The following is a crosspost with For Winter Nights, the excellent literary blog from my good friend WetDarkandWild. She doesn’t really do horror, so I volunteered to help out when a review copy of the reissued Exorcist dropped through her letterbox. On this occasion, I was very happy indeed to do the favour…
For any horror fan that knows the genre, The Exorcist is the alpha and the omega. A dark, brutal trap of a film, and one of the few whose reputation remains unsullied and potent.
But the book, published in 1971, came first. A sensation on it’s release, a large part of the success of William Friedkin’s adaptation is due to how closely it cleaves to the original story. Now a fortieth-anniversary edition has been brought out, with tweaks and tidying by William Peter Blatty – an excuse, as he says in the foreword, to polish “the rhythms of the dialogue and prose throughout.” The original, as he admits, was rushed, and subject to editorial meddling. We have been presented with something closer to a director’s cut. Although fear not – there’s no George Lucas-style redecoration here.
Blatty began his writing career as a screenwriter, and those skills are obvious in the book. The story moves like a runaway train, at a pace that becomes ever more hectic. The purple prose that he uses in the prologue, set in Northern Iraq, is something of a red herring – the main body of the book uses a cool, distant style. Reportage that only makes the horrifying events in the book that bit more awful.
Do I need to tell the story? In broad strokes: actress Chris McNeil lives in a rambling house in a suburb of Washington with her daughter, Regan. The girl, a sweet-natured creature, starts to talk about an imaginary friend, Captain Howdy. The good captain gradually takes over, slipping into Regan as if he was shrugging on a suit. Howdy is no friend. Regan has become possessed by a demon.
The book is soaked from the first lines in a thick sense of dread. We’re never sure where Howdy comes from. A relic bearing his likeness is unearthed at the Iraqi dig that begins the book. Regan has been playing with a Ouija board. It’s never clear. It doesn’t need to be. All we need to know is that the girl has been taken, and that she will not be easily recovered.
In some ways, the story unfolds like a police procedural as Chris, and later the priest who becomes entangled in the case, the conflicted Damian Karras, try to find evidence that Regan is sick, suffering from delusions, somehow self-hypnotised. Like Sherlock Holmes, they eliminate the impossible to reach the incredible truth. The exorcist of the title, the haunted Father Merrin, only appears three-quarters of the way through the book. Before then we, like Chris and Father Karras, are struggling to make sense of the senseless.
The book still holds the ability to shock and unsettle. Sweet Regan’s transformation (is it any coincidence that her nickname is Rags? Howdy treats her as a puppet, throwing her around like a rag doll) is rapid and terrible, her foul language a shock when we have witnessed how her mother can’t even swear properly. Blatty’s clear, uncoloured description of what the possession is doing to Regan brings us to horror and revulsion in equal measure. We are rarely out of the Georgetown house, and as the focus becomes more claustrophobic, the tension builds. When Merrin arrives, in a moment that is the most memorable image of the film, the relief is palpable. But the worst is yet to come.
Blatty delivers his shocks like a swordsman’s coup de grace, leaving them to the end of a chapter, often in the space of one line. Then away again, leaving the resonance of what we’ve just read to clatter like a man thrown down a set of steps. It’s key to the pacing of the book. He doesn’t dwell on the horror. He knows that we’re more than capable of doing that ourselves.
The Exorcist remains a remarkable achievement in modern horror, a book that transcends any danger of pulpy exploitation in favour of something much darker and richer. Seen at the time as harsh commentary on the corruption of the American soul during Vietnam, it stands today as an allegory on the ugliness that lurks in everyone, and how it can infect even the most innocent of victims.
Howdy may be otherworldly, but he takes a lot of his material from the people around him. The book digs more deeply into the characters than the film can, drawing you more deeply into their suffering, into their conflicts, and into the awful understanding that is The Exorcist’s black heart. The sacrifice at the end of the book is almost inevitable – you can see it coming from page one. Evil has a price that has to be paid before any form of salvation can be reached.