Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
William Peter Blatty has certainly written many novels worthy of our attention, but I think it’s safe to say none of them have stood the test of time like The Exorcist, which also received a timeless silver screen adaptation. It tells the story of Regan MacNeil, a young girl who becomes possessed by a demon, and the two priests who are brought in to fight for her life, facing an evil none have ever seen before.
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William Peter Blatty Establishes Religious Horror
In the last few decades horror stories and movies have become so commonplace they have lost much of the charm and meaning which their scarce few ancestors used to bear. Whereas today most horror writers will go for cheap shock value, we can thankfully always take refuge in the novels of the past, and few show the depths to which the genre can aspire to better than The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty.
The story begins by taking us to Iraq, which in 1971 (when the book was released), was still viewed as an exotic land of faraway mysteries. We see how an elderly Jesuit priest, Father Lankester Merrin, comes across a small statue of the demon Pazuzu while leading an archaeological dig, an omen of the dark fight ahead.
Meanwhile, back in Georgetown the young Regan MacNeil, daughter to a famous actress (Chris MacNeil), has fallen inexplicably ill. What’s worse, strange occurrences have begun plaguing their house since, events with absolutely no rational explanation. Young Regan’s condition rapidly deteriorates as she refuses to eat or sleep, becoming increasingly wild and aggressive.
After a plethora of unsuccessful treatments, her mother turns to a local Jesuit priest in a desperate plea for help. Father Damien Karras is himself undergoing a personal crisis of faith at the moment, but decides to help Chris and has a few personal meetings with the child. Upon seeing that Regan has become completely inhabited by some demonic entity, he requests he local bishop for the permission to perform an exorcism.
However, the bishop judges Damien too inexperienced for the task, and instead appoints Father Merrin to take charge of the operation. From there on out, the two priests lead a long and drawn-out battle for little Regan’s soul, prepared to give their own lives to complete the process. However, one can be certain of nothing when dealing with a demonic entity, and between Merrin’s heart disease and Damien’s lack of faith, success is anything but guaranteed.
God never talks. But the devil keeps advertising, Father. The devil does a lot of commercials.― William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist
The Classic Battle Modernized in The Exorcist
I don’t think I’d be too far off the mark in saying the oldest horror stories known to us are of a religious nature, depicting the ways in which regular people might fall prey to the demonic ambitions of Satan and his cohorts. They are stories pitting common folk against otherworldly evil, and ultimately, they show the ways for Man to triumph over the devil’s temptations.
The way I see it, The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty is essentially a modernized version of the classic horror story of old, one telling of a battle between some form of demonic entity and agents of The higher power. Of course, today’s desensitized crowd won’t find a lot to be scared of in a traditional sense, but it doesn’t mean the story isn’t worthy of your attention.
So long as you temper your expectations and understand that shock value isn’t the author’s primary currency, you’ll realize the horror elements come more from the atmosphere than anything else. As a matter of fact, I would argue this novel is a master-class in how to create an oppressive and deeply uncomfortable ambience which never fails to remind the reader of an omnipresent danger.
Most of the book is dedicated to the interactions between the priests and possessed Regan, effectively making for a battle of words, wits and nerves between good and evil, between Man and demon. These scenes, in my opinion, simply steal the show and force the rest of the book to essentially fade into the background. I always found myself sitting on pins and needles, anticipating what new tricks the demon would come up with next, and how the priests would deal with them.
Though we’ve moved away from ancient times when battles were fought with sword and shield, I found this psychological confrontation with evil to be no less enticing, and perfectly in line with our own modern world. I think the author managed a monumental feat in taking one of the oldest story archetypes known to us, transposing it to our era, and making it feel unique and exciting… even if you’ve already watched the movie and know the ending.
Perhaps evil is the crucible of goodness… and perhaps even Satan – Satan, in spite of himself – somehow serves to work out the will of God.― William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist
The Crucible of Good
As I’ve mentioned it at the beginning of my review, when compared to most modern works of horror, The Exorcist has an appreciable amount of depth to it, and it’s largely seen through the secondary characters in the story. Or, I suppose more precisely, it is seen through the changes they experience by virtue of their proximity to Regan.
If there’s one thing you ought to be warned about before venturing into this story, it’s the fact that there are actually few redeeming or pleasant characters to spend your time with. Most of them are deeply-flawed human beings, and the further the story progresses, the more they allow their inner ugliness to ooze out for everyone to see. For instance, I think few are the readers who don’t grow tired of Chris, who spends more time thinking about her acting career than her own daughter’s demonic possession.
The good news is that some of the characters do undergo a sort of transformative purge over the course of the story, seeing the errors of their ways and at least trying to become better people. William Peter Blatty seemed intent on showing us that people can be terrible, but they also have it in them to change and learn from their mistakes, at least, if they truly regret them.
I assume everyone has already guessed it the moment they read the title of the book, but religion is quite strongly present in the story from start to finish, and not merely as a vehicle used by the priests to wage battle against a demon. Various topics are explored, such as the vast presence of evil in our world and keeping one’s faith against it, and in such curious ways that even as a non-religious person I found myself interested.
This is the last point I’d like to bring up before jumping to the final verdict. Whether or not you are or were religious, don’t let it stop you from reading The Exorcist. The author treats religion with the care and respect it deserves, but isn’t afraid to ask hard-hitting questions and often explores them from unusual angles and perspectives, ones I hadn’t thought of myself.
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The Final Verdict
The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty is rightfully recognized as one of the greatest works of horror of all time, and deserved to be not just a bestseller of the 1970s, but recognized as a timeless classic very much worth a read regardless of when the reader is from.
If you’re a horror fan and haven’t read the book yet, or are simply looking for a classic, time-tested and profound work in the genre centred on a small religious struggle between Man and demon, then I strongly suggest you add The Exorcist to your collection.
William Peter Blatty
(January 7, 1928 – January 12, 2017)
William Peter Blatty was an American writer, director and producer whose most recognized work is his 1971 novel, The Exorcist. In 1974, he wrote the screenplay for the silver screen adaptation. Some of his other works include The Ninth Configuration, Legion and Dimiter. Among his many awards are The Commonwealth Club Silver Medal for Literature, multiple Golden Globes, and The Horror Writers Association Lifetime Achievement Award.