think back to the one about the woman who drove her sports car increasingly fast through blurring countryside which didn’t ought to be there. Or The Mist, with folks hiding in a grocery store while Hideous Things oozed and festered in the fog. The Possession has a similar feel to it – and that comparison is intended to be entirely complimentary.
Where King suggested a scenario and hinted at what might be happening, Rutger explores that possible reality in considerable, mind-bending complexity. The result is a huge amount of fun; an intellectual thriller which twists and turns and warps and distorts, yet doesn’t disappear up its own fundament in frustratingly inexplicable oddness. There are many things that go bump in the night and a pleasingly righteous payoff; a mature ending which has a real ring of truth about it.
However, I would’ve liked more detail about the arcane nature of things, and felt that one of the characters in particular (Val) was woefully under-used. She was a great personality who didn’t get to demonstrate her potential. She felt like a plot device, introduced to bring us some much-needed background info but then sidelined. Shame. Just like an episode of the Twilight Zone, the story stopped just when we got to the really interesting part!
If you haven’t read much by this author before – well, Wiki is your friend, and you’ll find many more of his provocative paranormal / sci-fi thrillers waiting for you. But this works perfectly well as a standalone story, you don’t need to have read the preceding book in the series (The Anomaly) first.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Possession by Michael Rutger is available at Amazon