Thoughts on The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

David | Oct 17, 2010

Most people should be familiar with Blatty’s The Exorcist by now. I mean, it’s a classic, right? The mere mention of the title suggests Linda Blair spewing ungodly amounts of pea soup. So no introduction is necessary. It is definitely a great horror novel that everyone with even a minor interest in horror should read. Go read it. Now. I mean it.

Okay, all due praise aside, there are two things about the novel that stood out for me as a writer.

The first is Blatty’s use of point of view (POV). The story is told in third-person, and there’s no surprise there, but Blatty often violates something I hear repeated in how-to books and workshops: stick to one POV as much as possible, and never switch POV in a scene, let alone within a paragraph. But Blatty does exactly this throughout. For example:

From the stoop, Karl watched, his features stolid and impassive as Kinderman opened the door of the squad car, reached inside to a box of Kleenex fixed to the dashboard, extracted a tissue and blew his nose while staring idly across the river as if considering where to have lunch. Then he entered the car without glancing back.

As the car pulled away and rounded the corner of Thirty-fifth, Karl looked at the hand that was not on the doorknob and saw it was trembling.

When she heard the front door being closed, Chris was brooding at the bar in the study, pouring out a vodka over ice. Footsteps. Karl going up the stairs. (p. 211)

There’s no break in the quote above, and this jumping from one POV to another without any visual cue takes place throughout the novel. I don’t point this out as a flaw; I think it works for this book. But, I don’t think it’s generally a good idea. As a reader, I had to adjust to the lack of transitions in POV switch, and while I got accustomed to it eventually I found it a chore at first. So I think the advice I keep hearing about sticking to a single POV is well-given, but I think that in part it’s because modern readers aren’t accustomed to such changes.

The second thing that sticks out is how Father Karras, who is also a psychologist, acts almost counter to how one might expect a priest to act in his situation (at least in 1971). Chris MacNeil asks for his help with Regan, certain that her daughter’spossessed, and what does Karras do? He tries to prove she’s not possessed. This seems less bizarre once the reader learns he’s following church procedure:

The exorcist will simply be careful that none of the patient’s manifestations are left unaccounted for… (p. 254)

So Karras sets out to give non-religious explanations for Regan’s behavior, going so far as to offer uppsychokinesisand otherpara-psychologicalreasons. Chris becomes upset with his approach, wanting for him to also believe Regan possessed, and Karras tries to put an end to one argument with:

“The best explanation for any phenomenon,” Karras overrode [Chris], “is always the simplest one available that accommodates all the facts.” (p. 239)

I’m reminded of an essay by Marion Zimmer Bradley I read earlier this year in How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction (Ed. J.N. Williamson)called “World Building in Horror, Occult, and Fantasy Writing”. I blogged about it back in March, and in that post I used the following quote from the essay:

The major choice, then, for the writer of horror, fiction or nonfiction, is to choose between limited and unlimited views of reality–the horrors of the tabloid writer, the true-crime addict, or the specialist in abnormal psychiatry, whether or not the unknown belongs to a different order of reality–to choose between the worlds, in fact, of the policeman, the priest, or the parapsychologist. (Williamson, p. 76)

What strikes me as unique about The Exorcist is how Blatty uses Father Karras more as a parapsychologist than a priest. What’s more, Blatty didn’t choose between the worlds, as Bradley suggests, but he incorporates all three worlds–policeman, priest, and parapsychologist–in a single work, giving the novel depth through multiple perspectives on a single situation. Thepolicemanis represented by Detective Kinderman, who spends the novel investigating the death of one of Chris’ associates, a man killed off-screen but who the reader comes to believe is killed by Regan while possessed. And the exorcist is also represented by a priest, Father Merrin, called in at the end once Karras is able put in a request for Exorcism.

Blatty does a wonderful job of blending the three worlds throughout, giving the reader a well-rounded picture exorcism in the modern age. And it is this well-rounded picture that puts this book at the top of my list of classics.

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