Before The Exorcist became one of the most disturbing and iconic horror films of the 1970s, it was a book, which author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty later closely adapted for the big screen himself.
The Exorcist appeared in print in 1971, two years prior to hitting cinemas and terrifying a generation of movie-goers with its dark tale of the demonic possession of a child. This new edition of the book is by the Folio Society and is printed to very high specifications, presented in hardback and with protective card case, with some chilling illustrations. The Folio Society’s edition takes the text of the fortieth anniversary special, released in 2011, for which author Blatty (who died earlier this year) made some revisions to his original novel.
Although he starts his novel at an archaeological dig in Iraq, Blatty doesn’t stray too far from the world he knew only too well as a screenwriter. The main character of the story is Chris MacNeil, a successful and famous actress who is working on a movie in Washington DC when her previously-average daughter Regan starts to exhibit some rather troubling behaviour at the same time as unexplained disturbances in their rented house, and later, the grotesque but seemingly inexplicable murder of one of her colleagues. Chris seeks help for her daughter, but when psychiatry and medicine prove useless, an increasingly desperate mother falls back on aid from the Catholic Church, but that means having to accept that her daughter may not be the one controlling her own body…
The literary merit of genre fiction tends to be overlooked, and sometimes unfairly. In the case of The Exorcist, it’s a competently-written book, but it isn’t the sum of its parts. Where Blatty is most successful is probably in the first half of the book, when he slowly builds a sense of creeping menace, as his readers (who have seen the title, but may still suspend their disbelief) aren’t entirely sure if there’s going to be a rational explanation for everything. Some of these moments are genuinely creepy, and this reviewer found the adrenaline pumping whilst reading late at night, with a moth by the bedside light causing flickering shadows, and the floorboards seeming to creak more than usual. Making Chris an atheist in spite of her name (significantly rarer nearly half a century ago in America than it is now) also allows the author to explore the dynamics and antagonism between religious faith or fear of the unknown and rational explanation, as well as between our desire for order and answers in a chaotic, often surprising and always uncontrollable universe.
Blatty is less successful at focussing his narrative, and this is in part down to shifting points of view that take us away from Chris and her daughter into following the troubled young priest, Father Karras. As part of his introduction, Blatty says he made “changes to make the ending more obvious”, but it feels as if the run-up to the climax is where the novel needed the most tightening.
Despite some reservations on the quality of the prose, this is still a magnificent book, presented with incredible attention to detail. The blood red cloth cover with embossed gold lettering is a masterstroke. It evokes the bible, and the “t” of the title has been rendered as an upturned cross – the Satanic sign, with the “t”s in Blatty’s name restoring the balance as standard crosses. The bold colours are offset by the enveloping black case.
Jeremy Caniglia’s illustrations are highly effective, too. With the imagery of the film strong in people’s minds, he wisely photographs a young woman who looks nothing like Linda Blair to appear as Regan. Given that the Exorcist is based on historical events from the 1940s, Caniglia’s illustrations are rendered as archive photographs, with the requisite scratch marks and sepia tint. Out-of-focus is well-used, as are creepy graveyard locations.
The overall effect of the book is to disturb the reader and challenge perceptions about what is real versus imaginary. In provoking an emotional response, The Exorcist remains a good read almost half a century on – but then the themes of good versus evil are timeless, even if given a unique spin here.
The Folio Society edition of The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty is available exclusively from www.foliosociety.com.
Publisher: The Folio Society Release Date: October 2017