The Exorcist – William Peter Blatty: A Review

Date finished: February 21st 2017

The Exorcist has a reputation for being the scariest story/movie of all time. I think it was Bill Bryson who recalled a colleague reading it and finding it so horrific and evil he threw it into the sea (off the end of Bournemouth pier, if I recall). Bryson rushed to the nearest bookshop to buy a copy, which he washed in the sea and generally abused before putting it into the aforementioned colleague’s desk drawer.

The moral of the story is: Bill Bryson’s a bit of a dick, and a hilarious one at that. But it goes to show the hype around the novel upon its release. It’s curious then to learn in Blatty’s foreword that it wasn’t selling well at all until providence intervened. Dick Cavett’s guests for his show had all cancelled and Blatty was the only remotely interesting man near enough to get to the show in time. Cavett hadn’t read the book, the other guests were uninteresting, so Blatty ended up giving a 45 minute monologue. Literary history has made the results clear.

The Exorcist tells the story of Regan, a bright young girl targeted by a malevolent spirit. As the demon possessing her forces her to do ever stranger and more horrifying things, her mother, Chris, desperately seeks help. Exhausting the conventional medical routes which only yield baffled doctors, she opts for a far more radical cure.

Blatty writes with a slightly idiosyncratic take on generic thriller writing; a penchant for short staccato descriptions, and then moments of surprising depth, such as his meticulous attention to the technical aspects of the more medical and religious sections of the novel, which convey a Crichton-esque level of enthusiasm for the topics.

Although some earlier moments in the novel create a creeping sense of dread,  The Exorcist never becomes scary. The demon within Regan is simply too grotesque and obscene. To some – an audience with a modicum of piety, I suppose – this would be in itself frightening, but for a less religious, more cynical audience the gamut of obscenity becomes excessive, desensitising and, ultimately, familiar. Horror, for me, comes from uncertainty, but the second Regan is fully possessed uncertainty is removed from the equation, even though Blatty spends an inordinate amount of time trying to convince you it isn’t.

That said, it’s a good story, far meatier than the title suggests, and written by an author who’s obviously having a lot of fun with his plot and a cast of characters who are fuller-realised than one might expect from a horror novel. The Exorcist is iconic, and for good reason, but that doesn’t mean that, 46 years on, it can continue to live up to its lofty reputation.


Related Reading

The Loney – Andrew Michael Hurley

The Shining – Stephen King


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