The Breakthrough: Blatty and Tryon - The Boom: The Blockbusters - Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

The Breakthrough: Blatty and Tryon
The Boom: The Blockbusters
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

William Peter Blatty (b. 1928) would hardly seem to be a likely candidate to effect the breakthrough of horror onto the bestseller lists, and indeed there is every reason to think that his role as a pioneer in this field was accidental and, in several senses, unwelcome to himself. Blatty began his career with a succession of comic novels that attracted little attention; one of these, Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane!” (1966), is of interest in providing certain foreshadowings of The Exorcist (1971). In that novel, Hudson L. Kane, a psychiatrist in an institution catering to soldiers and astronauts, is a self-confessed “confused” Catholic (66) who is seeking to answer the myriad questions and paradoxes involved in assuming an all-powerful and benevolent God, chief of which is: “How can there be evil coexistent with a good God?” (67); one patient even wants Kane to conduct an exorcism. A final comment in the novel is of interest: “He said that evil doesn’t spring out of madness—that it’s the other way around” (183).

This comment seems to be in many ways the foundation for The Exorcist, and the very existence of Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane! may be a counterweight to the otherwise embarrassing similarity of Blatty’s blockbuster on Ray Russell’s The Case againt Satan (1962), where a pair of anguished priests perform an exorcism on a young girl—unless, of course, we assume (implausibly) that Kane itself was inspired by the Russell novel. For in The Exorcist we have a Kane-like figure in the angst-ridden Father Damien Karras, the focal point of the novel; and the work as a whole rests on Blatty’s assumption that the troubles faced by little Regan MacNeil must be the result, not of psychiatric disorder, but of demonic possession—not by Satan himself, but by the demon Pazuzu. Blatty, indeed, claimed that his novel was based on an actual case of exorcism performed in 1949, which he became convinced was an actual case of demonic possession, thereby validating long-held Catholic teaching. It becomes obvious that The Exorcist is not in fact a horror novel as such but a religious tract with horrific elements serving as an enticement to the reader to swallow the message.

This point is emphasised by the fact that the actual nature of the demon Pazuzu is very ill-defined—it hardly matters what he is; his role is merely to exist, and therefore to confirm that demonic possession exists. It is also critical that Regan’s mother, the actress Chris MacNeil, is at first portrayed as an atheist (43) and one who doubts the existence of the afterlife (22): if she can be convinced that demonic possession exists, then anyone can! Similarly, when the prospect of possession is first raised, it is done so in a psychological manner (“Quite frankly, we don’t know much about it except that it starts with some conflict or guilt that eventually leads to the patient’s delusion that his body’s been invaded by an alien intelligence; a spirit, if you will. In times gone by, when belief in the devil was fairly strong, the possessing entity was usually a demon” [166]); but this explanation fails, and is designed to fail, to account for all the features of the case.

The conclusion of the tale—where Karras and another priest, Father Merrin, finally succeed in hurling the demon out of Regan’s body and into Karras’s own—seems ambiguous, but a careful reading underscores the religious optimism with which Blatty wishes to leave the reader. For Karras, once the demon has entered him, promptly leaps out of the bedroom window and down to his death on the stairs below, thereby apparently killing the demon also. This is Karras’s final triumph.

There is, however, an overriding problem with the whole religious thrust of The Exorcist: Why has this apparently powerful demon chosen to afflict Regan? Surely he has bigger fish to fry than to cause a young girl a certain amount of discomfort. Merrin actually discusses the matter at one point (“I think the point is to make us despair; to reject our own humanity … to see ourselves as ultimately bestial” [311]), but the answer is both lame and insulting: Are we required to believe in God so as not to feel “bestial”?

But there are more problems with The Exorcist, at least from the author’s own point of view. He is on record as complaining that the immensely popular film version of 1973 was not true to his vision, especially in its emphasis on the horrific elements of the novel but not the philosophical or religious message; but Blatty himself is guilty of the same error (if error it is), for the most vivid features of the novel are exactly those (relatively fleeting) moments of physical horror rather than the ponderous preaching that peppers the novel from beginning to end. In particular, one gripping scene where Regan violently masturbates with a crucifix (“You bitch! Let Jesus fuck you, fuck you!” [190]) is pretty hard to take even for an old atheist like myself; to believers it must have been the acme of sacrilegious horror. So Blatty bears some responsibility for The Exorcist becoming an icon of contemporary horror fiction.

