Coming with a rave recommendation from big-time SF fan Kingsley Amis on the cover, this 1965 novel by John “Death of Grass” Christopher [Sam Youd] is a quietly compelling take on the “alien bodysnatchers” template: proof that you don’t necessarily need Big Ideas to make a SF story work, just good old-fashioned storytelling talent. Beginning with an italicised prologue from the perspective of a doomed alien race, wherein we learn that these spectral beings (who require living flesh-and-blood hosts to supply their energy needs) have launched a flotilla of arks into the void to escape the impending destruction of their homeworld by supernova, we then switch to the glamorous setting of a remote Swiss ski chalet, temporary home to a handful of holidaying Brits and their kids. Each chapter assumes the perspective of one of the principal cast (while remaining in the third person): a quiet solicitor’s clerk, ex-RAF hale-and-hearty chalet owner and his alcoholic wife, skirt-chasing cynical plastic surgeon, two “smashing bid”-type sisters, mum-and-dad-plus-two-kids etc. When one of the kids abruptly topples stone-dead into the snow after discovering a mysterious blue sphere (which later is nowhere to be found), astute readers will be nodding contentedly to themselves (possible murmuring “Ah, Quatermass II” into the bargain) in anticipation of the little lad’s imminent resurrection as the first of the possessed. Christopher conveys the mother’s stunned sense of shock and loss extremely well; short on original ideas he may be, but you can’t really fault him on character. Before you know it, bad weather and a pesky avalanche have cut the chalet off from civilisation and the remaining humans must defend their makeshift stockade from the ever-increasing ranks of the alien undead (whose contamination-possession is spread by touch, so don’t get caught in a room by yourself with one or more of ’em).
Christopher builds tension very nicely, together with the survivors’ escalating feelings of isolation and despair of rescue; he’s also very good at conveying a palpable sense of place. Before the end, I could visualise very clearly the interior of the chalet, and almost feel the reassuring warmth from the crackling log fire and the pint or so of whisky in my belly. Speaking of which, the sheer volume of neat spirits that Christopher’s cast puts away during the course of this adventure is mind-boggling: every time they come in from a recce outdoors – or any time any of them feels slightly out of sorts, really – it’s out with the whisky or the gin or the brandy or all three. It’s very much a novel of the 1960s, not just in its attitude to heavy drinking but in pretty much every way you could imagine: predominantly male-oriented, full of Understanding Wives and up-for-it dolly-birds, and middle-class with a vengeance. In common with the works of John Wyndham, there’s an unthinking (though not unkind) condescension when discussing the working classes, whose dialect is always conveyed in comical phonetic style (often in the voice of a chirpy Cockney from a wartime morale-booster). Yes, I loved it. Despite its basic unoriginality, it’s a genuine page-turner, boasts a cast of at least 2.5-dimensional characters whose fates you actually care about, and a growing unpredictability about who will survive. Undemanding fun, and sometimes that’s exactly what the doctor ordered.