Possession stories have a poignancy to them that perhaps other horror stories lack. The loss of self-control is a frightful thing. Lisa Tuttle sets this up well in her novel Familiar Spirit, a tale that has recently been reissued. The threat against a young women—the usual target of possession—leads to some scary moments here. As the story unfolds Sarah has to deal with personal loss as she learns that the house she’s just rented is inhabited by an unfriendly spirit that seems to be a demon. This is a haunting story that features a strong protagonist who ultimately has to decide what she really values most. It’s a book that stays with you.
I discovered Tuttle by reading a book on female horror writers some time ago. One of the points I make in Nightmares with the Bible is that female victims of possession match Poe’s dictum about the most poetic topic being the death of a beautiful woman. That may sound sexist to modern ears, but Poe was a product of his time and he was a keen observer of what made stories memorable. Possession has largely become a female phenomenon over the centuries. The biblical stories about possession tend to have male victims, but by the Middle Ages the balance had shifted. That gender imbalance continues today. A friend recently asked whether shifting awareness of the gender as not strictly binary might change this in the future. It’s a fascinating question, especially since we really don’t know what demons are.
Possession is a clash of the unknowns, which is fertile ground for fear of the unknown. Feminist studies have begun to share space with studies of masculinity and both have been joined by analysts who study gender as nonbinary. I suspect many of us really didn’t know about such things before the internet began to bring them to our attention. Many people don’t want to accept such facts. The world is easier to live in when everything is black or white, male or female, this or that. Most things, we’re beginning to learn, are on a scale. Human society, as it takes this into account, will inevitably, if slowly, change. The old guard (angry white men, mostly) refuse to accept facts, trying to equate them with the person with the loudest voice. This too is a kind of possession. I don’t want to give too many spoilers for Familiar Spirit, but if you’re like me it’ll give you many things to think about.