The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

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The Exorcist is one of those things that has been around for what seems like forever, its reach has spread to many other adaptations / copycats, countless parodies and referencing in various forms of media (mainly of the film variety). But the true horror of this story is in the book itself – a masterful depiction of good vs evil that chills your very bones..

I remember when I was little my father used to have a huge selection of horror novels, James Herbert, Stephen King, Shaun Hutson – you name it, if it had a black cover and some crazy ass horror infused cover, he had it. And this can be said of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. I can still remember the day I slid it out from the other books that penned it in; the spine broken and white peaking through the binding, like bone under the flesh of knuckles. Once I had it in my hands I turned it over and was met by this rather odd looking pale face staring back at me, as if it was staring up and out of the cover that held it a prisoner imploring me to release it. That’s when my mother came in and quickly took it from my hands and put it back in the shelf uttering that I was not to read that book. It wasn’t for young and impressionable minds – and from that day, that brief encounter stayed with me, the forbidden fruit, the one thing that I couldn’t or shouldn’t have.

Years passed and I used to just pull it out and look at the cover, never daring to open the cover. But then I found out it was on VHS (remember that kids) and so I promptly wen’t to the video shop and got my sister to buy it for me (I wasn’t old enough to watch it, I was about eleven – give or take a year).

I remember waiting until my parents went to bed and then I put it on in my room – the first quarter of the film was pretty boring, lots of talking about things I didn’t know anything about – but that one encounter changed me forever. I remember seeing all the gore and the horror and it set me on my love affair with horror films for a great many years to come. It’s a film I’ve watched numerous times, but with each viewing I seemed to be drawn more into the characters, the lives and the way in which good was battling evil in all of the characters various lives, not just her daughters – and the film took on a whole other meaning.

So, jumping to the year 2020 – almost fifty years since the book was originally published I set about reading it. And boy was it good. For someone that’s only connection with the book was the film, this made for one brilliant discovery – the book you’d be surprised in hearing, is so much better than the film ever was, deeper, far scarier, menacing, psychological, horrific and with an unbelievably deep and rich cast of characters – many of whom don’t get a chance to appear in the film or if they did it was just a footnote or an homage to Blatty’s original work. But here within the book each character is fully fleshed out and Blatty provides them the space to have them contribute to the ongoing shocking narrative; it’s this layering of characters which turns this book into a slow burning masterpiece.

The Exorcist is one of the scariest books I’ve ever read – shocking and brilliant, it’s almost fifty years old but in my opinion it’s timeless in its execution of conjuring true horror. The visual horrors and the grotesqueness that Blatty is able to achieve with mere words makes the film look like a child’s colouring book – they are images that stay with you, with many making me feel pretty uncomfortable, wincing whilst reading them – the words go deeper than the films visuals ever could.

The characters are superbly fleshed out in the novel with us learning more about Father Karras and his crisis of faith – making his character arch so much more important to the reader, adding much needed power to his character and a reason for his reluctancy at performing an exorcism as he tries to medically prove Regan’s symptoms as mental illness and not possession. The additional deepening of the plot around Detective Kinderman is another masterstroke that Blatty wields (but William Friedkin opted to cut from the film) it adds a whole other dimension to the storytelling and aids in pulling the reader into a deeper story as the detective sets about trying to uncover the recent murder outside the MacNeil’s house – which snowballs out of control adding more tension to this already taut and masterful story.

I’d champion all you horror fans to read this phenomenal work of fiction. Don’t just be content in watching the film and casting judgements at how badly it’s aged – delve into the book and discover the true meaning of horror.

The Exorcist is published by Corgi and is available here.

William Peter Blatty

Born in 1928, William Peter Blatty is a novelist and Academy Award-winning screenwriter. As well the horror classic, The Exorcist, his other novels include The Ninth Configuration, Legion and Dimiter. He lives in Maryland.

Reviewed by Ross Jeffery

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