The Exorcist. What can you say about this book that hasn’t already been said – or said by fans of the film? Published over 40 years ago, the book reads as if it was written yesterday. William Peter Blatty managed to set the book in the 1970s without making it feel dated. I read the book once many years ago, and of course saw the movie, but reading it a second time gave me new insights into the characters – as well as made me notice a few flaws in the book itself, which upon casual first reading were hidden.
I won’t belabor the plot since it’s so familiar to most people. Chris McNeil, a movie star, is on location in Georgetown, Washington D.C. to finish filming a movie. She is a divorced mother with a young daughter, Reagan, servants named Karl and Willie, and a tutor for her daughter named Sharon. Her ex-husband Howard is out of the picture and she lost a son, James, to a medical mistake.
The book opens with an intriguing archaeological dig near Mosul, Iraq. We learn that the archaeologist is a Jesuit priest, who senses that an old enemy, a demon, has been awakened or is following him. It’s not really clear how he knows this or why.
The book then shifts to Washington D.C. Chris is an atheist, and allows her daughter to play with Ouija boards and the occult. Strange rappings and knocks begin after her daughter starts mucking around with magic, culminating of course in the now famous possession of little Reagan.
A mysterious death linked to the house brings Lt. Kindermann into the picture, a bumbling Columbo-like detective who uses speech to deflect and misdirect suspects from his inquiries. Also brought into the case is psychiatrist and Jesuit priest Damien Karras, who is having a crisis of faith which sounds more like a caregivers’ exhaustion than anything else.
There’s guilt a-plenty in the household. Chris feels guilty about her divorce and the loss of her son, Damien feels guilty because he couldn’t care for his aging mother. Even Karl the servant has secrets to hide – his heroin-addicted, club-footed daughter.
The novel progresses as Chris tries modern science and psychiatry to get to the root of her daughter’s bizarre and dangerous behavior, only to find her turning to the church as a last resort. Damien must also reconcile faith and reason before seeking and receiving church permission to perform the exorcism. It is only at the end of the book, when he chooses the ultimate sacrifice – his life for Reagan’s – that he resolves his crisis of faith.
So that’s the basic plot. It’s a fast-moving and gripping novel that you can’t put down, and although filled with profanity, disgusting desecration and a scene or two that will give you nightmares, it’s worth the read. But here’s where I find it flawed.
- The opening – we meet Father Merin. Well and good. But he doesn’t arrive until the end, and then he leaves rather quickly. What’s his back story? We get hints that he battled this demon in Africa once before. That’s intriguing. Did the demon seek out a suitable host or did it seek out a host near Merin so that it could face him once again?
- Reagan and the church desecrations. Kindermann links paint found in Reagan’s play room and used to decorate a sculpture of a bird Reagan made for her mother to paint uses to desecrate a statue of the Virgin Mary in the nearby church. He also matches the font on Sharon’s typewriter to a note, typed in fluent Latin and filled with vile desecration, left in the church. We’re left to assume that Reagan somehow snuck out of the house while possessed and committed these atrocities. No one notices that an 11 year old girl has snuck out of the house carrying paint, or typing a lengthy note on the typewriter? When did these things happen in a house with three servants whose only job is to watch her while her mother works?
- Damien Karras…an intriguing character to be sure. His back story is filled with the pain and longing of an immigrant. Is he an illegitimate child? His father is never mentioned. He is wracked with guilt, not just because he could not save his mother from illness and death, but because he was embarrassed by her and fled into the world of medicine, academia and religion to hide his past. He’s having a dreadful crisis of faith, which I felt strongly was brought about by over work, and probably reflects a crisis of faith that most thinking adults have at one time or another. A dark night of the soul, one might say. It is beautifully reconciled in the book, but the narrator only focuses on him in the last quarter of the book.
- Kindermann. On my second reading of the book, I found him to be a necessary but quite annoying character. He’s necessary because he adds to the tension – will he or won’t he accuse Reagan of the murder of the director? Will he insist on seeing her, and if he does, what then? But he annoyed the heck out of me. Perhaps it’s the Columbo-like allusions. Was Columbo on television before or after Blatty wrote the book? I suppose it doesn’t matter. His quirks got on my nerve.
Is the book worth reading? Yes. It is a classic occult horror novel, and while graphic, filled with enough spine-tingling terror to make you keep the light on.
I bought my book from a catalog. You can purchase your copy by clicking on the picture, above, which will take you to an Amazon link to purchase the book. I receive a small commission on the sale but it does not affect your price.