Book Review: The Exorcist

‘What looked like morning was the beginning of endless night…’

The Exorcist: 40th Anniversary Edition: Blatty, William  Peter: Books

The Exorcist was a big film for me growing up. In a time when all digital media is available at our fingertips, it’s hard to imagine an era in which a film was completely banned. Totally unavailable. But that was The Exorcist during my childhood. It was whispered about in the classroom. Sombrely discussed around campfires. A film so terrifying, so frightening, that even twenty years after its initial release it was still as mythical and insidious as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. When I did finally see it as a teenager, it shocked me in ways that no film ever had before. As a good Catholic boy, the sight of a possessed girl doing unspeakable things with a crucifix was an image that became seared into my brain. Her blasphemous utterances were just as shocking. All of this culminated in my friends and I forming a (absolutely terrible) metal band called Regan – the A was an anarchy A, of course. Despite all this adoration for William Friedkin’s film, it had never occurred to me to read the book – believing as I did that it would be a bland, empty experience when compared with the visceral horror of the film adaptation, despite the fact that author William Peter Blatty also provided the screenplay for the film. How wrong I was…

Regan is a seemingly normal nine-year-old girl whose increasingly erratic behaviour can no longer be explained away as a psychotic episode. At the end of her rope, Regan’s mother Chris seeks help from the Catholic Church and Father Damien Karras – a man who is himself struggling with his own faith.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film, but it is pretty faithful to the source material. The characters of Burke Dennings (murdered by Regan in the first act) and Lieutenant Kinderman are perhaps more prominent in the book, but everything else is present and correct. The crucial difference is that we get more of a run up to Regan’s horrifying possession. For the entire first third of the book, it’s not made clear what has actually happened to the wretched girl and this makes for an almost unbearable escalation of tension. When the Catholic Church finally does become involved, we are treated to much more ponderings on the inner workings of Father Karras and his complex relationship with the church and it is in these moments that The Exorcist really excels.

Beautifully written in haunting and startlingly expressive prose, The Exorcist is more than just a tame precursor to the explosive film adaptation, it is a wondrous companion piece that demands to be read, a novel that is as insistent as Pazuzu himself.

A must for any horror fans.