Monday, January 27, 2014

Revisiting the Classics: The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, and The Haunting of Hill House

A supernatural mystery

I've been on a bit of a re-reading rampage lately, and I just finished Rosemary's Baby for the fourth or fifth time. I've written (shallowly) about the film adaptation of Rosemary in the past, but it's been extremely enlightening to revisit the book again and re-examine it on a structural level. The Haunting of Hill House is sitting on a side table as we speak, awaiting my second reading, and I reckoned since I was burrowing back into mid-century classics I might as well check out the Exorcist too because I've actually never read it. These days I'm a bit less snobbish than I used to be, so I thought I'd give it a whirl. Joke's on me, I read the thing in about two sittings, and I not only enjoyed it, I cried once. So there.

Disclaimer: I read the 40th Anniversary Edition of the Exorcist, which was supposedly edited and more polished than the original novel (Blatty claims he wrote the first book fairly hastily). Maybe the original edition is completely different -- apparently he even wrote a whole new character for this new version -- so if you have read the original and want to shed any light here, feel free to chime in.

To me, the most surprising thing about The Exorcist was how incredibly procedural it is. That, and the almost stunning detachment of the writing. The plot points mirror those of the film, but when you're not being accosted by all the visual spectacle of the barfing and the head-turning, you really notice how methodically the story proceeds from the physical to the mental to, ultimately, the spiritual. Regan, when her symptoms first manifest, undergoes a series of tests -- MRIs, blood tests -- but when these come up short, her doctor suggests she may be suffering from dissociative or perhaps multiple personality disorder. It is only when these diagnoses also fail to explain the incredible occurrences in the MacNeil household that her mother Chris turns to Father Karras for help. Body, mind, soul. It's quite neatly executed in the book, and above all logical.

Father Karras is also far better in the book. Jason Miller in the film adaptation was so totally overshadowed by the dominant disembodied voice of Mercedes McCambridge, the poor guy never stood a chance. But in the book his backstory is actually story, and it's fairly devastating. Karras' recollections of his abysmal childhood in New York City, when his mother actually went out into the streets to beg because they were so poor, are shattering (this may have been the part where I cried). The moment when he's taking the subway and a drunk says, "Spare a dime for an old altar boy faddah," is an eerily dreamy flashback overlayed with profound melancholy, memory, and grief. Really! His struggles with his loss of faith are believable, harrowing, and utterly human, as is his warm friendship with the police detective in charge of investigating Burke Denning's death. In fact, a lot more time is spent trying to figure out who killed Dennings in the book -- there are even a few red herrings tossed in, in the form of the MacNeil's surly Swiss butler, Karl. Reading it, I was struck by something: this is a supernatural mystery!

I was truly surprised to find that much depth in a book I figured would pretty much just be exploitation. On that front, I was amused to find the writing not in the least salacious. The most graphic and perverse scenes that you all remember from the film are described with as much prurience as a first year obstetrics student describing his daily rounds. Things get thrust into places, there is blood. Bodily effluvia is duly described. Either Blatty was consciously avoiding the possible accusation of exploitation (or even pornography) or he was just trying to bang out the crucifix scene before lunch.

In interviews, Blatty says he "actually didn't mean to make the book as scary as it turned out. Instead, it was meant to be a novel about faith, in which Father Karras' beliefs are tested by Regan's possession." Some fans are incredulous, but I can kind of believe it. According to the L.A. Times, Blatty said, "When I was writing the novel, I thought I was writing a supernatural detective story that was filled with suspense with theological overtones." I'd say that definitely comes across when you read the book, though again maybe it's only in the 40th anniversary edition.

But the experience of trying hard to write one type of book and ending up with another? I feel ya, Blatty. I feel ya. And if anybody's interested, I've got a manuscript of a tense Girl With The Dragoon Tattoo-esque thriller you might be interested in reading. Apparently, it's hilarious.

Stay tuned for parts two and three of Revisiting the Classics: Rosemary's Baby, and The Haunting of Hill House.