The Exorcist remains a thrilling read and near-perfect horror novel 38 years after its publication.
For that alone – for the fun of the story and the excitement of the war between good and evil, it’s worth reading and re-reading: ideology apart.
Rivers of blood have been shed and mountains of flesh have been mangled by novelists and film scriptwriters alike in the two generations of horror fiction since the book came out, but it still chills the heart - if you let it - today.
It’s frightening for the best of reasons: you already care about the people involved by the time the supernatural evil appears.
The enlightened West’s most typical original art-form is the novel in which manifold features of character, relationships, plot, morality, thoughts and feelings can be described, compared and sometimes accounted for in depth and clearly. Blatty lets the novel do its job beautifully and we are introduced to the glamourous but also cosy and intimate domestic world of Chris McNeill (a famous and successful film star) and her daughter Regan and the people around them on location in Washington DC on a film set in Georgetown University. The high-flying actress is attractive and self-critical, confident and guilty about her impending divorce, but not obsessed by neither fame nor anticipated loss. She is, however, a devoted and (as it will turn out) courageous mother.
The near-destruction of her daughter by a demon or a mental illness never defeats her.
The heroes of the story are a series of Jesuit priests (to whose order Blatty acknowledges an intellectual debt): amongst whom McNeill moves as she seeks help for her ever-more tormented daughter, and to whose faith and doubts she is finally drawn as medical science fails to provide a cure. Oh, there’s a Jewish detective there, like an extra-schmaltzy Columbo to draw other supernatural threads together with a murder, and to show the Jesuits dealing with the outside world of Caesar as well as the inner one of God.
It’s a great story: light weekend reading in format, though it’s deep enough to get your intellectual teeth into whilst it keeps you engrossed in the events and the lives of the people, and on the upper, outer level of horror attacking the mundane and homely it has never been beaten, in my opinion.
What makes it a great novel over and above the supernatural element is deeper. It’s about the human condition; faith and doubt, duty and selfishness, loss and the willingness to make the world better despite the potential of suffering further hurt and despite the sacrifice required.
In these days of the ’right’ to immediate and costless self-fulfilment, it shows men and women; imperfect, weak and sometimes self-centred, overcoming a mundane world of appetites and fears and fulfilling their duties as best they can. There are costs to all their choices, and for the orthodox libertarian there’s tanstaafl aplenty in the lives they lead. There is poverty in the book’s un-idealised
Aha! Conservatism at last.
Fearful and confused though they often are, most of the characters face their tribulations with a sort of clumsy grace – (though there are a few examples whom you might or might not like of people who seem to have it all sorted) and because of this: because they have the practice of living right as best they can, then when great evil comes into their world they have the habits and reserves of energy and willpower to identify it and eventually fight back. And that’s the moral I draw from the story, now I think about it, twenty years after first having the hairs on my arms scared vertical by what appears to be a best-selling pot-boiler that lucked out and was filmed by
To list The Exorcist’s virtues as a fan who is a conservative: it highlights the finite nature of goodness in the human spirit but also its strength when it is armed with grace; it illustrates the importance and strengths of institutions outside government; there is fun in some acid asides against Left-wing student rebellion and Hollywood’s adoration of it; it reminds us of the preciousness of a State that allows its officers discretion to let people just get on with it sometimes which makes the treasure of a free society that lets mere mortals overcome terrible obstacles and lets love win despite everything that would frustrate and banish it (Obamacare would screw up exorcism, I'm guessing); it upholds duty as worthy more than selfishness is …And it celebrates the sturdiness of evolved and authoritative institutions which allow opposing interests to co-operate and bring about happy outcomes.