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Old 16th April 2008, 03:00 AM   #1 (permalink)
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The Exorcist - William Peter Blatty

The Exorcist - William Peter Blatty

By now I feel as though I must be one of the last admirers of the horror genre to have read William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist. I've had friends and known of many who've read this book when they were kids or young adults. It wasn't until after my recent read of The Ninth Configuration, and a subsequent examination of Blatty's career and intentions, that I even felt compelled to read it at all.

I am thankful for this late-blooming desire to dive into Blatty's tale of a demonic possession, because if I had read this when I was younger I would not have appreciated it nearly as much. Sure, it would have scared the hell out of me. Really. I probably would have thought the gross stuff was really cool, and really gross. Yes, I probably would have thought it was one kick ass horror novel, and I probably would've talked in secret about the masturbation scene or the foul language; I could have been a part of the Exorcist cabal, with a secret to share amongst those “in the know.”

I think that reading this book at a young age is problematic, but not because of the obvious reasons. It's not that I think it is too gross or disturbing for a young readers, thinking it will scar their precious little snowflake minds. No, I think it is problematic because of the way a young mind might read the book. It is easy to read The Exorcist as nothing more than a well written and scary horror story, and I feel as though this does a disservice to the author and to the deeper themes of the novel - it disrespects the artist and his work.

Blatty's book is much more than a simple horror novel. At its core it is really a theological mystery; it is a book that deals directly with questions of faith and the problem of evil. Blatty does a pretty good job at conveying his themes through slow building tension and intense investigation. It is not until over half way through that his real intentions become clear, and by this point I was so enthralled by the plot that the introduction of a deeper more personal narrative caught me off guard - even though I new to expect it.

Blatty considers The Exorcist, The Ninth Configuration, and Legion to be his “trilogy of faith,” or as he comically puts it, “Taken together, they are all about the eternal questions that nag at Woody Allen.” You see, Blatty is a great humorist; one of the best I've ever read. The horror in The Exorcist is very real, tangible, and very horrific, but the humanity and sincerity of the theological mystery is even more immediate. The narrative rings with truth because of the breadth of emotion Blatty conveys through his characters; he captures the entire spectrum of human emotion in great detail.

There are two main narrative threads running through the book. One deals with Father Karras's examination and investigation of the supposed demonic possession of a young girl, Regan MacNeil. The other deals with Kindermann, a detective, and his investigation of a strange, seemingly accidental death that occurs outside of the MacNeil's townhouse. Each of these men is lead down a road fraught with penetrating questions dealing with morality, evil, faith, reason, logic, and the supernatural.

Blatty leads his the readers straight into the heart of one of the most puzzling theological questions, a question that has confounded theologians for years, and a question that is often raised by those who do not believe: how can there be evil and suffering in a world governed by a benevolent God? What is the purpose of pain? Why do the innocent suffer? What did little Regan MacNeil do to deserve the absolute hell she is put through?

While I don't think that Blatty is entirely successful at conveying or investigating his themes, I do give him the benefit of the doubt. This is, after all, a theological quandary that has plagued religious minds for centuries. I actually think it would be beneficial to read C.S. Lewis' The Problem of Pain in tandem with Blatty's books - it would strengthen the totality of theme greatly. I do appreciate that Blatty makes no attempt at giving an easy answer, or any answer really, because any answer available would, most likely, be silly and too pat.

However, Blatty excels masterfully at creating a compelling, engaging, and frightening tale. His prose is ripe with solid characterizations and nuanced, natural sounding dialog. Dialog seems to be Blatty's trump card, and throughout the course of this trilogy it only gets better - much better. And seeing as how strongly he starts out, this is really saying something. I was very impressed with The Exorcist, and I have become increasingly enamored with its author. The book touches upon topics that are important to me while it also offers up a thoughtful and entertaining story. It is a well written, engrossing, and interesting journey into the mind of an author with something to say.
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Old 16th April 2008, 05:15 AM   #2 (permalink)
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Re: The Exorcist - William Peter Blatty

It's been a very long time since I last read The Exorcist, but I'd have to agree with your assessment, in the main. I was one of those who read it at an early age -- on the cusp of 13, actually -- and it made one hell of an impact. I was by no means prepared for the book I got, and parts of it repelled me to the point of darned near throwing it away. But something compelled me to go back to it after the infamous scene with the crucifix... and Blatty pulled the rabbit out of the hat, as it were, and what had gone before made sense, and wasn't gratuitous nastiness, but had a very human (and humane) purpose in being there; and in fact, I found the book in the end tremendously uplifting. It provided what was probably my last flickering of any sort of religious belief, in fact, by at least attempting to face these troubling questions head-on and unflinchingly, and giving some sort of reason to believe that whatever god was running the universe wasn't just, in Twain's words, "a malign thug". (It didn't last, of course, but I still think Blatty deserves some credit for not shying away from this aspect of things.)