Blatty’s subsequent career is sad to behold. He rewrote “Killer” Kane into The Ninth Configuration (1978), not necessarily for the better; then he published Legion (1983), a very loose sequel to The Exorcist, with one Lieutenant William F. Kinderman (who has a bit part in The Exorcist) taking the place of Father Karras as the anguished theologian discussing the nature of God with a Father Dyer. The novel is ostensibly based on the so-called Gemini murders in Washington, D.C., but it is so weighted down with pompous philosophising that the narrative never has a chance to develop. In the end, Kinderman determines that all the victims were somehow related to the exorcism of 1971. The demon in Karras’s body did not die; and, in a pungent irony, Pazuzu actually revives the priest’s body and causes it to escape from its coffin just prior to burial. Legion could have been a compelling novel if Blatty had stuck to the core plot; indeed, his own film version of it, The Exorcist III (1990), is far more riveting that the novel itself.

Blatty claimed in the mid-1980s that he had long been working on “a suspense thriller with a theological theme,” a work that would be “much bigger in scope and size than either [The Exorcist or Legion]” (Winter 46—47), but such a work is apparently not likely to appear soon, if at all. He did publish Demons Five, Exorcists Nothing (1996), but this is merely a satire on Hollywood, while the novella “Elsewhere” (1999) is indeed a tale of spiritual horror, but it can hardly be said to equal The Exorcist in scope or power. In the end, Blatty will probably be remembered only for The Exorcist, a novel that is certainly powerful in spots and filled with a greater modicum of philosophical or religious speculation—whether convincing or not—than your usual bestseller; but more people will probably remember William Friedkin’s film than the novel on which it was based.

Thomas Tryon (1926—1991) is an altogether different proposition. He was an even more unlikely bestseller, having started as a Hollywood actor who took to writing and quickly produced The Other (1971) and Harvest Home (1973), which not only became bestsellers but also two of the most distinguished horror novels of the past fifty years. Tryon was that rarest of commodities—an author who both had literary substance and popular appeal. Both his novels are tales of psychological, not supernatural, horror; but their ability to simulate the supernatural make them highly engaging reading and in part account for their popularity.

The novel of psychological horror had notable contributions in Robert Bloch’s The Scarf (1947) and Psycho (1959) and other works, but Tryon’s novels are of a substantially different sort. Rather than merely focus on a disturbed protagonist, they suggest the supernatural throughout the narrative, and the “climax” is often the revelation that what was thought to be supernatural is in fact natural—but this resolution is in strict accordance with the psychological analysis that Tryon has been conducting all along. As such, the novels avoid the disappointment to which the works of “explained supernaturalism” going all the way back to Ann Radcliffe are subject.

The Other is, frankly, based on a trick—and the trick is the extraordinarily adept concealment of the fact that, of the twin brothers Niles and Holland Perry, Holland is in fact dead. In this poignant tale of rural Connecticut, written in a prose of exquisite luminosity and poignancy, we gradually learn that Niles is frantically pretending to himself that Holland is still alive and that it is Holland, rather than Niles himself, who is responsible for the horror and tragedy that sprinkle the novel. The revelation of Holland’s death occurs about two-thirds through the novel and constitutes one of the most powerful climaxes in recent horror literature; but even this is not the end, for we later learn that Niles has told his entire narrative from an insane asylum.

Niles’s ability to fuse his personality with that of Holland, and in some senses to pretend to be Holland, is portrayed as a result not merely of his status as a twin, but of a “game” that his grandmother, Ada, encouraged both of them to play—a game that seems to have allowed them to meld their minds with that of some other entity, such as a bird. (This game—which indeed is a supernatural phenomenon—is given far more prominence in the 1972 film than in the book.) But there is more to it than this. It becomes clear that Niles, on those occasions when he pretends to be Holland, is psychologically transferring to his dead brother his “evil” side, so that he can maintain that the killings and other crimes he himself commits were in fact committed by Holland. Niles can do this the more efficaciously because Holland’s own death was caused by his attempt to kill a cat, resulting in his falling down a well and dying.

Once the revelation of Holland’s death is known, the entire novel takes on a different cast, and words, phrases, and whole passages that seemed to have an altogether different or ambiguous meaning suddenly make sense, both in terms of plot and in terms of Niles’s psychological state. Tryon’s writing is so tight and meticulous that every word not only contributes to the final outcome, but frequently carries a double meaning that is not elucidated until all the facts are known. In this sense, it adheres strictly to Poe’s strictures on the “unity of effect”—a remarkable achievement in a novel. The Other, in its exquisite lyricism, its clutching horror, and its skilful analysis of all the central characters, is a triumph in every way.

