Penguin Classics, 2015
I've been perusing reader reviews of this novel, and for the most part, I'm finding a lot of posts that downplay this book because it's "outdated" and some that say that readers might better be served by reading something more along the lines of Blatty's The Exorcist or Tremblay's A Head Full of Ghosts.
Well, everyone to his or her own of course, but at the very beginning of this book we are specifically told that "a priest of the Roman Catholic Church was put on trial one harrowing weekend in the second half of the twentieth century." Why and how he's "put on trial" is the focal point of this novel, and yet somehow, the draw for a lot of readers seems to be only the expectations of the exorcism that takes place here. And that's a shame, really, since there is a lot going on here otherwise.
In a nutshell, without going into too much detail and spoiling things for future readers, the novel begins with an outgoing priest, Father Halloran, confiding in his replacement, Father Gregory Sargent, about some of the people in the parish, mentioning a particular family he's worried about. This is the Garth family, young sixteen year-old Susan and her father. According to Halloran, Susan is motherless, is "very disturbed," and she has "fits." He's counseled her father to take Susan to see a psychiatrist, and as Gregory finds out in his own discussion with Mr. Garth about her problem behaviors, dad has refused to do so. Susan, it seems, has been wanting to see a shrink, but Garth continues to insist that she's "not crazy." It's obvious that Susan is starting to trust Gregory but things take a strange turn when she is questioned privately by Gregory's superior, Bishop Crimmings, and reacts in an unexpected way.
Forward-thinking Gregory believes that Susan's behavior may be based on "an unpleasant childhood experience connected in her mind with the church, or something she has done that makes her feel unclean, unworthy...," in short, a psychological explanation; Crimmings, on the other hand, makes no bones about the fact that the girl is possessed, "literally and actually." And thus ensues a struggle between science-based reason and superstition-based faith, as Crimmings insists that Gregory perform an exorcism, while Gregory questions why he should "Drive out a medieval Devil" he has "trouble believing in." The Bishop believes he must do it, because it is the "only thing" that can save him -- it seems that Gregory's faith is to be tried, since by admitting he doesn't believe in the Devil, he could be seen as a heretic, because
"If God existed, logically his Adversary existed."
As I said earlier, there's way more in this novel than just the exorcism itself -- I found several things of interest here, among them the similarities between sexual and religious ecstasy, the nature of trauma, and hysteria spread by and grounded in ignorance. There's also a wonderful scene here where Gregory is dreaming and finds himself in the last scene of Macbeth, and Beaudelaire's lovely story "The Generous Gambler" even finds its way to relevance here, since one of the main questions brought up here is the existence of the devil. Beaudelaire's comment in his tale, if you haven't read it, is yes, but perhaps not quite in the way we imagine. And of course, the decision as to whether Susan is possessed is left purposefully ambiguous, so that readers are able to make up their own minds as to what's actually going on here.
The last chapter of the book just put me off completely, but despite its ending, I thought this book was very well done. And my suggestion would be to look past the expectations of a head-spinning, pea-soup launching exorcism, since there's much more here than meets the eye, and in my opinion, continues to have relevance. If you're looking for something with grossout power, this isn't the book you want. However, I would certainly recommend it to readers who are looking to discover exactly what sort of evil exists in the course of ordinary human lives.