Book review: The Exorcist

“Hey, honey! What’s wrong”
“There’s these real funny noises, Mom.”
“In your room?”
“Yes, in my room. It’s like knocking and I can’t go to sleep.”

The Exorcist (William Peter Blatty, 1971) is obscene, violent, disturbing and full of suspense – all good things, at least in a supernatural horror novel. Most will have seen the film, and if you read the book with Linda Blair’s performance in mind, I would not fault you in the slightest. This is a classic, both on screen and on page. (There might be spoilers below).

A small recap:

Iraq: The elderly Father Merrin finds a statue of the demon Pazuzu at an archaeological dig.

Georgetown: Actress Chris MacNeil’s daughter Regan starts to withdraw, complaining about odd sounds in her bedroom. Then, she begins changing, turning aggressive and vulgar, her health deteriorating along with her grotesquely morphed features. After exhausting medical and psychiatric treatments to no avail, Chris pleads with Father Damien Karras, a priest and psychiatrist, to conduct an exorcism. The more experienced Merrin is summoned, and the exorcism begins.

The true strength of the story lies in the slow, eerie build-up in tension at first, and then the rapid gruesome escalation as the possession takes hold, followed by an ending so bleak it leaves you feeling hollow long after you’ve closed the book. It’s a fascinating novel, with a distinct flavour of the time it was written and Blatty’s world-view.

The first thing to note is that The Exorcist is genuinely scary. The evil lurking in swamps and cemeteries is nothing compared to the evil of the mundane home. The suburban Washington setting thus heightens the terror. Nowhere is safe. Modernity is helpless. Science is lost. This theme is common in the genre (e.g. Dracula), and played to its best effect by Blatty. The futile efforts of state-of-the-art medicine and psychology are described in unpleasant and increasingly desperate detail, and this helplessness cranks up the tension. Add Regan’s transformation and you’re left with an unstoppable, visceral sense of evil, which is utterly terrifying.

exorcist

The second noteworthy aspect is its bleakness. Some horror novels are funny, amusing, with an uplifting resolution. The Exorcist is not.

“Chris swallowed the ache of remembrance of Dennings; thought again about death and the worm and the void and the unspeakable loneliness, the stillness and the silence and the darkness that awaited beneath the sod…”

It is malevolent in the extreme, depressing to a fault, written to leave you unsettled long after the final page. In Blatty’s story, there is little to be cheerful about, not even the resolution (more on that later). While the book’s ending expresses more hope than what is seen in the film, it remains a significantly dark and disturbing piece of writing. And it is intended as such.

The timing of the novel (and film two years later) was no accident. The 1960’s/70’s USA was troubled by contemporary issues (the Vietnam War, the assassination of Kennedy). With the Devil effectively erased, the language for modern evil was limited.  As were the tools for combatting it. Blatty sought to change this with The Exorcist. The evil that infects and destroys even in the modern era was to be personified and given prominence once more, and the public was to return to the (Catholic) churches. When one considers that Blatty got the inspiration for the story from an actual reported possession and exorcism of a boy in 1949, the novel’s real-life implications are even more apparent.

And perhaps it is no coincidence that the boy of 1949 was turned into a girl in 1971. A single mum, the corruption of an innocent prepubescent girl, the sexual scenes, the obscenities – these put the story within the typical territory of horror where untamed female sexuality often serves as a conduit for evil. The Exorcist plays these out, one after the other, with the characters as helpless witnesses. As the 1960s-1970s USA saw rapid changes in gender politics along with the associated upheaval and fear that often follow societal change, this may have impacted both the writing and reception of the novel.

It should come as no surprise that the resolution is brought about by religious faith. The Exorcist is, after all, intended as a rally for religion. Father Karras, wrecked by a guilt-ridden relationship with his late mother as well as a crumbling personal faith, brings the story to conclusion with an act of redemption, regaining his faith in the process. Even so, the (supposed) victory is small and one is left with a feeling that this is a minor battle in a war that cannot be won.

This brings us to the sequel: Legion, 1983. This suggests that Father Karras’ final act of redemption wasn’t so final or so redemptive after all. And so, if we take this into account, we’re left with a bleak ending leading into an even bleaker sequel. So much for hope and redemption. It would appear there’s no winning with Blatty.

Still, it’s a cracking read, if you’re in the mood for despair.

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