Small-town weirdness meets supernatural thriller in screenwriter Michael Rutger’s The Possession, a sequel to The Anomaly, which was released in 2018. Hands up – I have not read The Anomaly, so came to this cold. Despite a few small mentions about the climax of the last book, which of course meant nothing to me, I did not suffer. Rutger doesn’t labour the point, and just gets on with the business of a new adventure.
We are reunited with Nolan Moore, presenter of the unsuccessful YouTube show The Anomaly Files, and his crew. Why unsuccessful? Well, it’s never really explained, apart from a couple of references to it being somewhat lame (hmm, maybe I am missing some background after all). But it seems like a professional outfit: there’s director Ken, cameraman Pierre and Molly, in charge of a small production budget.
They arrive in Birchlake to make a show about stone walls littering the area, ancient as the landscape itself but which apparently have no purpose. Nolan’s estranged wife, hard-nosed journalist Kristy, is in town too – investigating the disappearance of teenager Alaina Hixon. Cue some nice scenes between the couple, and the will-they-won’t-they get back together theme runs through the rest of the book.
The walls are a nice device from Rutger. They are just walls, after all. Some don’t lead anywhere, some are tall and some are low, but they are just walls, as Ken dryly points out. What, exactly, is the point of all this – and he may well ask. Nolan tells the reader that ‘some stories are short stories. This one is barely a haiku.’ It made me chuckle that this obvious fact came quite far into the novel – page 75, to be precise – and is a clever move on Rutger’s part. Up to now, we know a girl is missing because the prologue said so, and there have been a couple of creepy moments… but that’s all. Otherwise, we’ve been running around with the crew filming walls. That Nolan admits it’s boring is Rutger’s masterstroke – we are feeling what the characters are, and that we are deliberately being lulled into a false sense of security does not go unnoticed.
The story unfolds, at first, through Nolan’s conversational first-person narrative and Kristy in third person. Later we are treated to several other viewpoints, and while this review is no comment on creative writing as an art – indeed, is there any right or wrong? – the style feels strange. I became confused quite early on as to who was telling this story: Nolan? Kristy? Or was this Nolan simply repeating Kristy’s experience, but as herself? It was confusing, and in parts came across as Nolan having an omniscient god-like view of everything that’s going on at any one time – impossible unless he is a god (he most definitely isn’t), and just a bit weird when we dip into a handful of other viewpoints too. At one point, a chapter opens with Nolan and Kristy’s viewpoint in the opening sentence. That’s a new one on me!
There’s also a habit throughout the novel of info-dumping. Historical information is off-loaded by Nolan at a rate of knots, and at times it felt like I was reading a Wiki page. Granted, we need to know background and Nolan himself admits he info-dumps. But sadly, I found myself skimming these pretty chunky portions – something no novelist wants their reader to do.
But let’s not get distracted from some very elegantly crafted lines and imagery. Kristy’s Chandler-esq first impression of Birchlake is wonderful, straight out of a hard-boiled detective novel: “A tall gaunt man in his sixties sat on a stool at the end of the counter. There was no glass in front of him. He turned to look at her. Cloudy grey eyes, bags that spoke of a liver past its best.”
In fact, Rutger gives many good lines to Kristy. Her description of missing girl Alaina’s principal, is super: “Broecker was one of those men who would always be running late… shirt in an ill-advised shade of mustard, a tweedy jacket that wanted nothing to do with either of the other garments.”
These lines recur throughout the novel, and stumbling across one unexpectedly – especially in a scene of tension – is a joy. Here’s another with echoes of Chandler’s Marlowe: “A glass half full of something that could’ve been iced tea, but probably wasn’t.”
The final third of the novel is where Rutger really comes into his own. He makes a confusing world clear in its confusion, if you see what I mean. The dreadfulness pervading this backwater town finally comes alive in a relentless assault on the characters and us, raising big questions about perception, reality and the human mind. Anyone who has the imagination to make concrete and mist one and the same gets a congratulations from me.
The Possession demonstrates admirable plotting and some elegant prose. That it can be read as a straight-forward supernatural/horror thriller, yet at the same time exploring what it is to be human, is clever. It left me, after the final page, with the idea that our own heads are dangerous places.
The Possession by Michael Rutger is published by Zaffre. Buy the book.