BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: The Exorcist

Hearts of Darkness is a year-long reading list project investigating the literary horror genre – where does it come from? where is it going? and what is it’s dark hold on our collective imaginations? Starting in the 19th century, and heading straight through to the 21st, we will be reading the classics, reviewing them, and trying to make sense of this journey of fear and terror. This week, the book that inspired one of the most famous (and infamous!) horror movies of all time.

I’ve never seen the movie of the The Exorcist. It’s one of those films I feel I should see – that in some way my cinephile self-image is damaged by not seeing it, even though I feel that I know it from all the commentary around it, the spoofs, homages and pastiches in other media, and the general cultural impact that it had at the time, and still seems to exert now. But I haven’t really seen it, and I don’t really know it, which means reading WIlliam Peter Blatty’s novel is a fresh experience, with the capacity to surprise.

And surprise me it did. Many of the core story elements – young girl possessed by a demon, priests, obscenities, and so on, are pretty well-known, but the tone of the book weaves horrific imagery and language into a story that feels more like a procedural drama than a work of horror. Starting off with small things, Regan (the little girl) is checked out by local doctors, and then specialists, and mundane, rationalist explanations are offered for her behaviour. As it escalates, the book plays on the readers sense of what is really happening, and covers the unexplained murder that brings first the police, and eventually a guilt and doubt-stricken Jesuit into the story.

The contrast, combined with the unpredictable rhythm of the novel’s well written yet reader friendly main text and in-your-face possession scenes, gives a wonderfully edgy atmosphere. You’re really not sure what is going to happen at any given point, and you’re really not sure what sort of book it is going to turn out to be.  Is there an ending where the girl can be saved? Is this the sort of book that is going to almost revel in a bleak resolution? I really wasn’t sure; something that is more powerful than a book with a tone where it’s clear that it won’t end well, or a tone where things, in the end, will be OK.

The whole thing is just wonderfully unsettling, although I did have to put it down after a few sections that really were just too horrible. But it’s a gripping book, tight and focused, with a wide range of interesting characters and loaded with subtext. Underneath it all, it’s talking about faith, and doubt, and reason and irrationality, and it makes a layered work that is thought-provoking as much as it is toe-curling.

Oh, and it ends with a great nod to, of all things, Casablanca, which left me, unexpectedly, with a smile.

Next time: Another book make into a famous movie: Stephen Kings’s “The Shining

Any comments, feedback or opinions welcome either below or via twitter @thegrampus.

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