Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Devil Only Knows

Think of The Exorcist, and you’re likely to recall images of a young Linda Blair’s head turning completely around, or perhaps two priests being pelted with vomit, or maybe even a bed levitating a few feet off the floor. Of course, those indelible images belong to the award-winning film released in 1973 and starring Ellyn Burstyn, Linda Blair, Max Von Sydow, and Lee J. Cobb. Yet, before the film started raising the neck hairs of the viewing public, there was William Peter Blatty’s novel--a book that’s just now celebrating its 40th birthday with a special anniversary edition.

The Exorcist initially came together under desperate circumstances. In a hand-out distributed by his publisher, Blatty states that
In January 1968, I rented a cabin in Lake Tahoe to start writing a novel about demonic possession that I’d been thinking about for many years. I’d been driven to it, actually. ... My breaking point came ... when at the Van Nuys, California, unemployment office I spotted my movie agent in a line three down from mine.
After several false starts, the author finally went back “home” to
a clapboard raccoon-surrounded guest house in the hills of Encino owned by a former Hungarian opera star who had purchased the property from the luminous film actress Angela Lansbury, and where I finally overcame the block ... Almost a year later, I completed a first draft of the novel. At the request of my editors ... I did make two quick changes ... but because of a dire financial circumstance, I had not another day to devote to the manuscript ... I left my novel to find its fate.
And what a glorious fate it found. After it was published in 1971, The Exorcist spent 57 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, including 17 consecutive weeks in the No. 1 position.

Even four decades later, the novel still retains its raw power to scare the bejesus out of readers. Sure, there are the familiar images such as those mentioned above, but there are other frightening moments in the tome that director William Friedkin did not incorporate into his film, such as when the possessed child, Regan MacNeil, contorts her body to look like a spider and silently stalks her nanny. This reader got serious goose bumps while going through that section. Whether or not you believe evil walks this earth, you will give in to the horrors contained in these pages. And if you are reading this book at night, you’ll want to turn on all the lights.

Beatty beat his writer’s block 40 years ago by correctly realizing that his novel should open in northern Iraq. It’s there that we first meet Father Lankester Merrin, an old Jesuit priest on the site of an archeological dig. A relic depicting the demon Pazuzu is uncovered from amongst the ruins.
It was a green stone head of the demon Pazuzu, personification of the southwest wind. Its dominion was sickness and disease. The head was pierced. The amulet’s owner had worn it as a shield. “Evil against evil,” breathed the curator.
Merrin is filled with a sense of foreboding as he walks around the dig site one last time, “his heart encased in the icy conviction that soon he would be hunted by an ancient enemy whose face he had never seen. But he knew his name.”

We quickly shift to the tony Washington, D.C., suburb of Georgetown. Film star and mother Chris MacNeil is living there temporarily while she’s shooting her latest role. At first, her 12-year-old daughter, Regan, is the epitome of a happy child living in privileged circumstances. The house is large and comfortable, there is a household staff catering to the mother and daughter’s needs, and at night there are parties with powerful and accomplished guests. It all seems golden. Then, shortly after Regan discovers a Ouija board in the basement of the house, her bed starts shaking one night and she has to go sleep with her mother. Things only go downhill from here.

Both the novel and the film (Blatty penned the screenplay too and won an Oscar for his efforts) do a brilliant job of building an aura of increasing dread, though the new anniversary edition of the book--revised, polished, and slightly added to by Blatty--provides a greater foundation for what is afflicting Regan. The author offers ample religious and psychological background, so that the reader can do some of the detective work in deciding for him- or herself if Regan is indeed possessed by a demon, or undergoing some type of psychotic breakdown.

(Right) The original Exorcist cover

After the anguished Chris MacNeil watches her daughter develop skin lesions and start speaking in strange voices, and sees Regan's bed levitate while MacNeil tries to hold it down, she seeks medical help. Unable to resolve Regan’s symptoms either physically or mentally, a psychiatrist finally suggests that MacNeil try an exorcism--but only in order to trick Regan into believing she’s been “cured.”

