Ray Russell's "The Case Against Satan" is a short and relatively obscure novel that was published in 1962, nearly 10 years before "The Exorcist". While William Peter Blatty's version went on to become an Academy-Award winning film, the novella that inspired it remained long forgotten until it was recently republished by Penguin Classics. It is similar in the obvious ways: the story tells of a young girl possessed by the devil and of two priests trying to save her. But the "Case" is also fundamentally different, and it is valuable not as a specimen of groundbreaking horror, but as a reflection of American culture in the early 1960s.
Even if you have not seen "The Exorcist", or the multitude of spin-offs and sequels, you probably know enough about the concept to recognize the staples: a young and innocent girl, a reluctant and worn parent that turns to the Church as a last resort, a demon that shouts a number of violent obscenities and physically manipulates the girl to fly, crawl, scream and projectile vomit. (And that's just Scary Movie 2!)
So first and foremost, props are due to Russell for writing the foundational novel that put these all together. He and other authors of the genre cite numerous historical examples (many unproven) as influential on their work, but Russell was the first to combine the various pieces into a self-contained story, and the time at which he did it stands as the most remarkable aspect.
Of course, appreciation for context is not something that ages well, and at first it was easy to dismiss Russell's novel as a less exciting version of "The Exorcist": It reads like the Ray Bradbury to Blatty's James Ellroy. But it was that observation that led me to consider the culture during the time it was published.
I was not around in the late 50s and early 60s, but I associate the time with a few things: glass bottle Coke, white-picket fences, ice boxes, milkmen, and Leave it to Beaver. This was America post-WW2, pre-Vietnam, before the Beatles, before Woodstock, before MLK and JFK, when terrorists were communists and hard drugs were marijuana cigarettes. The pinnacle of American innocence and prosperity, that time stands in stark contrast to the values of our culture today and seems like a fiction itself.
Enter Ray Russell and his vision of a young suburban girl, Susan Garth, being viciously tormented by an unseen foe, the Diabolus himself, our favorite perpetual villain, Satan.
Her father Robert Garth becomes troubled when he notices little Susie suffering from a terrible affliction: she cannot go to church on Sunday. Her loving father becomes angry, drags her by the arm, threatens to hogtie her, and goes as far as hitting her ("You know... a little slap across the mouth, that's all" (15)) before deciding to solicit professional help.
Psychiatry is suggested but put down immediately. At this time, the prominence of sex in Freud's theories put him on a level just above Satan himself, and so her father does the next best thing: he takes her to the local priest. The bishop questions Susie and becomes convinced she is possessed when finds himself able to burn her arm with a crucifix.
The ritual begins and immediately features all of the hallmarks of the genre: the girl flies off the bed becomes stuck to the wall, she projectile vomits, she makes lustful advances toward both holy men, she kicks, screams, curses, and self-mutilates. But all of these are filtered through the lens of the early Sixties, the exorcism on Mapleton Drive, a PG precursor to the "Exorcist" of fame. (To be fair, there are few movies that do not seem "PG" compared to "The Exorcist".)
Even at her worst, Susie (or Satan) does not strike much fear into the hearts of a modern reader. Her most graphic exclamations include "pig", "dung", and a particularly anticlimactic "Shit!", which was enough to drive a curious parishioner to the police for help (83). I've heard my own Grandfather say "shit", though only when referring to Hillary Clinton. And her harrowing "dung" outburst reads more like nihilistic poetry than intolerable profanity:
"A man is a pile of dung, created in the image of dung, and his whole wretched span is spent in search of other dung to bury himself in... And this-- this merging of dung-- he calls by beautiful names. He calls it Love! He calls it Rapture! He calls it Ecstasy! But he is a liar. There is nothing beautiful about it, or about him. It is all dung" (70).
Even by our modern PC standards, that seems light. It is no wonder the image of Regan violently masturbating with a crucifix would shock the nation ten years later.
The Power of the Church
The second prominent feature of the novel is the role of the Catholic Church and its authority over the lives of the characters. John Talbot, renegade publisher and independent thinker, is derided for insinuating that the Church is a totalitarian institution full of dogmatic propaganda, and that priests are humans too and therefore subject to imperfection.
"The Church is afraid of the nonconformist, the renegade, afraid of anything it can't understand. It's afraid of your little girl," he warns Susie's father. "Why, they not only have their own distorted version of the Bible, but they actually discourage laymen from reading it! It's up to them to-- "interpret" it for you!" (18-19).
But Garth, a devoted Catholic, is not impressed.
"You're not a Jew, Talbot, are you?" (21).
Yes, anti-semitism on ethnic grounds is always frowned upon, but religious prejudice -- especially from Catholics -- is just another day at the office. It is not just Jews, but Protestants also come under fire from the righteous priests. And if you are wondering what they might have said about Islam, remember the demonic statue in "The Exorcist" was found... in Iraq.
The most striking example comes near the end, where Susan's desperate father fears the worst and races to the rectory to check on his daughter. At first Father Gregory has reservations about letting Garth into the room. After all, his daughter is bound to the bed in a nightgown, unconscious, and bleeding from the mouth in a room with two strange men. But Garth bursts through the door, takes in the horrific scene in front him, turns to the priests and says "You two have a lot of explaining to do" (106).
Hey Ricky, this isn't Lucy forgetting to bring home the milk, this is your daughter perhaps being raped by the priest, or by the devil, or by both. But this is the era of infallibility for the Catholic priest, and good Garth calms down as the priests explain that an invisible being is actually responsible, not the two men who stripped her, bathed her, changed her and tied her up.
They even go so far as to rebuke the detective for suggesting the possibility of foul play. "But is it a probability? In the rectory of the church? In the presence of a priest and a bishop?" (117).
Mel Brooks comes to mind, not because he was Jewish, but because sometimes "It's good to be the king."
Also, "Torquemada: you can't talk-him-outta anything!"
Our Modern Superiority
In the end, the story more closely resembles a closed-room Sherlock Holmes mystery than a terrifying supernatural thriller -- just imagine Holmes and Watson are priests and the Devil is an English gentleman that politely interjects to ask pointed questions about their faith.
It is more of a philosophical debate between men than a battle between man and devil, and it just happens to involve a case of demonic possession.
Laird Barron, in his introduction to the book, says “The point of "The Exorcist" is the confrontation and ultimate... defeat of evil. The point of "The Case Against Satan" is the discovery of truth” (xiv). He is undoubtedly correct, and in that truth lies the value of this elementary exorcism novel.
It is easy to see how far American culture has come since then. Secular families are prominent in our communities, not blacklisted from them, and collectively we swear like the archetypal sailor. The Catholic Church retains plenty of power, but other religions are more tolerated (except for Jews and Muslims and other non-Christians). Our threshold for shock and horror is much higher, but we consider that a sign of maturity, intellectualism, and all around superiority over the past generations.
All that remains from that simpler time is the occasional truth, easily overlooked, to remind us:
"Diabolus wants it that way. His cleverest wile is to convince us he does not exist" (49).