It’s been labeled as the most frightening book ever written. It was a book so popular in its release that it was immediately made into a feature film that kickstarted the “Satanic panic” trend that permeated the 1970s and early 1980s. 40 years later, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist celebrated its anniversary with a “specially revised and expanded” edition.
My entry into this is, perhaps, a bit different than some, but experience colors perception, so it might be worth running through a bit of it. When I was younger, I saw the “good parts” of the movie on TV, and I was largely unimpressed even then. A few years later, I had the opportunity to watch the whole film, and while I remember little of it, I was bored stupid. In my 20s, I was witness to two exorcisms. The first was an obvious hoax, and I slapped the living daylights out of the so-called “victim” for scaring those people he claimed were friends merely to get attention. Because of this first experience, I was asked to be there nearly a year later. I won’t go into details here. Suffice it to say that while I’m not convinced of anything in particular, there was a lot of room for speculation for things that couldn’t be readily explained for debunking purposes, including some specifics covered in this book. That was almost half my life ago. The experience left an impression on me, and I’ve asked many questions since. About a year ago, I decided it was time to finally watch the film in its entirety once more, having grown to appreciate a great many more things. I fell asleep and figured I’d come back and try again. It hasn’t happened yet.
Which brings me to this book. After all, the movie is not the book, and the book is almost always better than its screen adaptation. I had it downloaded in my Audible app, sitting in my queue next to Robert Bloch’s Psycho, and I had intended to go through Psycho first. The app disagreed, and I began this one. I didn’t fight it because it was already that kind of a day. My biggest concerns going into this were that I’d either walk away from this book because I was just as bored as it as I was with the film, that I’d find it inadvertently funny, or that it would cause me to rethink some of those past experiences.
Turns out, all three applied to varying degrees. Let’s talk shop about the book, and then I can explain what was going on in my head.
The plot focuses upon an actress-turning-director whose 12-year-old girl is possessed by a demon. Based on the title alone, all suspense and questions are, dare I say it, exorcised from the mind of the reader immediately. The characters in the book cover pretty much every other possibility from guilt to multiple personality disorder to everything in between, giving the situations in the book that authority that Sherlock Holmes himself might approve of if he believed in the supernatural on any level. “When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains — however improbable — must be the truth.” So with every scientific and psychological explanation scratched off, demonic possession becomes completely viable in the confines of the story. Even then, the priest does everything in his power to see if he can build a case the Church would look at to approve an exorcism ritual, and he finds himself butting up against reason. This makes it even better when the demon triumphantly howls about how much he loves reasonable men.
Adding to the credibility, the novel is based on real events. The physical model for Father Lankester Merrin was based on British archaeologist Gerald Lankester Harding, whom Blatty met in Beirut, and who did some digging in the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The exorcism itself was inspired by a real exorcism performed by Friar William S. Bowdern, a Jesuit priest. Freelance journalist Mark Opsasnick indicates that the novel was based on an actual 1949 exorcism that took place in Maryland. There are other possession accounts in the novel that are mentioned by name, which can be found in an article in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research Vol. 114 (1930), by Daniel Dunglas Home regarding fraudulent practices.
My own experiences with the supernatural force me to discredit all claims until I can disprove no further (in standard Sherlock Holmes fashion), and in that event, I’m ready to consider possibilities, and ready to defend against them if need be. I’ve studied angelology and its sister discipline demonology. I don’t claim to be an expert in each, but I am readily conversant should the situation arise that I meet a fellow seeker. Blatty seems to have covered every conceivable angle of approach I can think of off the top of my head, including the notion that demons have to be invited in before they can possess someone. In terms of his research, I have to give the man kudos because I really can’t tell where the research ends and the storytelling begins. He makes it work.
The flip side to this is that because most of the book is spent checking off those boxes and getting the characters to the point where they accept an exorcism needs to be performed, the story is, to me, unnecessarily slow and somewhat redundant. Credit where it’s due, this is likely how it would play out in real life if these characters were real and faced this exact situation. From my perspective, by other name, this is a supernatural police procedural. I don’t really care much for police procedurals. Being impressed by the technical gymnastics of a novel are one thing, but the target audience isn’t someone who dislikes procedurals, researches the lore for fun, and has experiences under his belt. It’s not the fault of the writer. He did his job, and he clearly had fun with it. History tells it that Blatty set a new paradigm in place and made the “Satanic panic” of the 70s a thing. That alone deserves all the credit in the world, and quite a bit of admiration on my part for the writer. It ultimately just comes down to the fact that this novel isn’t for me.