MacNeil turns to a Jesuit priest and psychiatrist, Father Damien Karras--a man suffering from both the death of his neglected mother and a doubting faith that results in his reassignment within the church. In the anniversary edition of The Exorcist, Blatty has provided an additional scene introducing the tortured priest. Leaving his mother alone in Brooklyn years earlier, the athletic Karras had earned a medical degree in addition to taking religious vows. But his continued neglect of his mother weighs heavily upon him, and after she is briefly hospitalized, she dies. Karras begins to lose his faith. Into this picture steps Chris MacNeil. She has seen Karras around the Georgetown campus where she is filming. She’s intrigued by his boxer physique and brooding manner. When she asks him to perform an exorcism on Regan, though, he initially resists.
“And how do you go about getting an exorcism?”

There was a pause while Karras stared.

“Beg pardon?” he said at last.

“If a person’s possessed by some kind of a demon, how do you go about getting an exorcism?”

Karras looked off, took a breath, then looked back to her. “Oh, well, first you’d have to put him in a time machine and get him back to the sixteenth century.”

Puzzled, Chris frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Well, it just doesn’t happen anymore.”

“Oh, really? Since when?”

“Since when? Since we learned about mental illness and schizophrenia and split personality; all those things that they taught me at Harvard.”
In the middle of the maelstrom surrounding Regan, there is also a bona-fide murder investigation. When Burke Dennings, the director shooting Chris MacNeil’s flick, is killed, homicide detective Lieutenant William Kinderman picks up the case. Dennings’ body was discovered at the bottom of the stairs outside MacNeil’s home, and Kinderman at first suspects MacNeil’s servant, Karl, of the crime. Parallel to the murder, someone has been desecrating statues at a local church, and through recovered evidence, Kinderman links it to the MacNeil household. Near the end of this book, Kinderman comes to the astonishing conclusion that Regan could be behind Dennings’ death. Kinderman is a great crime-fiction character. He presents a befuddled front, but his engines are really at full-throttle. Only Karras catches onto his shtick.

Eventually, Karras puts aside his analytical evaluation of Regan and goes to his bishop to ask permission to perform an exorcism. The priest understands that this is perhaps his last chance to do good in the world. The bishop has other ideas, however, and he calls in Father Merrin, who has more experience in such matters. When Karras offers to give the elderly priest background information on Regan’s affliction, Merrin cuts him off. He has no doubt who he is dealing with: the demon Pazuzu. It is the showdown that Merrin foresaw back in Iraq. And for his part, Pazuzu has been waiting for Merrin.
Suddenly, Chris flinched at a sound from above, at the voice of the demon. Booming and yet muffled, croaking, like an amplified premature burial, it called out “Meriiiiinnnnnn!” And then the massive and shiveringly hollow jolt of a single sledgehammer blow against the bedroom wall.
The exorcism itself encompasses only a small portion of the last part of this novel, but it is packed with tension: a room so cold the priests’ breath can be seen, objects levitating and flying around, Regan emitting strange animal sounds, and the priests physically wearing down under the assault. Before he arrived at the MacNeil house, Father Merrin knew he would not survive the exorcism. But the ending includes a shocking twist that the reader never sees coming.

Long before the glut of vampire books arrived on the scene with their themes of the undead, William Peter Blatty brought us the realm of everlasting evil colliding with modern culture. With its mix of psychology and religion against the backdrop of film, The Exorcist is a fascinating draw. Moreover, it assures us that things going bump in the night are truly horrific. Father Karras is never certain until the end whether he is truly dealing with a demonic possession. No such dubious claims can be made against the novel, though. The Exorcist was a bestseller 40 years ago and it hasn’t lost an ounce of its power to entertain and enthrall readers. I suspect the publisher will be issuing anniversary editions for many decades to come.

READ MORE:After 40 Years, Grisly Exorcist Book Gets a Rewrite” (National Public Radio); “20 Facts About The Exorcist on Its 40th Birthday,” by Jennifer M. Wood (Mental Floss).


Thomas Pluck said...

I was never interested in reading this until now. Thank you!

Elizabeth Foxwell said...

I worked at Georgetown when _Exorcist III_ was being filmed and got to watch George C. Scott jump into a police car and tear off down the street several times. Production company got in trouble with the administration when it dug a grave in the Jesuit graveyard on campus.

Anonymous-9 said...

Great review. This movie scared me silly and I still can remember that cold room, the priest's frigid breath, the strange mewing from the child. Thanks for delivering the news historical facts on Blatty writing it under dire economic circumstances. It rings a bell for writers here and now.

Jamie Lee Scott said...

This brings back memories. Sitting on the hide-a-bed in the family room. Too scared to turn out the lights and go to sleep