Until I started reading The Exorcist, my knowledge of possession was strictly limited to the “Ghost Realtor” segment from Comedy Central’s Nathan For You. Now, I have a much better handle on the concept thanks to William Peter Blatty’s seminal book, which the front cover dubs “the most terrifying novel ever written.”A bold claim, and categorically untrue in my opinion. A tad scary, sure, and a fine read overall.
Actress Chris MacNeil lives a luxurious life. She lives in a rented house in Washington D.C. for her current project. She drives a Jaguar. She has two kind housekeepers and a tutor for her daughter, Regan. Chris’s life takes a nasty turn when Regan begins to show symptoms of a strange mental and physical illness. Bewildered doctors lob possible diagnoses at Chris, but nothing seems to help Regan, who descends into fits of rage and acts of violence to the point where she has to be sedated and strapped to her bed. Damien Karras, a priest and psychiatrist working at nearby Georgetown University, eventually catches wind of Regan’s ailment and begins to think it’s something much more sinister than a disease or mental condition.
The Exorcist’s plot is focused and intentional. Blatty moves things along at a brisk pace for the most part. The early stages of the novel feel slow and steady. They function as stage-setting of sorts, painting a picture of Chris’s life, relationships, and desires. Her relationship with Regan is strong, but it’s troubled by a difficult divorce and an absent ex-husband who rarely makes time for their daughter. Readers who yearn for a page-turner brimming with suspense will find it, but only in the back half of the novel. This plays into Blatty’s hand well; the later events hit harder when you have a clearer picture of the backdrop.
I appreciate the narrow focus of the book, particularly on the characters. The Exorcist’s cast consists of seven-ish key players, each with a distinct identity, and background. Blatty deftly sidesteps overcrowding, instead opting for a tight narrative fuelled by the motivations of his main characters.
The dialogue occasionally helps characterize the cast, but more often than not it feels stiff and jilted. Characters speak in ways that don’t feel natural, or the conversations bleed together without distinguished voices. Regan’s lines sound like a childless 70-year-old man’s idea of how kids speak.
The Exorcist finds its fundamental theme in doubt and diminishing faith. Damien Karras struggles to find peace in his religion, and his fellow parishioners notice his dwindling dedication. Chris loses her faith in doctors and medicine—which was already low due to certain trauma—as professionals scramble to identify Regan’s condition. Detective Kinderman, whose involvement I won’t spoil, wavers in his commitment to his career as he waffles between what’s right and what’s wrong.
The book is reportedly based on a true story, but Blatty takes many liberties. The inspiration was a 1949 exorcism in Maryland and, more loosely, a handful of exorcisms in 1634 France. Your buy-in to the real-world tethers may vary. I read The Exorcist as pure fiction. This felt necessary because any verisimilitude is lost on me, an atheist, when true life connections require a certain commitment to faith. What I’m saying here is simple: your reaction to The Exorcist will significantly depend on your choice to take it as semi-truthful or a work of fiction. In reading it as the latter, I felt neutral about the book overall. While I enjoyed aspects of The Exorcist, I turned the final page feeling indifferent. It will undoubtedly strike different readers in different ways, and I encourage you to read it if you’re a fan of horror, the occult, or demonic possession tropes.
Rating: The Exorcist – 6.0/10