Harvest Home is one some senses an even greater triumph, for in spite of its substantially greater length it too is written with remarkable compression and concision. Here the setting is again rural Connecticut, and the focus is on Ned Constantine, who with his wife, Beth, have left the turmoil of New York to move into the small village of Cornwall Coombe. Tryon emphasises the respect for tradition that the village embodies (“Tradition … was the important thing here; tradition and custom, customs that had been preserved through the villagers’ lineage since olden times” [32]), where the age-old patterns of planting, nurturing, and harvesting the crops are the central focus of the community.

Although the inhabitants of Cornwall Coombe appear to be devout, there is some question as to exactly what god they worship. One resident states: “See this little valley of ours, see the bountiful harvest we’re to have. God’s fine, but it’s old Mother Earth that’s the friend to man” (60). Another resident almost gives the game away: “You’re bound to think us positively heathenish hereabouts” (86).

Amidst the seeming tranquillity of the village, where Beth finds pleasure participating in a sewing circle and other local activities, Ned seems to be something of an outsider. He has heard of a revenue agent who has come to a bad end, and whose ghost seems to haunt the nearby woods; and on one occasion he actually hears bansheelike howls in the woods, then sees a hideous sight:

Ghastly, eerie, the figure was a gray ashen hue, the white garments flapping like cerements, a specter returned from the grave. I have never seen a ghost, nor do I believe that ghosts exist, but at that moment I was absolutely certain I was looking at one. It seemed to glow against the lurid sky, hovering some twelve feet above me, the body cut off by the edge of the embankment, head upraised, arms outstretched. I tried to tell myself I was imagining all this, but there it stood, a haggard, silvery shape, like some ghoul risen from the dead. (148)

Only much later does Ned learn that this grotesque figure was a man who had been a former handyman in the village whose tongue had been cut out—but for what reason?

Ned’s fortunes take a dramatic turn when he befriends Worthy Pettinger, a young man who has been selected as the next Harvest Lord, a high honour in the eyes of the villagers, but who spurns the office and attempts to flee; but when he is dragged back to the village, Ned’s own role in Worthy’s flight is looked upon with disfavour—by his own wife, among others. Then there is the matter of Grace Everdeen, a young girl who was chosen as the Corn Maiden some years before, but who had died under mysterious circumstances. Eventually Ned learns that she had been afflicted with acromegaly, which made her physically grotesque and therefore unsuitable as the Corn Maiden; she had been killed by the villagers, and it was her skeleton, not that of the revenue agent, that Ned had once come upon.

The climax of Harvest Home is of almost unbearable potency; for it is here that the secret ceremony of Harvest Home—in which the women of the village, along with the Harvest Lord, participate—comes to the fore. Ned, who against all the rules of the village peeks in on the ceremony, finds to his horror that it will result in the death of the Harvest Lord, but just as horrifying is his witnessing of his own wife coupling with the Harvest Lord, a scene whose fusion of primitive archaism and perverse sexuality is imperishably gripping.

But again, as with The Other, the real climax of the novel is of a quieter if even more insidious sort. For in the end we learn that, because of his various derelictions, Ned has been blinded and his tongue cut out; his entire narrative is a monumental flashback, and once again a number of passages that had seemed either innocuous or ambiguous take on a loathsome signification. Harvest Home, with its rich characterisation, deft construction, fluid prose, and cumulative power, is one of the great weird novels of our time and a virtual textbook on how to update the form while simultaneously drawing on history to lend texture and substance. In some senses it is a kind of novel-length version of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” where the emphasis is similarly on an age-old ritual that results in death for the sake of a bountiful harvest.

Subsequent to Harvest Home, Tryon took to other forms of writing. Lady (1974) is a winsome novel that proves to be simultaneously a murder mystery and an interracial love story. The Night of the Moonbow (1989) was marketed as a horror novel, but in fact is a delicate story of a young boy’s maturation. A work that appeared years after his death, Night Magic (1995), was apparently completed by Valerie Martin (author of Mary Reilly) and John Cullen, whoever he might be. Although it deals with the possibly supernatural ramifications of prestidigitation, it is not a compelling work—and since one hardly knows how much of it Tryon himself wrote, it would be unwise to regard it as part of his fictional corpus. In any event, Tryon has already made two substantial contributions to the literature of horror, which is more than can be said of most other writers.