Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Book Review: The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

Synopsis: The terror began unobtrusively. Noises in Regan's room, an odd smell, misplaced furniture, and icy chill. Small annoyances for which Chris MacNeil, Regan's actress mother, easily found explanations. The changes in eleven-year-old Regan were so gradual, too, that Chris did not recognise for some time how much her daughter's behaviour had altered. Even when she did, the medical tests which followed shed no light on Regan's symptoms, which grew more severe and frightening. It was almost as if a different personality had invaded the child. Desperate, Chris turned from the doctors to Father Damien Karras, a Jesuit priest who was trained as a psychiatrist and had a deep knowledge of such phenomena as satanism and possession. Was it possible that a demonic force was at large? IF psychiatry could not help, might exorcism be the answer?

My Thoughts: The Exorcist was one of the first horror movies to really scare me. I'm not sure exactly what it was, but I'm thinking it had something to do with a girl of around my age (I think I was 13 when I watched it) and creepy things happening in the bedroom (I have a bedroom! Oh shit!). For a few weeks my active imagination would have me imagine Regan crab-walking into my bedroom and vomiting pea soup all over me! With those sorts of memories in mind I began the book wondering if it'd exceed the film's scare factor.

It starts off really, really well. I knew what was coming, and it almost felt like the author knew I knew, and was playing on it. I'm not quite sure what the marketing for the book was (did they do much marketing in the 1970s?) but I guess most people knew they were reading a book about possession, so Blatty slowly introduces a few small changes, taps on the wall and Regan's conversations with Captain Howdy through a Ouija board. Perhaps this is strange, but chapter conclusions saying things like "there were no disturbances.That night" really creeped me out. It must have been tied with knowing what was to come, and that idea of impending doom. The build is slow, but it doesn't take long for the mother, Chris, to realise things aren't quite right with her daughter, and once the trips to the hospital start things take a turn for the worse. Compounding the frustration that all the tests come back negative, Chris has a fear of the doctors because her young son died as a result of a reaction to a new medicine prescribed by a doctor some time in the past. So at the same time that she's terrified that something is wrong with her daughter, she's even more terrified to let her out of her sight or let the doctor's have free reign to monitor her in a secure location.

Actually, I might take a moment to discuss the character of Chris. I think she was really well created, her relationship with her daughter at the start of the book is quite charming. Chris makes a real effort to spend time with her daughter around her busy shooting schedule, and Regan wakes up early every morning to pick her mum a flower. Regan's father is out of the picture after a recent (so it seems) divorce, because he couldn't handle being the husband of a famous actress and he'd met someone new. His absence seems to have strengthened the relationship of Chris and Regan, although it becomes the (presumed) key cause of Regan's "illness" later on. Once Regan gets sick though, Chris becomes unbearable. Her aversion to doctors puts her daughter at risk, as she refuses to consider the option of extensive care in a facility, and decides to administer all the drugs and feeding tubes herself. Because she's now both doctor and mother she becomes conflicted. On the one hand she refuses to let her daughter go to a treatment facility because she doesn't want her out of her sight, but then she demands an exorcism from Father Karras, even as he describes the risks and potential death that could eventuate from performing one. She both wants to cure her daughter, and keep her away from danger, but her conflicting roles mean she's basically put her daughter in far more danger than any doctor could. it's a really interesting situation to watch play out, although as an outsider sometimes I wanted to slap her across the face and tell her to get a grip! That said, if I was a mother watching my daughter change both physically, psychologically and emotionally within the space of a few short weeks I'd probably be at my wit's end too!

It's been awhile since I've seen the film, so perhaps some of my comments won't be quite accurate, but I remember the exorcism being a primary part of the film. However, the book is more about the complicated journey that finally results in an exorcism. In fact, the exorcism only takes place in the last 30 or so pages, and the introduction of Father Karras arrives onto the scene and is asked as a priest who has knowledge of "satanism" to perform an exorcism, he instead approaches it as a psychiatrist. The presence of a book with an extensive chapter on possession and possible symptoms of demonic possession within the NacNeil house serves as his guide, and at times I even thought there was a potential turn around about to happen when we discover that perhaps she is faking it. Well, perhaps not faking it, but manifesting the possessed symptoms due to hysteria or a number of other psychological disorders the doctors suggest throughout the book. Although I found this aspect of the book incredibly interesting, and I presume for a horror book written in the early 1970s quite revolutionary in approach, it did remove some of the horror for me. Instead of feeling scared, which I had for the first third of the book, I was simply interested and intrigued where the story was going. Not that that is a bad thing, it certainly isn't, but I was a little disappointed that it didn't keep me up all night frantically fearing the shadows.

Before I wrap up I want to just touch briefly on the actual possession of Regan and how the writing of her symptoms compared to the film. I usually find books more terrifying than films purely because you're able to do a lot of the imagining yourself, and therefore fill in the blanks with your own personal brand of fearful monster. I found this the case in The Exorcist as well. Especially at the start when it was simple things like rappings on the walls, Regan talking to Captain Howdy etc I was able to imagine how little things like that would spook me. Later on when things got a little more intense I preferred the book over the film because there was a little more detail and finesse to the symptoms. For instance, the crab walk down the stairs. In the film, and again forgive my foggy memory, I remember it being a split second, though terrifying, shot of Regan maneuvering her way down the stairs in a way no human could. In the book however, Chris is talking with Sharon (her live-in assistant) when Regan appears in the crab like position behind Sharon, her tongue flicking and brushing against Sharon's leg. She then continues to follows Sharon around, as though tied to her, her tongue always flickering. I found the cinematic version creepy, but after reading that part of the book I had to put it down for half an hour and regain my composure. Basically I found the scares in the book much more sophisticated and detailed and generally, more terrifying.

This review has barely brushed the surface of the various smaller plot points and characters that take part in the story. The personal journey the priest Karras goes on provides a fascinating examination of religion in the late 20th century, especially when burdened by the knowledge of modern psychology. Similarly Kinderman, the cop, plays an interesting role which added greater depth and scope to this classic tale of possession. If you've seen the film you know what's going to happen, but the book satisfies in ways the film can't, and is well worth your time.

Five out of five revolving heads.