Monday, 16 November 2015

The Case Against Satan by Ray Russell Review

A young girl is possessed by the devil - a Catholic priest and bishop must perform an exorcism to save her! 

Ray Russell’s The Case Against Satan was published in 1962, 9 years before William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist but it’s less well-known probably because of the enormous popularity of the 1973 movie adaptation of Blatty’s book. I’m sure for audiences in 1962 this was fresh and exciting as well as influential (I wonder if Blatty and Stephen King read Russell’s novel?) but half a century later... 

If you’re a horror fan and have seen many of the exorcism movies that’ve come out in the last 20 years, and of course seen The Exorcist, Russell’s novel doesn’t really offer anything new. The storyline of a possessed girl and a priest having to exorcise her at this point in time is so well-worn it’s almost a cliché! 

The doubting priest, the troubled girl, the questions over whether she’s faking it or is really possessed - I know this wasn’t well-known material back then but it is today and that made it quite a predictable and unexciting read for me. I wasn’t that interested in seeing if Father Sargent’s faith would return (hence “the case against Satan”) or whether evil would be punished - I knew, like most readers of this book, they both would. 

The demon possession scenes are almost cute for how tame they are. The worst Susan says is “You’re a son of a bitch, dad!” - quite different from saying “Your mother sucks cocks in hell!” while stuffing a crucifix up your vag and spewing pea soup in The Exorcist! Russell even writes a near-apologetic afterword, justifying the themes of incest and drunk priests by saying they’ve all happened in real life. Can you imagine any writer today doing anything like that? 1962 sure was a different world. Then again, it covered incest and child molestation so that’s pretty edgy for the time. You can tell it’s fiction too because an underage child tries to molest a priest and not the other way around! 

It’s a very quick read though and kinda pulpy too which is why it’s surprising to see it in the Penguin Classics range (then again they published that pretentious twit Morrissey’s autobio). There’s also a comparison to Rosemary’s Baby in the blurb - ignore that, Russell’s novel has nothing in common with Ira Levin’s. 

Maybe if you were/are Catholic, the story will have more of an impact on you; for an outsider like me, Catholicism’s mysticism has always looked ridiculous and hard to take seriously. All of which isn’t to say The Case Against Satan is a bad book - it’s competently written and more-or-less holds the attention - just that it hasn’t aged well because of its subject’s enormous popularity in the years after. A straightforward exorcism and possession storyline is all too familiar to be that interesting to modern horror readers versed in the subject though it might be worth a look for those curious to see the origins of this popular subgenre.

The Case Against Satan

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