Books : Thomas Ligotti's thoughts on Exorcist

Thomas Ligotti's thoughts on Exorcist

In every literary work, there is an intersection where the handling of subject matter and verbal manneristics meet. It is at this juncture that a writer's consciousness expresses itself and his style is exposed to the full. For example, compare two horror novels that postulate the reality of supernatural possession—William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971) and Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (written 1927; published posthumously, 1941). In the world of Blatty's formulaic novel, certain characters are dressed for doom and others for survival.

Two priests, Frs. Karras and Merrin, die good deaths in the process of saving Regan, a young girl whose body, and perhaps her soul— the relationship between body and soul among Christian sects can be tortuous—has been possessed by a demon or demons. The deaths of these priests are acceptable to readers. Burke Dennings, the director of the movie in which Regan’s actress mother Chris MacNeill stars, is murdered by the possessed Regan. He is not a terribly sympathetic character, being a profane and belligerent drunk, so the function he serves is that of a character who can be killed off for pure thrills. This follows the formula and thus is also acceptable to readers. Such is the way that the greater part of those who patronize works of fiction and cinema like to see a writer handle this kind of subject matter.

They want a finale in which good wins out over evil (we can spare the quotes), reassuring readers that human life, and the fabricated theistic order to which it is annexed, is all right. As a popular novel, the narrative of The Exorcist is spun out in a lively and nondescript “show, don’t tell” manner. Intended readers of Blatty’s novel of demonic possession will be engrossed by its subject matter alone—which they believe is true, or could be true— and they do not want any verbal embroidery to get in the way.

The Exorcist is known to be based on newspaper reports from 1949 of a talk given by a clergyman who claimed to have performed the ritual of the exorcism on a boy named Robbie. Blatty took these reports and plugged them into a template of popular fiction that is more or less reportorial. The result was a bestselling book.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is in every way a negation of Blatty’s Exorcist. In Lovecraft’s novel, the universe is in the hands of forces that are indifferent to human life, as it is in the real world. This is acceptable to very few readers. Good and evil are childish abstractions, as they are in the real world. Again, this is acceptable to very few readers. And the idea of human beings as creatures with souls is not an issue in the story because it was not an issue for Lovecraft. Everyone, not only the hapless protagonist of the book, exists in a world that is nightmare through and through.

In Lovecraft’s universe without a formula, everyone is killable—and some kill themselves just ahead of the worse things waiting for them. Life as we conceive it, let alone a configuration of atoms with the given name of Charles Dexter Ward, occurs in a context of permanent jeopardy that only remains to be discovered and never to be defeated. Lovecraft does not want to take you on an emotional roller-coaster ride, at the end of which he tells you to watch your step as your car slows down and you settle back onto steady ground. He wants to catapult your brain into a black madness from which there is no return—a weightier undertaking for a horror writer, even though no reader has ever been so influenced.20 Lovecraft’s handling of the subject matter of supernatural possession is so at odds with Blatty’s that the two men might have been living in different centuries, or rather millennia.

The narrative parameters of The Exorcist begin and end with the New Testament; those of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward could only have been conceived by a fiction writer of the modern era, a time when it had become safe not only to place humanity outside the center of the Creation but to survey the universe itself as centerless and our species as only a smudge of organic materials at the mercy of forces that know us not (as it is in the real world). As for the protagonist of the title, his possession is just a means to much larger ends that have been eons in the making: he is, as previously imaged, a configuration of atoms and not an ensouled creature of a god who has been monkeying around with us for only a hundred thousand years more or less.

Lovecraft’s narrative is not only modern, it also emerged from an imagination that was deferential to no dogma that may be dated, one that assimilated what had come before and envisioned what might come to be in the evolution of human consciousness, deliberating with a fearsome honesty until it settled on a position it could hold in good faith and was ready to jettison as dictated by evidence or cerebration. Lovecraft drew upon and extended the most advanced thought of his time as well as all previous scientific and philosophical developments that tended to disenchant the human species with itself. In that sense, he really went the limit of disillusionment in assuming the meaningless, disordered, foundationless universe that became the starting point for later figures in science and philosophy. Lovecraft existed in no man’s land of nihilism and disillusionment. He will always be a contemporary of whatever generation comes along. One cannot say the same about most recipients of the Nobel Prize in literature, never mind writers of horror fiction.

