By Marty Mulrooney
The Possession by Michael Rutger (aka Michael Marshall Smith) is the follow-up to last year’s thrilling page-turner The Anomaly, which Alternative Magazine Online’s review described as “a scary book at times… tempered beautifully by dialogue that is effortlessly charming and funny, and plenty sweary.” In this eagerly anticipated sequel, The Anomaly Files host Nolan Moore returns with his loyal and somewhat disgruntled crew, this time investigating a series of mysterious stone walls in the remote town of Birchlake, Northern California. Meanwhile, a teenage girl has gone missing and the locals aren’t proving particularly welcoming…
I checked my watch. Quarter to one. Late. But you never know. I dialled a different number. It rang for quite a while. I was about to bail when it finally picked up.
”What,” Ken’s voice said, “the fuck do you want?”
Ken is a late-fifty-something pug of an ex-Londoner, and at times somewhat brisk in his social interactions.
”Are you awake?”
”Well I am now, you twat.”
”Good,” I said. “I think I’ve found our next show.”
Unlike the doomed YouTube show planned for his previous adventure in The Anomaly, Nolan’s latest show isn’t just inspired by an urban legend; it’s also prompted by a phone call from his ex-wife, a freelance journalist investigating the disappearance of a teenage girl. Despite their separation, Nolan knows Kristy all too well – there is more to this story than she is letting on.
The mysterious stone walls in Birchlake are just an excuse at first, a reason for Nolan to wake his best friend and producer Ken in the middle of the night to plan their next trip. After all, just how interesting – or scary, for that matter – can stone walls actually be? The answer, somewhat surprisingly, is very.
I got my coat back and clambered over the fence. The others followed. Funny thing about climbing a fence. Doesn’t matter how unimportant the structure is, how close to collapse, or if you’re miles from anywhere, going from one side of a fence to the other always feels like a trespass, which I guess it sometimes is – but also as though you’ve travelled farther than the tiny distance involved. You were over there, and then you’re here. You are somewhere different now.
At first, Birchlake seems like any other remote American town, not so much a destination as a place to stop for gas while passing through. However, the surrounding woods hold many dark secrets, along with several mysterious stone walls that initially appear mundane but soon prove to be highly important for both the plot and the safety of the town’s residents.
Nolan and Ken are joined by their fellow crewmembers Pierre (the cameraman) and Molly (logistics) and the chemistry between them builds beautifully upon the events of the previous book, without making newcomers feel alienated. Despite their bickering, it’s clear that they’re a tightknit group. Which makes is less than ideal when Pierre trashes his motel room and disappears into the fog…
“Okay. But… why are you calling?”
“I need you to come in here.”
“In your room?”
“Yes, where else, you twat?”
“I don’t know. This is a weird conversation, Ken. It’s nearly two in the morning.
“I know what fucking time it is,” he hissed. “Seriously, Nolan. Just get in here.”
“There’s someone in my closet.”
This is a story about mysterious stone walls, modern day witches and letting go of the past, but none of these plot threads will unravel quite how the reader anticipates. Rutger has previously written some wonderfully surreal sci-fi novels as Michael Marshall – Only Forward, Spares – and echoes of those past books are present here.
Particularly visceral are the scenes where Nolan and his friends experience shared group hallucinations, fighting though extreme weather conditions and crowds of creatures while the locals stay indoors and turn a blind eye to what is happening. The idea of things existing just beyond our own reality has been explored by Rutger/Marshall/Smith to great effect many times throughout his career – We Are Here immediately springs to mind – and the Possession continues this fine tradition in a genuinely spine-tingling fashion.
“Did you mess them up? The rocks?”
The girl smiled. “Why not?”
“Because it screwed everything up. Because sometimes you can do things that you can’t put back, and there’ll be no grown-up you can run to – because by then you’ll be the grown-up and it’s all on you. Sure you’re ready for that?”
A teenage girl, more powerful than she realises, is altering the very fabric of reality in Birchlake and the result is electrifying. The Possession isn’t a better book than The Anomaly – a debut for the Rutger pseudonym that set the bar ridiculously high – but it is nonetheless a worthwhile sequel that once again throws its extremely likable characters through the paranormal wringer. Whether writing as Marshall, Smith or Rutger, this veteran author has the ability to make even the most otherworldly story developments feel firmly grounded in reality. At this rate Nolan and his crew won’t ever be able to wrap another episode of The Anomaly Files, but I sincerely cannot wait for their next failed attempt.
9 OUT OF 10