“Like the brief doomed flare of exploding suns that registers dimly on blind men’s eyes, the beginning of the horror passed almost unnoticed.” When a book begins like this, you know it’s going to be good.
William Peter Blatty’s tale of a possessed little girl and a mother who will do anything to save her is probably best known as one of the greatest horror films ever made, and the novel is often overlooked. It shouldn’t be – it really is a phenomenal tale, extremely well-written and full of little details that didn’t survive the transition to the cinema screen.
It’s terrifying, too – remember that episode of Friends where Joey puts The Shining in the freezer? That’ll start to seem like a good idea, although the book is so demonic that I can’t help but wonder whether ice or flames could even damage it.
The characterisation is also much more explicit in the novel than in the film, and by the end of the book I felt like Father Karras was… well, a father to me. In fact, all of the characters are much more believable, and it’s easy to feel both empathy and horror towards young Regan, often at the same time.
Perhaps it’s so believable because parts of the novel are based on real events – Father Merrin is based upon Gerald Lankester Harding, a British archaeologist who excavated the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. In fact, Harding and Blatty met each other in Beirut, and Blatty himself has confirmed that the character was based on his real-life acquaintance.
It’s also thought that the novel is based on the actual exorcism in 1949 of a young boy in Maryland, known under the pseudonym of ‘Roland Doe‘. Blatty himself studied at a Jesuit school in the 1950s, and it was there that he first heard Doe’s story.
It’s Blatty’s Jesuit influences that allow him to write so convincingly on a subject that most would look upon as religious fiction – I’m a thoroughbred atheist, so why was I so terrified by a story about possession?