The Exorcist: Deep, dark, literate horror

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The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty horror book reviewsThe Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

Sometimes I wish there weren’t so many amazing books to read. Because every once in a while I come across a book so intricate, so subtle, and so intense, that without a second, slower, read, I know there is zero chance that I capture a true understanding the book in its entirety.

William Peter Blatty‘s The Exorcist is that kind of a book. It’s creepy, crude and scary. On more than one evening while reading in bed, I found myself half jumping across the room only to find the cat poking his head through the door to see if it was breakfast time. One morning on my bus ride into work, I almost elbowed a poor woman in the head, so throughout engrossed I was in Blatty’s deeply affecting novel.

What looked like morning was the beginning of endless night.

The Exorcist, which Blatty converted into the screenplay of the well-known film, is about an actress, Chris MacNeil, living in Washington, D.C. while finishing the filming of a movie. Their house is, effectively, on the doorstep of Georgetown University, and several mysteries surround an undiagnosed illness of the actress’ daughter, Regan. Her condition grows worse, and its manifestations become more and more bizarre. I don’t think I’m giving much away when I ‘reveal’ that the girl starts to show signs of a split personality — one of which is less than fully human.

As with all great horror, the physicality of the frights is less imposing than the psychology that precedes it. The real theme that orbits Regan MacNeil’s seeming possession is one of faith. The plot’s passion is driven by Father Damien Karras, a Jesuit priest and trained psychologist teaching at Georgetown. Blatty slowly serves Karras’ back-story like a delectable appetizer before the main course.

Father Karras seeks the truth of Regan’s condition — all signs point to demonic possession, but Karras’ faith, an innate and deeply embedded belief that he felt in his youth, has dissipated through the grim realities of life. He very much feels the realities of Regan’s possession, but cannot escape his secular education and experiences, and Blatty masterfully teases out doubt through thoughtful and genuine psychological analyses.

The Exorcist is rife with turbulent foreboding. Some elements of the horror are subtle, but Blatty’s expectation-setting is not so much:

Like the brief doomed flare of exploding suns that registers dimly on blind men’s eyes, the beginning of the horror passed almost unnoticed.

I love this kind of deep, rich, relentlessly hammering melodrama. Another terrific line provides exposition while MacNeil broods over her ever-sickening daughter:

…the Potomac’s deceptively placid surface, offered no hint of the perilously swift and powerful currents that surged underneath … In the soft, smoothing light of evening, the river, with its seeming dead calm and stillness, suddenly struck her as something that was planning. And waiting.

In a scene leading into the finale, Karras enters Regan’s bedroom where she’s strapped tightly to her bed. It’s been days since the personality of the girl has made even the briefest of appearances. Blatty writes that Karras “felt something in the room congealing;” the atmosphere is thick and heavy. That description terrifically sums up the mood of the book; there’s a darkness that is more than just an absence of light, but something more material with real weight and depth.

I loved The Exorcist and couldn’t recommend it more highly. It’s scary and it’s disturbing, but also deep and literate. It may not have the pure shock-appeal of the film, but this is, without doubt, on my top ten list of horror novels.


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JASON GOLOMB, who joined us in September 2015, graduated with a degree in Communications from Boston University in 1992, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University in 2005. His passion for ice hockey led to jobs in minor league hockey in Baltimore and Fort Worth, before he returned to his home in the D.C. metro area where he worked for America Online. His next step was National Geographic, which led to an obsession with all things Inca, Aztec and Ancient Rome. But his first loves remain SciFi and Horror, balanced with a healthy dose of Historical Fiction.

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One comment

  1. I found The Exorcist to be more fascinating than terrifying, but I do agree that it’s very well-written.

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