In the Grip of Evil
(A Book Review of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist)
Inspired by a reported case of exorcism of a child in 1949, The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty, published in 1971, is a novel about demonic terror, a modern-day spiritual warfare that pits good against evil for possession of a soul and examines the question of evil.
Being the book that paved the way for the popularity of this horror sub genre, The Exorcist tells the now-famous plotline of demonic possession of a simplistic and innocent child. It follows the ordeal of the recently divorced and well-known actress Chris McNeil and her daughter, Regan, as their lives are soon hurled into turmoil when sweet Regan is taken over by an ancient demon that starts when frightening noises and poltergeist-type events occur and then turns eerie as Regan shows startling psychological and physical change — acts of violence, obscene outburst, and precocious sexuality — for which neither doctors nor psychologists can’t explain.
Parallel to the McNeil’s troubles, Jesuit priest and psychologist Damien Karrass is suffering a crisis of his own: he has lost his faith, and he feels he can no longer minister to other troubled priests in the Order. He also blames himself for the recent death of his ailing Greek immigrant mother, who lived alone in New York. Meanwhile, ritual church desecrations and bizarre witchcraft-style murdering bring police Lieutenant William Kinderman into the picture, looking for a killer.
The Exorcist is a well written, original and engrossing book; equal parts detective story, theological mystery and horror novel laced with poignant moments, humanistic observation, philosophical reflections and Blatty’s dry humor (most noticeable in the dialogue between Lt. Kinderman, Father Dyer and Karras).
Blatty breaks the story down into parts which are essentially the stages of Regan’s possession. This creates an easy to follow time line, so to speak, of Regan’s deterioration. His writing style is reasonably smooth to read but there were a few bumps along the way. For instance, the first paragraph of the novel after the prologue struck me as a bit overdone:
“Like the brief doomed flare of exploding suns that registers dimly on blind men’s eyes, the beginning of the horror past almost unnoticed; in the shriek that followed, in fact, was forgotten and perhaps not connected to the horror at all.”
I appreciate that Blatty is going for a rich description of how something so terrible and horrible has happened and goes unnoticed, however it feels so over-crafted. But that’s only a minor one and as I progressed along I also found gems among passages that spot on captures the scenery and engages the reader’s emotion like this on the beginning of the second part of the book:
“They brought her to an ending in a crowded cemetery where the gravestones cried for breath.
“The mass had been lonely as her life. Her brothers from Brooklyn. The grocer who’d extended her credit. Watching them lower her into the dark of a world without windows Damien Karras sobbed with a grief he had long misplaced.”
Blatty’s characters are fully fleshed out the moment they step onto the page. This makes it so much easier to fall into the story. I never felt like I needed “more” from the main characters to get them, though I did want more from the demon Pazuzu. I estimate this was intentional to keep the reader always in a state of uncertainty as the characters were, which I consider a brilliant aspect of the novel; but still it left me wanting, for the barest history is explained about the demon and you never learn how he came to find Regan. My only real complaint to its plot was that there have been too many underdeveloped subplots along the way. While they were all interconnected, I felt that if they had been fully developed they would have added more to the story instead of being vague bits of filler. Most specifically of these is Detective Kinderman’s (I admit I liked how clever and funny this guy is, good thing I’ll be seeing more of him in this book’s sequel, Legion) involvement in the Black Mass and murder investigations. These were two subplots that just sort of fizzled. While the murder was obviously attributed to Pazuzu, the Black Mass was left hanging. In the end though, the story of Regan makes The Exorcist as horrific as it is.
More than your usual horror story with its share of customary “shockers,” I am impressed by how the novel caught me off guard by the profound themes it presented, notably half way through the book, as the characters grappled with questions regarding morality, on how faith affects and operates in our life, science and reason, on the existence of the supernatural, and ultimately on the problem of evil that left me asking: how can there be evil and pain in this world ruled by a caring God? More particularly, what did a simple girl like Regan did to justify the hell she’s been put through? And, to put it more simply, why do bad things happen to good people?
Though Blatty didn’t pose any answers to this — and I’m glad he didn’t even attempted to — this conversation between Karras and the exorcist Father Merrin presents an optimistic view regarding the intention of evil:
Karras: We say the demon… cannot touch the victim’s will.
Merrin: Yes that is so… that is so… there is no sin.
Karrass: Then what would be the purpose of possession? What’s the point?
Merrin: Who can know? Who can really hope to know? Yet I think the demon’s target is not the possessed; it is us… the observers… every person in this house. And I think, I think the point is to make us despair; to reject our humanity, Damien; to see ourselves as ultimately bestial; as ultimately vile and putrescent; without dignity; ugly, unworthy and there lie the heart of it perhaps; in the unworthiness. For I think belief in God is not a matter of reason at all; I think it finally is a matter of love; of accepting that God could love us.”
This part I count as my favorite, if not the best moment, in the book. In my opinion it sheds light on the controversial question that this book promotes demon worship, Satanism or what have you as many of the people who have not read the novel assert — in fact, it’s not. In actuality, Good triumphs in the book not evil, and the way the demon was vanquished at the ending is the part that really blew me away; it’s a twist, if I may call it so, that I really didn’t anticipate, specially coming from a book written during the 70s. It spoke to me as the ultimate act of sacrifice and at once an assertion of a resurrected faith. It helped me to see that the book didn’t really end in tragedy. Nevertheless, it strongly delivered the message that mortal death is not defeat; only death of the spirit is the true loss.
Admittedly, many of the shocking scenes in both the novel and its equally impressive movie adaptation seem almost tame or humorous today, considering the gory graphic visuals used in most current genre films — but today’s horror fiction owes a large debt to The Exorcist for breaking this barrier and forty years after its publication it still resides on the outside of a recognized canon of horror. Nonetheless, many of the most terrifying aspects of The Exorcist are the things that we don’t see on-screen or may have read from its pages. The greater fear resides in the possibilities that such an evil can randomly walk among us and touch our lives more personally than the powers of good.
Published by Bantam Books
(Mass Market Paperback, January 1974 Edition)
Started: October 31, 2010
Finished: November 2, 2010