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Mid-century possession: Ray Russell’s The Case Against Satan

It’s almost impossible to imagine a contemporary possession story, whether in a book or film, not being somehow influenced by William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. Blatty’s novel is one of those books that defines a subgenre and many of the images that readers and film-goers have of possession tales (the troubled priests, the candle-lit Catholic iconography, the other-worldly voices) seemingly originate with Blatty’s 1971 book. But there’s a possession novel, much less well known, that appeared roughly a decade earlier, and which includes many of the possession narrative attributes that would become a staple in books and films involving exorcism.

The Case Against Satan by Ray Russell
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Ray Russell’s The Case Against Satan, published in 1962, is a fascinating novel not only because it’s a pre-The Exorcist example of an exorcism story, but also because, by taking place in the early 60s, it unfolds in a very different cultural moment than Blatty’s novel. If Blatty’s book is sometimes interpreted as reflecting the anxieties some people had about the late 60s/early 70s counter-culture – with a young girl turning suddenly demonic mirroring the fear that young people in the real world might join a revolutionary group like The Weatherman, or a cult, like the Manson Family – Russell’s book unfolds in a time period still very close to the 50s. Because of the period in which it was written, there’s an early Mad Men-tone to a surprising number of scenes. Mad Men with demonic possession, though.

The Case Against Satan involves a father and daughter who seek out help from the local parish priests because the daughter, Susan Garth, who we’re told had “recently been a devout girl who attended Mass regularly,” has started to feel a visceral revulsion at the idea of entering a church. From there, her behaviour quickly becomes more extreme and occasionally violent, to the point where the bishop and parish priest, after much theological discussion involving the existence or no-existence of the devil, decide to perform an exorcism.

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Unlike The Exorcist, where the exorcism takes place in Regan’s room, the exorcism here takes place in the rectory. There are plot reasons for this involving Susan’s father, since a major twist would have been impossible if the exorcism took place in the Garth home. But it also shows the different focus in each novel. In Blatty’s book, the emphasis is largely on the family unit of the MacNeils and their household employees (Father Karras’ character being the main exception). It’s fitting, then, that the exorcism should take place in the MacNeil home. The Case Against Satan is more focused on society at large (or at least the social macrocosm of St. Michael’s parish). Not only is more time spent with Bishop Crimmings and Father Sargent than with the Garths, but the novel also includes a cranky conspiracy theorist, a few police officers, and a parishioner who, upon hearing rumours of a woman’s voice being overheard in the rectory (actually the voice of Susan and/or the demon), is convinced Father Sargent is hosting wild parties. Here, Russell implies the Garth family and its troubles are embedded in the larger social world. In Blatty’s book, in contrast, Regan’s possession cuts the MacNeil household off from the outer world, with Chris ending her busy DC social life to bring all of her attention to her daughter. If Blatty’s possession narrative pivots around the family, Russell’s book homes in on society.

I can’t help but suspect the times in which the novels were written might have had a hand in this difference. If the ’50s and early ’60s were a time of broad-based social conformity, then it makes sense that a case of demonic possession wouldn’t merely be a private, family dilemma, but one that rippled throughout the community. By the late ‘60s and early ’70s, though, that sense of social cohesion, with its often conformist undertones, had eroded drastically. One of the minor subplots in Blatty’s book is the desecration of a DC. church, an event that Chris MacNeil finds both shocking and intriguing. She tells a priest at one of her parties, “I thought I’d get the scoop on what goes on at Black Mass.” Blatty’s portrayal of the times is a dire one where possession is not an exception to the social rule, but rather one more symptom of a generalised chaos and angst.

There are also crucial differences between Susan and Regan. Susan is older – she’s sixteen instead of twelve – and it’s never entirely clear throughout the novel if she really is possessed, unlike the possession in The Exorcist, where any doubt of Regan being taken over by a demon has been answered by the end. Also, as we learn slowly through the course of Russell’s book, Susan comes from a terrible family situation, while Regan, despite her parent’s acrimonious divorce, lives with a supportive and caring mother who nicknames her “Rags,” and who desperately seeks answers to Regan’s disturbing behaviour. It’s also fair to say that Regan is developed much more as a character. (This is true for many of the characters in Blatty’s book. Though he was well-known for his sometimes purple prose, as a writer Blatty made an effort to add dimension to his characters.) We see Regan in multiple scenes before the possession overcomes her personality entirely, including a brief and unexpected moment (not included in the film) where she is “distant and sad” at the grave of John F. Kennedy, and then asks her mother, “Mom, why do people have to die?” Russell’s novel starts almost in media res, with Susan already having severe symptoms of possession that are told in flashback and through present-moment dialogue. Outside of being told she is devout and “clean-talking,” and acting respectfully towards the priests she meets as “Susan,” we know little about her before the demon takes over.

If, that is, the demon takes over. As I mentioned above, maybe the largest difference between The Case Against Satan and The Exorcist is that, in Russell’s book, the reader can never be entirely positive Susan isn’t pretending to be possessed. And if she is pretending – and the book hints that she might be doing so to both escape and punish her horrible father – then the scenes with the demon are really scenes with Susan acting as if she were a demon. In this case, Susan becomes a very complex character. The respectful and religious teenager would also be the obscenity-and vomit-spewing “demon,” suggesting that Susan has figured out that one of the few ways for a young woman to have a voice in this world (and the world in Russell’s book is extremely male-dominated) would be, ironically, to speak in the voice of a devil. Alternatively, considering how Freud-haunted the novel is (with, for example, Father Sargent gaining a good deal of notoriety from his Freudian-inflected essays), the reader could imagine that Susan’s unconscious is “possessing” her, and that the demon is neither real, nor Susan exactly, but a manifestation of Susan’s unconscious mind. She needs to escape her father; she can’t consciously figure out a way to do so in this fiercely patriarchal society; her unconscious, however, does.

And yet the novel never rules out possession, or at least the possibility that mystic forces are at play. Susan is released by the demon around the time when certain dire events befall her father, but she doesn’t hear about those events until after her return to a more normal self, complicating the idea that the possession is actually Susan’s performance of possession.

The Case Against Satan is pulpier than The Exorcist – it has plot developments near the end that shift the novel’s tone more toward crime and noir than horror. It’s also much shorter, with less well-developed characters (Father Sargent is a “whiskey priest,” and tormented because of it, but he’s not nearly as baroquely tormented as Father Karras). Yet the book would be of great interest for anyone into the history of possession narratives, or for anyone intrigued by mid-century horror. One of my favourite aspects of the novel is the startling chapter titles. Russell had an evident flair for them, and many would have made great novel titles as well (“Black Fire” and “He Who Knocks” were especially memorable).

One last notable difference between The Case Against Satan and The Exorcist – Russell’s novel concludes on a much more hopeful note than Blatty’s story. The good guys (Susan, the priests, the rectory’s Irish housekeeper) win handily over Satan and can continue on with their lives knowing this. Maybe this optimism is another sign of its time. The book was published roughly a year before the first Kennedy assassination, when keeping the faith became a greater test.

The Case Against Satan by Ray Russell is available from Penguin Classics. Buy the book

James Pate has published fiction at Aphotic Realm, Occulum, Superstition Review and Berkeley Fiction Review, among other places. His collection of essays on contemporary gothic poetry, Flowers Among the Carrion, was published by Actions Books in 2016. You can find him on Twitter at @James__Pate.

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