Whereas Lovecraft was uninterested in the human race except for its scale in proportion to an indifferent universe full of monsters, Blatty has proven himself as someone who is “involved with humanity” and sensitive to its suffering. To overlook this fact is to miss the point of his work. That he is dependent on religious salvation to justify human suffering cheapens his writing for the unfaithful as much as it should give it value for believers.

Perhaps no one since John Milton has made such an attempt to excuse human misery in religious terms. (This is a Sisyphean labor destined to be ineffectual, making it an easy mark for an atheist poet like A. E. Housman, who wrote that “malt does more than Milton can / To justify God’s ways to man.”) Lovecraft and Blatty each depicted the invasion of something terrible into this world in variant ways. Likewise, the manner in which this subject is rendered by their respective authors is worlds apart. It is at the intersection of manner and matter that their style of consciousness diverges.

The nononsense prose of The Exorcist and its supernatural subject come together at a rutted intersection as old as the Cross, a Golgothic crossroads littered with spent formulas borrowed from the Catholic Church. Blatty stands in the same place as endless others before him. He would not be misunderstood by anyone who lived during the Middle Ages. In The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Lovecraft’s rhetorical fervor cannot be confused with that of anyone else, and the locus to which he escorts his readers is a cosmic crux that no one had ever glimpsed before him. He would be as alien to a medieval mind as the modern or postmodern world itself. That Blatty wins the contest for the time and money of the legions should perplex no one. Average readers will stand patiently in line to buy a bestseller; few of them will even get in line to buy a literary classic of its type.


THE CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE HUMAN RACE

A Short Life of Horror
Thomas Ligotti

Re: Thomas Ligotti's thoughts on Exorcist

Interesting words although it sounds more of a defence of his own style of "verbal embroidery" and an attack on "populism".
I like Ligotti but he can be "hit or miss".

Re: Thomas Ligotti's thoughts on Exorcist

"The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" is one of the finest horror stories ever written; "The Exorcist" is a potboiler with a ludicrous, nonsensical story.
WPB did a much better job with "Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane" aka "The Ninth Configuration".

"Say it with flowers . . . give her a Triffid."

Re: Thomas Ligotti's thoughts on Exorcist


WPB did a much better job with "Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane" aka "The Ninth Configuration


Is it horror?

Re: Thomas Ligotti's thoughts on Exorcist

Not really. It's more of a mystery story but to describe it in detail would probably spoil it. There's a movie version which is OK but apparently there are several versions of it in circulation, each with differing amounts of cuts.

"Say it with flowers . . . give her a Triffid."

Re: Thomas Ligotti's thoughts on Exorcist

This really reads as 'randomly chosen popular horror book' isn't as good as 'obscure horror book I really like'. His complaints about the Catholic nature of The Exorcist are bizarre, given that its main character is a Jesuit priest, and the main theme of the story is that priest's struggle for faith. It's a bit like complaining that Harry Potter is about wizards and magic nonsense.


Rusty chains and armoured pillows stuffed with silver pins

Re: Thomas Ligotti's thoughts on Exorcist

Lovecraft's work is hardly "obscure".

Re: Thomas Ligotti's thoughts on Exorcist

Ok, perhaps "less well known" might have been a better phrasing. But the point stands.

I question his whole "good death" hypothesis, too. Merrin dies having achieved nothing, Karras dies committing the mortal sin of suicide, having finally put his faith in God. Kinda ironic, dontcha think?

Rusty chains and armoured pillows stuffed with silver pins

Re: Thomas Ligotti's thoughts on Exorcist

THE EXORCIST was awesome.

Why hang on to antiquated notions like "the soil is like my mother?" - Man

Re: Thomas Ligotti's thoughts on Exorcist

While I absolutely adore Ligotti`s work, I get tired of his attacks on other approaches to horror. There is good and bad horror, but the value system of the writer doesn't make it good or bad.

The Exorcist cannot be reasonably condemned for reflecting Blatty`s Catholic point of view any more than Ligotti or Lovecraft`s work should be rejected for their particular philosophies (aside from most of Lovecraft`s admirers being rightly critical of his racism).

Not all fans of the Exorcist are Catholic, any kind of Christian, or even religious. Not all fans of Ligotti and Lovecraft are philosophical pessimists. All three writers have a powerful ability to draw readers into their private worlds while those readers are engaged with the works.
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