William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, died Thursday evening, January 12th, 2017. He was 89 years old. Though he wasn’t very prolific, his story of a young girl possessed by a demon made a huge impact on readers all over the world. Blatty’s follow up to The Exorcist twelve years later, Legion was later adapted to the cult-classic film The Exorcist III, which Blatty also directed. His novel The Ninth Configuration, which was also adapted for film by Blatty, has gained a solid cult following through the years.
For Blatty, it will always be The Exorcist that he will be most remembered for. Recently released in a 40th Anniversary edition, the novel is without a doubt the definitive horror novel of the 20th century. Released on the heels of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, things weren’t so easy for The Exorcist when it was first published. Initial sales were dismal despite a massive book tour. Blatty got a very lucky break on The Dick Cavett Show, where he was allotted forty-five minutes of national television time to talk up the book. Sales skyrocketed after that interview, pushing the book onto the bestseller lists and finally getting the attention of the Hollywood studios.
Prior to the novel’s run on the bestseller lists, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather was the reigning bestselling champ. In 1971, it was very rare for a horror novel to even make it on the national lists, but then, The Exorcist isn’t a horror novel. To be fair, the novel fits the universal definition of mainstream fiction to the letter. It just happens to be very scary. You have a glamorous Hollywood actress at her wits end trying to help her daughter, a conflicted young priest faced with making a case for the exorcism, a veteran priest experienced with demonic possession, and at the center of it all, the soul of a young girl tormented beyond scientific explanation. The events of the story are shocking, yet grounded in reality. We come to care about these characters. The story is personal and the stakes are high. The suspense is so thick you can cut it with a knife. Good versus evil, God versus Satan, like we had never seen it before.
The Exorcist pushed horror fiction into the mainstream. Publishers and movie studios scrambled, rushing to push out the next best thing, with none of their efforts ever matching the massive appeal of what came before. Blatty revisited the story some time later with Legion, somewhat picking up where the story left off while staking out new territory, though the novel never achieved the acclaim of the original. Regardless of Blatty’s fictional output, it’s hard to deny the man’s impact on horror fiction. The Exorcist is the standard, the benchmark, of what horror can achieve. To write what many people consider the epitome of horror fiction at its finest is an honor any horror writer would like to earn. Blatty earned that honor, in spades.
Rest well, Mr. Blatty. You will be missed.