I first read THE EXORCIST when I was still in high school, late at night, in bed. One more chapter before turning out the light. It was sometime before the movie came out, because I was able to frame my own images and let my imagination take over, and not see only Linda Blair.
Like everyone else, I sped through the novel. I can’t say I remembered being frightened (I’ve never been frightened by a book or a movie), but I was definitely charged, tense, caught up in the story.
What added to my experience was that by high school I was already a recovering Catholic. I’d done my stint as an altar boy and going to Mass. I’d both feared and adored God.
At one point, I’d been fully brainwashed: second grade, following my first confession, when I exited the dark confessional booth and stepped into the spring sunshine—I still remember that euphoric feeling of being free of sin. I might have jumped a little. I might have shouted, “I’m free!” I’d said my penance of Hail Marys and Our Fathers. My sins (swearing? thinking bad thoughts? taking my brother’s gum?) had been absolved.
On the steps of the church, breathing in fresh air and basking in the grace of God, I realized if I died right then, I could go directly to heaven. I wouldn’t need to first suffer in purgatory for some undetermined but no doubt long amount of time until cleansed of my sins. Right then—I could die right then, before I had a chance to sin again. Heaven would be mine.
I could run out into Amherst Street and get run over by a car. I considered it. I did.
Back to The Exorcist and some fifty years later when I reread the novel because I’d put it on my list of The Most Important Novels in My Life. Does it belong?
Entertaining—extremely. Compelling—definitely. Literary—not so much. Regan is the possessed child, her mother Chris a famous actress, Damien Karras the neighborhood Jesuit priest. What I had forgotten was that the exorcism itself takes up less than the last quarter of the novel. Along the way, the narrative builds with key turning points: Regan’s sudden change in behavior, the visits to the doctors and the psychiatrists as she worsens, the death of Chris’s director (a lame caricature) who it turns out was murdered by the demon/Regan, which brings in a Columbo-like cop to investigate (also a weak character).
In my second reading, I found Damien the most interesting character, with a rich backstory of guilt over abandoning his mother for the priesthood and currently suffering a crisis of faith.
I can see why the novel was on the bestseller list for well over a year. There had never been anything like it. The Exorcist broke new territory in terms of sensationalism, vulgarity, and deviant (devilish?) sexual behavior and language.
I also took in the movie after finishing reading the novel. Again, I was surprised that the exorcism itself was only the last 25 minutes of a two-hour movie, because all I remember from the movie that I had watched way back when were the lurid aspects: “Your mother sucks cocks in hell!” Regan stabbing her own vagina with a crucifix and screaming “Fuck me! Fuck me!” The green projectile vomiting. The head twisting 360 degrees.
The movie is true to the book and a fine adaptation in that sense.
Will I ever read The Exorcist again? No. Does it belong on the “most important” list? Maybe not. I’m hedging. The novel introduced me to the genre, and later I read with great enthusiasm Stephen King’s THE SHINING and CARRIE. And some others in the genre: ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE OMEN. But I never embraced horror, and never read those kinds of novels now.