Tattered Tomes: William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, Revisited

The Exorcist coverThe late William Peter Blatty’s masterpiece, The Exorcist, is a foundation of modern horror fiction. The film was my first experience with the story, albeit a censored version broadcast on television for the first time. I’d seen the book at the library, the paperback tattered and torn, spine-cracked and dog-eared, yet for some reason, I wasn’t too impressed with the cover. The blurbs on the front and back on the paperback, ‘SHOCKER OF THE YEAR’ and ‘9,000,000 copies in print’ sounded cool, but it was really the picture on the cover that wasn’t doing it for me. I thought the hazy, lurid, wraith-like girl, looking up at the camera with those haunted eyes, was lame for some reason. Compared to some of the other book covers on the rack, the book just didn’t look like something I wanted to read. I distinctly remember watching the movie on network TV with my father. He had seen it in the theater when it first released and told me it scared the piss outta him. He also said Mom wouldn’t watch it again, that it was too much for her. About halfway through watching the movie, which came with the typical mature audience content warning at the beginning and between the commercial breaks, Dad started griping. “They cut too much out, this ain’t even the same movie now,” he told me.

Sometime after that, we finally got our first VCR player as a gift from a friend of the family. A local business man had opened a video store near the house, and me and Dad would hit it on the weekends looking for movies to watch. They had The Exorcist for rental, but we had to wait until Mom was out of town to watch it. She eventually did go out of town, and I got to see the film unedited at last. The difference was dramatic. My mind blown, I checked the book out of the library as soon as I could and began reading it immediately.

Why even mention the film? It’s important to note that Blatty wrote the script and was shopping it around while the book was floundering in the bookstores. A lucky break on The Dick Cavett Show gave Blatty the opportunity he needed to hype up the book, which was instrumental in securing a film deal. The film is a near perfect reflection of the book, with significant chunks of dialogue lifted right from the pages for the script. As a writer, studying Blatty’s mastery of dialogue is paramount to modern fiction today. As with Elmore Leonard and Ira Levin, Blatty’s dialogue is pitch perfect, conveying information and energy, propelling the story where narrative would have bogged it down. The film is a classic, but of course, nothing beats the book.

Revisiting this story decades after the first read was met with some degree of hesitation. Sure, the story is hard to forget, but time has a way of eroding memory, and for some reason I felt that I would find the book boring this time around. This reread was the 40th Anniversary edition, with some added parts by Blatty, though I couldn’t tell where the changes occur. Once opened to the prologue, the book simply grabs ahold of you and will not let you go. It’s a feeling only readers can comprehend. When a book has such a hold over you, and you let it consume you, there’s really nothing like that feeling in the world. Like an old friend, the story hugs you tight, luring you in step by step, and even though you feel the cold fingers wrapping around your neck, you can’t stop reading.

One of the most notable things about The Exorcist is that the hero and villain of the story are quite simply good vs. evil. None of the characters are truly heroic or villainous, though Father Karras does perform a heroic deed out of rage and pure desperation at the end of the book. Regan MacNeil, the young victim of the demon, is powerless to resist the evil. Chris, her mother, a well-known actress, is an atheist, and is at her wits’ end, exhausting all her resources trying to find a way to get her daughter back to being normal again. Father Damien Karras, a Jesuit psychiatrist, is conflicted in faith and inexperienced in the rites of exorcism. Father Lankester Merrin, older and with a heart condition, has experience with the demon but is not in the shape needed to expunge it from Regan. With the odds stacked against them, time is running out before the demon Pazuzu grows tired of Regan and kills her. Toss in a murder and a pesky Lieutenant by the name of Kinderman, and you have a ticking time bomb ready to explode. Blatty dives into all his character’s heads, giving us glimpses into their lives, of their goals and dreams, and their heartaches and failures. These players are as well-rounded as you can get. Chris may be a famous actress, but Blatty makes her relatable, almost down-to-earth. Karras studied theology and psychology for years, but everyone of faith has their moments of doubt. When you capture this essence of life on the page, readers can’t help but to give a damn about the characters. They are interesting and compelling, and we cannot stand not knowing what will happen to them next.

Blatty grounds his tale to reality with science and medicine. Though it becomes obvious that Regan is possessed to the other characters, the Church’s involvement only comes after every other logical and medical remedy has been fully examined. Blatty’s case here is clear, that demonic possession, if real, is extremely rare, and more often easily explained by a psychological condition than one of a demon, or the devil himself, inhabiting the body of a human. Nearly every one of Regan’s symptoms has a corresponding medical explanation that leads away from the Church’s administration of the rites. It is only after discovering Regan is speaking English backwards that the decision is made to perform the ceremony. Another aspect of the novel is the setting: Georgetown, Washington D.C. The stone steps at the corner of Prospect St NW and 36th St NW, all 75 of them, are the very steps Burke Dennings (the director of the film Chris MacNeil was working on) and Father Karras fell from in the book and the film. Though Blatty keeps his real settings to the interiors of his characters, his exterior environments give the story a sense that it could really happen anywhere while maintaining a distinct personality that permeates the narrative.

As relevant today as it was when it first released, The Exorcist is still considered by many as the scariest book ever written. Though set in the seventies, the story reads with all the ferocity and fierceness of a modern blockbuster. Strangely, Blatty never thought of the story as horror, which is perhaps why it is so scary. His approach of keeping everything firmly rooted in reality, allowing the supernatural to hurt and destroy the lives of characters we come to love and care about, and raising the stakes with each page as the characters grow more and more desperate, is seriously compulsive reading. For those who have never read the book, it’s about time to check it out. If you have read it but it’s been awhile, there’s nothing like visiting an old friend.

It’s always a good day for an exorcism.



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