William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist – Spooky Book Spotlight

Welcome back Readers! Those who have been following this column for a while already know that I love scary, spooky books this (Or really any other) time of year. This Halloween, though, I wanted to bring to your attention something special.

My first real introduction to horror was The Exorcist. I was 7 and insisted relentlessly to my poor, long-suffering mother that I was most definitely old enough to watch scary movies. She had rented the VHS of said film for the weekend and I was one hundred and ten percent sure that I could handle it. And maybe she believed it. Maybe I’d just worn her down enough that she gave in. Or maybe she wanted to teach me a little life lesson – be careful what you whine for as you just might get it.

A valuable lesson because, predictably, I actually couldn’t handle it.

We lived in a converted miners cottage at the time. Tin roof, tiny, surrounded by trees, barely any insulation in the walls. Every bird, mouse, possum or big beetle that ran around on the roof or in those walls? I was convinced it was the devil here to scoop me up and make me vomit bright green rivers all over my Superman pajamas.

It took me a long time to get past that phase where I was jumping at scuffles and shadows. And I credit this period of my life for my deep love of horror now. There’s something kind of wonderful about being scared.

I didn’t discover the book till my mid teens and revisiting it recently to share it with all of you? It was a wonderful listen, especially as it’s read by the original author!

So. Get ready to enjoy an absolute classic. The progenitor of an entire genre. Pazuzu is here… and he wants you to let him in…

Book Stats

Basic Premise

In Iraq, Father Lankester Merrim is leading an archeological dig. Some amazing relics have been found, not the least of which is a little statuette of Pazuzu. (Pazuzu, for those who might not be familiar, is an actual demon from the iron age. He represents the south-western wind and is so fierce and evil that people would place statues of him in their homes and wear depictions of him around their necks to scare off other, more minor demons.)

The atmosphere is hot and claustrophobic and everything is pointing Father Merrim towards one central idea… he’s going to face down an ancient evil soon. One he’s not at all unfamiliar with.

On the other side of the world in Georgetown, Chris MacNeil is wrapping up work on a movie. She’s a talented actress and this is set to be a motion picture event – she’d rented a property in Georgetown which she shares with her two live-in staff and her daughter, Regan.

Everything is going pretty well! Till Regan finds a Ouija board. She’s been using it to chat with the cheerfully named Captain Howdy. Chris thinks this is relatively harmless… imaginary friends aren’t exactly uncommon for kids and as Chris is an atheist, she doesn’t see the Ouija board as anything other than a toy. Like a one-player board game.

Pro tip: if you suspect you’re in a horror story and you’re an atheist? You probably want to convert like… right away.

Not too far from here, still in Georgetown, we’ll meet Father Damien Karras. A Jesuit priest who’s, unfortunately, having a crisis of faith. Not a great time for it as the Holy Trinity Church has been vandalized and desecrated recently. Badly enough in fact that the police have been called in! Detective Kinderman specifically. Kinderman and Karras strike up something of a rapport as they discuss black masses and their relation to the Hollywood elite. (They both like movies, after all.) But yes, some spooky stuff is going down in Georgeown.

Back to the MacNeil’s and there’s a lot of weird knocking and scratching in the walls. Oh, and Regan has become fairly ill, is acting super weird and also: poltergeist activity abounds. This culminates with the murder of a family friend where his head is wrenched 180 degrees. Kinderman is called in on this one as well and it comes to the attention of Karras, as does Regan’s strange condition…

Is this the work of a devil? Is it something the Church can overcome? Will Regan be okay? Read tit o find out!

My Take

I was undecided for the longest time whether I wanted to Spotlight a book from the 70s. Not that these articles are always on the cutting edge of literary releases – I’m very privileged to be able to talk about whatever books I like for the most part with little editorial oversight and so I do sometimes look at older stuff. But this is the oldest I’ve done by far.

So, I settled on making it a special Spotlight for Halloween. It’s a great book, a great horror story, people should read it even as it’s overshadowed by the cinematic universe that has sprung up around it. This is just good, mean, visceral horror in that old fashioned style that pulls no punches and doesn’t make allowances for pearl-clutchers or hand-wringers. It’s vulgar and unapologetic about it.

Is it the same story as the first film? Yes and no. The book is better and offers a different experience with more fleshed out characters and settings. (And I say that as someone who has grown to have a huge amount of love for the film version.) It’s definitely worth reading even if you’ve seen the movie.

The narrator is William Peter Blatty himself! I’m always excited when an author does the narration of their own story. It’s always interesting to note the tone and inflection they use for certain characters.

Of course, The Exorcist is partially inspired by a supposed real possession. Roland Doe (Pseudonym) was a boy from Maryland who was purportedly possessed by a demon. The boy was moved to St. Louis and most of the actual exorcism was performed there. It’s a super interesting story in its own right and, I think, adds to the grounded, real feeling of this novel.

Overall, if you’re a fan of possession narratives in general, this story as seen in movie format or just good, well structured horror stories, this book is an absolute must-read.

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