Thoughts: The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty

I have seen the film of The Exorcist, in the way that a lot of almost-teenage girls did – from behind a sofa.

I was kind of dreading this one.

Anyway, the version I read was an updated edition, with a note by the author explaining the hurried way in which the first edition was written and released. A screenwriter, he was going through some financially tough times, and when a job came through at the time he would have been settling into meaty book edits, he had to take it, so the book was rushed. This edition, years later, was more polished to his satisfaction.

I found the background interesting to read – you don’t see much of that sort of transparency about the pure business side of book writing around – and interesting again as I progressed through the book itself, with its constant proximity to poverty and misery. Another thing in the author’s note was the casual fact that Blatty wrote a lot of comedy screenplays, which really did intrigue me (why the leap? Was horror his real heart’s song??) and was looking him up on Wikipedia when I saw the little bio paragraph about his early life, and how impoverished it was.

Though Regan, the possessed, is a child of comfortable wealth (and even her film star mother seems to be always having to hustle to stay in her position), poverty runs through the book, in Elvira’s drug addiction, the filth of homelessness, Father Karras’s hoarding immigrant mother with her broken English and treacherous siblings. Father Karras’s own guilt at escaping his roots is something sick and low, a complicated, hollow misery that his faith will no longer cover, and it was hard not to wonder how much of his feelings were informed by Blatty’s experience. Pazuzu is pretty bad, of course, but exorcising him isn’t going to fix much for any of the other poor suckers in the book.

The priest’s difficulty in having to shoulder the burden of counsel and confession, and to love the most unfortunate and hardest to love of humanity, is a strong thread throughout, but Karras never really has this difficulty with Regan, as physically repulsive as her possession makes her. His difficulty there is the faith thing – part of him seeming to hope for a real demonic possession even as he tries to talk himself and everyone else out of it.

And I quite liked the fact that everyone was trying to talk each other out of the supernatural explanation. Exorcisms are a real-world thing – tied up in abuse and ignorance and tragedy – and I appreciated that the characters approached this all from a scientific point of view, and ran through every common and uncommon possibility before alighting on the unpalatable truth, even the priests. I was glad that there was no lone maverick priest standing against the anti-possession establishment or anything. Of course, the possession in the book still is very much demonic, and the book is a huge bestseller, but within the confines of what he was setting out to talk about, I think in general Blatty did it in a responsible way.

And here is something that’s very much Of Its Time and worth looking at. Pazuzu slams drawers shut across the room and speaks in fluent Latin and tells Karras things about himself that he’s never told anyone in the house, and every time Karras gets that flutter of hope: maybe there really are demons, and everything I am doing has meaning! But then no, he’ll remember that conventional science has entirely accepted that teenage girls just are telekinetic, and people simply can control their bodies to the extent that they can make writing appear on their skin without touching it, and in times like these people just get a bit telepathic, every scientist knows that. I just found the matter-of-factness of it all totally fascinating.

Another unexpected thing was the humour. The characters all have their quirks and their senses of humour, even Karras (which goes a long way towards making his angst bearable – alas I am not a priest and can find it hard to love my fellow man in the depths of his despair, mea culpa), and the dialogue is lively, and practically reads itself. You can tell Blatty was a screenwriter. Chris’s affectionate exchanges of insults with Regan, Father Dyer’s deadpan absurdities, Dennings’s camp cruelty, the morose Jewish cop Kinderman with his stilted self-deprecation.

Blatty can lay the doom on a bit thick (but who would read The Exorcist and want it to be subtle?), ending his chapters on ominous promises of horrors to come and sliding atmospheric grimness into his similes (Regan is described once, at the beginning, before she’s possessed at all, as “slender as a fleeting hope”, which is delightful). He can belabour characters’ inner thoughts a bit, and from time to time a plot thread gets dropped or just sort of feels a little out of place/pointless (Chris’s missed directing opportunity, which… honestly felt like an elaborate set-up for the line about “losing Hope”, which I don’t think is good enough to warrant it).

So yeah, a little bit pulpy, but with much more substance than I was expecting. And I haven’t had to sleep with the light on yet.

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