And, to be honest, I've always had trouble seeing this book as a "horror" novel, for the simple fact that it is not really concerned with telling a terror tale per se, but rather using a piece of fiction to dramatically explore some of the greatest concerns any believer who is honest must at some time face. On top of which, there is plenty of fine writing here, as well, and a great deal of empathy and humanity:

Quote:
The dig was over. The tell had been sifted, stratum by stratum, its entrails examined, tagged and shipped: the beads and pendants; glyptics; phalli; ground-stone mortars stained with ocher; burnished pots. Nothing exceptional. An Assyrian ivory toilet box. And man. The bones of man. The brittle remnants of cosmic torment that once made him wonder if matter was Lucifer upward-groping back to his God.
Quote:
The man in khaki shook his head, staring down at the laceless, crusted shoes caked thick with debris of the pain of living. The stuff of the cosmos, he softly reflected: matter, yet somehow finally spirit. Spirit and the shoes were to him but aspects of a stuff more fundamental, a stuff that was primal and totally other.

The shadow shifted. The Kurd stood waiting like an ancient debt. The old man in khaki looked up into eyes that were damply bleached as if the membrane of an eggshell had been pasted over the irises. Glaucoma. Once he could not have loved this man.
Quote:
They brought her to an ending in a crowded cemetery where the gravestones cried for breath.
Quote:
"Mrs. MacNeil?" came a voice from the shadows. It was gentle, refined, yet as full as a harvest.
There's plenty of terse description and very well-written dialogue (after all, Blatty was a screenwriter for a great deal of his life), and the story moves along at pace of increasing tension, but it's also the heart of the thing that makes this (and, to a fair degree, Legion) work so well.

I'd say it is probably summed up best in Merrin's talk with Karras:

Quote:
"Yet I think the demon's target is not the possessed; it is us ... the observers.... And I think -- I think the point is to make us despair; to reject our own humanity, Damien: to see ourselves as ultimately bestial...."
Gauging from this "horror" book, it is clear that, if anything, Blatty takes the contrary view....
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Old 11th May 2008, 08:31 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Re: The Exorcist - William Peter Blatty

I only know The Exorcist from the film but those posts have made me want to read the novel. Nice quotes J.D., especially the one about the Kurd's presence being like an "ancient debt".
By the way, can you remember which character's voice is described as being "full as a harvest"?

As a digression, I think The Exorcist was banned in the UK for a long time. Certainly I don't think you could buy it on video, although it is freely available now (more likely on DVD!). I finally saw it for the first time about 10 years ago in an art house cinema. And it lived up to it's notorious reputation. I had thought I had got too old to be really frightened by a horror film but The Exorcist certainly got to me.
Slightly parallel to JD's experience, I am not a religious man but the film seemed to reactivate (briefly) some vestigal belief in God and the Devil. Some of those possesion scenes made me experience actual dread. I think this is why the story is so powerful for many people, it can invoke religous awe which is not a common emoton!
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Old 11th May 2008, 08:45 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Re: The Exorcist - William Peter Blatty

Ah, the voice being described is that of Father Lancaster Merrin.

It's a much more richly-textured book than one might expect. Whatever else, Blatty wasn't just writing to shock, repulse, or terrify. He wanted to move, to get people to think, and to produce something that genuinely dealt with issues that were (are) very important to him. The interaction between Karris and his mother (or Father Dyer) are often very poignant, and this, too, plays a very strong part in the temptation the demon poses....

Even as a non-believer, and though I see the logical fallacies in his argument (and the flaws in the book), I must say that the book still impresses me as a novel in so many ways....
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Old 11th May 2008, 08:57 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Re: The Exorcist - William Peter Blatty

[quote=j. d. worthington;1118706]Ah, the voice being described is that of Father Lancaster Merrin.quote]

Thanks for satisfying my curiosity, I assumed it was probably Merrin, although I initially thought it could have been the voice of the demon, being deceptively urbane!
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