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Cast out those adverbs
on 22 April 2013
It's difficult to be objective about the `The Exorcist'. It's one of those cultural phenomenons that crop up from time to time and grab hold of the public imagination.
Often, the quality of the content is of no relevance ('50 Shades of Grey', anyone?). And Blatty's Washington-set novel about a twelve-year-old middle class American girl's possession by a demon is a long way from a masterpiece. Ira Levin's `Rosemary's Baby', for example, is far better written and more provoking (and was the forerunner of `The Exorcist' in setting a demonic novel in homely, familiar territory).
Obviously, the central idea is hugely compelling, tying into timeless parental fears about their children (girls in particular) and their potential corruption, and, more generally, conservative America's concerns about both out-of-control youth and foreign invasion (the demon is 'released' in Iraq). But `The Exorcist' fails on many other levels. The clunky style, the opaque meaning of many sentences and the lack of characterization considerably reduce the book's effectiveness. The prose needs to be vivid and pin-sharp (like Friedkin's images and editing in the film) to make us feel the horror, but descriptions are congested with needless nouns, adjectives, adverbs and abstract generalizations; `Reining in his revulsion, he closed the door and then his eyes locked, stunned, on the thing that was Regan, on the creature that was lying on its back on the bed, head propped against a pillow while eyes bulging wide in their hollow sockets shone with mad cunning and burning intelligence, with interest and with spite, as they fixed upon his; as they watched him intently, seething in a face shaped into a skeletal mask of unthinkable malevolence.' (How eye sockets can be `hollow' but also have eyes in them, I don't know.) Batty consistently tells rather than shows: 'he reacted to the cold and the stench and Regan's condition with bewilderment, horror and compassion.' Descriptions of gestures are hopelessly limited, often nothing but versions of `he lowered his head'. Opaque and muddle-headed similes are like something out of a thirteen-year-old wannabe poet's notebook: `Points of light...stretched into dark like guides to hopelessness'; `He opened the door as if it were a tender wound'; `He was pawing at truth like a weary bachelor pinching vegetables and fruit at a market.' A table is `the colour of sadness' - what colour is that? Brown? Grey? Off-white? `Staring blankly, both Karras's body and soul seemed to sag' - incomprehensible. And if you can make sense of this, you're cleverer than me; `Up ahead, on a hillock, the lime-white dome of the astronomical observatory pulsed with the beat of his stride while behind him the medical school fell away with churned up shards of earth and care.'
Blatty also refuses to `inhabit` Regan's actress mother, Chris MacNeil, giving us very little of her interior feelings. It's difficult to relate to her. The result is we don't care that much about what she's going through with her daughter. And we should, surely? Her language bears the hallmark of a spineless publisher: she uses `flipping' and `freaking' and `Boy!' like a kid.
Yet there are excellent things in the novel. The constant doubt - is it simply teenage hysteria? - over what is actually going on is well-handled. Jesuit priest Damien Karras is a complex character and his need to believe in Regan's possession in order to shore up his faith is a fascinating theme. Regan's dialogue when in the grip of the demon is plausibly twisted. Blatty does not hold back from the perverse nature of Satanic worship and the images of desecration in the local church and the description of other famous cases of possession are gruesome and impactful. They feel otherworldly and truly unsettling in a way Regan's situation often does not.