Sunday, April 24, 2022

"The Exorcist" by William Peter Blatty--Fiction Review

Time for some more horror of the supernatural bent, my dear Obscurists. Make sure to read this review late at night and in a dark room because we’re talking about “The Exorcist” by William Peter Blatty.

William Peter Blatty

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

I’m a sucker for any horror story, and “The Exorcist” is one of those arch horror stories that stick in people’s minds. This novel has a threatening atmosphere that just keeps ratcheting higher and higher. The fact that this is all happening to an innocent little girl makes it all the scarier, especially when the body horror starts.

Despite being a book about religious terror and demon possession, it feels grounded in reality—mostly. The characters’ concerns and doubts are all authentic, which is nice. If everyone was too quick to jump to “must be demons in that little girl,” it would cheapen the story. 

The consequences are real and tragic in this story. Despite this being a story of faith vs. a demonic presence, Blatty never resorts to deus ex machina.

What I don’t love about this book:

It presents things like telekinesis and telepathy as being known and real phenomena. I get that it’s fiction, so why not? But the thing is, since the rest of the story tries to make itself feel grounded in reality, it goes out of its way actually, but when it comes to the more fantastical elements, its messaging is very “well, maybe?” But no, not maybe, people don’t move things with their minds. That’s a clever magic trick.

Shifting gears dramatically on this point, I’m also annoyed by Father Karras’s reticence about accepting that Regan is possessed by a demon. Blatty overcommits to this idea that Karras can be just as skeptical as any scientist, which, yeah, sure, I appreciated at first. But there comes the point when the evidence is so overwhelming that it becomes ridiculous to still be holding out on the idea that there has to be a rational explanation for what is happening. I don’t disbelieve in magic and whatnot in my day-to-day life because I want to; I’ve just never been convinced to the contrary with what I would consider verifiable, repeatable, testable evidence. It’s always someone telling me their anecdotal story, which the furthest I will accept with that is that person believes in what they’re saying. But if a girl’s head goes all the way around, then she does clearly other magical shit right in front of me, then yeah, I’d change my mind.

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

The novel opens with a short vignette of an old priest, Father Merrin, The Exorcist, returning to the United States from an archeological dig in Iraq. Before he concluded his business, he had discovered a small statue of a demon known as Pazuzu. 

From there, the plot refocuses on a recently divorced famous actress Chris MacNeil and her daughter Regan. Chris is a single working mother who is widely sought after in the film industry, and even with her staff that manages her affairs and home, she finds her time stretched thin and doesn’t have as much quality time with her daughter as she would like.

Regan, early on, seems like a sweet and imaginative young girl, a bit melancholy given the situation with her parents’ divorce. Soon though, strange things start to happen around the young girl, an invisible friend takes a sinister turn, strange noises can be heard coming from her room at odd hours, et cetera.

Eventually, Regan’s abnormal behavior crescendoes at a party her mother throws, and it becomes clear to Chris that her daughter needs psychiatric help. The doctors are baffled, though, by Regan’s increasingly bizarre behavior and can’t find anything specifically medically wrong with her. One day, a doctor suggests maybe having Regan looked at by a priest, which is how young Father Karras comes into their lives.

At first, Karras only agrees to see Regan as a doctor because he’s also a medically trained psychiatrist in addition to being a priest. He does not believe that Regan is possessed by a demon and, in fact, struggles with that idea for way, way too long. Things continue to escalate, and eventually, even doubting, Karras concludes that maybe an exorcism could help.  

The bishop feels that Karras isn’t qualified to perform an exorcism on his own, so he taps Father Merrin, who is far more experienced in such matters. Karras will act as an assistant to Merrin in the actual ritual.

Things don’t go precisely well—Merrin is killed in the attempt to free the young girl from her possession, and Karras has to take over completing the ritual of exorcism. Karras manages to exorcise the demon Pazuzu from Regan, but it ultimately costs him his life too. But in his final moments, his faith in God is restored.


A little bit of biblical knowledge goes a long way in this book and adds to the horror because an exorcist is a priest whose profession is to cast out demons. So if you don’t have even a passing understanding of Christianity—which at this point, who doesn’t—I don’t feel this book would work nearly as well.

Several people have told me that this is the scariest story they’ve ever encountered, either as the famous movie or the novel. To a point, I can understand that because no one likes the idea of some external force controlling them, and the idea it’s a supernatural malevolent force is even more disconcerting. But I think the dread of this story only works so powerfully on people prone to believe—if only a bit, maybe even unconsciously—its underlying conceit that demons are totally a thing and wage constant war against the faithful.

But if you don’t, all “The Exorcist” really has going for it is that it’s shocking. Many of the horror scenes aren’t set up to cause existential dread so much as they are to either shock or disgust you. Possession is an existential crisis, but the vomiting and the body horror aren’t. They’re effective on a visceral animal level. Still, I find the scariest things are scary on an intellectual and animal level, which I figure is probably why I enjoy horror blended with sci-fi the most. This leaves the mental side of this story lacking in frightening potential for me because I might as well have been reading a fantasy story.

Parting thoughts:

I don’t have anything particularly profound to mull over for this parting thoughts tonight, but I once read a story about someone who suggested this book to their friend—who absolutely hated it. Why am I bringing this up? Because it’s hilarious. Why is it hilarious? Bear with me.

This person hated the novel “The Exorcist” so much because they felt it was the single most evil book they’d ever attempted to read. Apparently, so much so that they didn’t even bother to finish reading the novel. Instead, they dramatically and unceremoniously chucked it into the Potomac River. 

Now upon hearing this, their friend who had initially suggested it to them did the only reasonable thing a person could do in that situation. They bought the exact same edition of the one presumably resting somewhere in the Potomac, ran it under the faucet several times to get that authentic water damage look, and then hid it in their friend’s house somewhere for them to find at a later date.

And find it they did.

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