[Book Review] The Exorcist (William Peter Blatty, 1971) ★★★★☆

book cover The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty 1971

The Exorcist unleashes demonic terror and psychological dread. 

The Exorcist is an occult supernatural psychological horror novel. It has been described as the most terrifying novel ever written and the film based on the book has been infamous for the most horrifying film ever made. This surely creates high expectations. 

Although the story is scary indeed, it also has some big contrasts with the blasphemous and gory bits opposite to the sometimes clinical descriptions of satanism or the protagonists thoughts. The latter resulting more in psychological horror and themes about faith, truth, mental illness and possession. It’s not the most accessible book for the storytelling isn’t always gripping, but terrifying it certainly is. 


Chris MacNeil is an actress who recently moved to Washington with her 12 year old daughter Regan to shoot a film with her friend Burke Dennings as the director. All goes well and she even gets an offer to direct a film herself, till something strange is happening to Regan. She acts out of character, Chris hears knocking on the walls, furniture is moved seemingly by itself so she takes Regan to a doctor. 

It could have something to do with Chris’s recent divorce, that makes Regan unconsciously feel guilty, and she therefore may have developed a mental disorder. But as her illness progresses there might be something else going on and Chris calls in the help of a Jesuit priest Father Damien Karras. It’s her only hope to perform an exorcism to drive out the real or metaphorical demons out of Regan, but Karras is losing his faith and doubts if Regan is really possessed. 

Why you should read it

First of all it’s a horror classic and for this reason alone it should be on everyones list who is a horror fan. But I myself found this novel not too accessible. The contrasts between the clinical descriptions, the demonic possession and the inner thought of both Chris and Karras are very sharp, which makes the story feel a bit incoherent. 

The story itself is divided into four different parts, as are the three stages of possession; manifestation, infestation and possession and the last part being the exorcism itself. This also results into four different tones and atmospheres of the book.

In the first part we get to know Chris and Regan, who have a loving relationship. Regan is a very sweet normal girl and Chris does her best to be a good mother, while working on her career and worrying about Regan’s relationship with her absent father. This first part is excellently told. It’s playful and charming and really depicts the characters. But subtly the manifestation sets in, turning Regan in a different girl altogether. 

The second part, the infestation turns it up a notch. Regan herself doesn’t play a big part anymore, she has become the subject of examination by a few doctors, and now we dive into the mind of Chris who can’t do anything then worry. It slowly takes you on a downward spiral into despair. And worst of all, Burke Dennings is found dead at the bottom of the stairs next to the house. So besides the problems with Regan, a detective William Kinderman also shows up, who is suspicious of Karl Engstrom who lives with his wife Willie with Chris to take care of the household. 

The third part introduces Chris with Damien Karras who struggles with his faith after his mother died whom he has neglected. He is her only hope to perform an exorcism, that might help whether Regan is really possessed or not, the suggestive act alone can be helpful. This part is all about the possession and the most horrifying part. It’s full with obscenities, blasphemous talk by the demon and his cunning conversations with Karras. 

The final part is the exorcism itself where Father Lankaster Merrin shows up to help, who was introduced to us in the prologue. This part goes by very quickly and Merrin learns Karras an important lesson on life and faith. 

Sometimes these four parts can feel as quite different, with a different tone and voice. The first part has the best storytelling, with a great buildup. The characters are depicted by small actions, the conversations are a delight to read, playful, indirect and is a great example of show don’t tell writing.

With the changes that Regan and the whole house go through, the tone and atmosphere changes as well, which is completely understandable but doesn’t necessarily result in a pleasant read. The scenes where Karras contemplates his faith as a psychologist and if possession exists or not, are interesting but a bit clinical. The part where demonic possession and mental illness are described feel quite clinical as well. It feels detached from the rest of the story, not forming a whole. 

That goes for the character Kinderman as well, who sometimes feels as a the odd man out. He’s involved because of the death of Burke, but his character isn’t very much functional to the story. This relates to his suspicion of Karl who secretly goes to his drugs addicted daughter, which also feels a bit out of place, except for the connection to Chris who does everything to help her daughter but also keeps it secretive. 

Although it’s a great horror novel with both occult and psychological horror, it doesn’t feel well balanced out at times. It’s more like different parts put together to form one story, but don’t make up one big enthralling read. While the emphasis is on the demonic terror and psychological dread, the deaths are not shown, nor is the mystery about the blasphemous acts in the church solved, although hinted at who did it, but not how. 

My favorite part

The first part, when all of it starts happening has the best tension buildup. The relationship between Chris and Regan is key. Although Chris doesn’t care any less for Regan, it feels like the character of Regan quickly doesn’t exist anymore. While Blatty himself explains this by letting Merrin say to Karras that the demon deeds are not aimed purely at Regan, but in fact at the others in the house. This makes sense, but still, the infestation and possession part feel somewhat detached from any other emotions than despair. 

Also I liked Father Joe Dyer very much. He’s a playful character that brings in some lightheartedness and warmth. Every scene he shows up, it lightens the mood a bit. 

A favorite quote

‘She went to the hall and the rapping grew suddenly louder, much faster, and as she pushed on the door and stepped into the room, they abruptly ceased. What the freak’s going on? Her pretty eleven-year-old was asleep, cuddled tight to a large stuffed round-eyed panda. Pookey. Faded from years of smothering; years of smacking, war, wet kisses.’


Rating: ★★★★☆

Scare factor: ★★★★☆

Gruesome factor: ★★★★★

Read more about The Exorcist:


The Exorcist is written by William Peter Blatty and first published by Harper & Row in 1971. It consists of 378 pages. 

book cover The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty 1971

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