With The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty made himself well-known. With the movie sequel The Heretic, the producers made a travesty of the series begun by the first well-written work and nearly relegated it to the wrong-end of the B-Movie world’s hydra of a genre. In a strange twist, The Exorcist III came along as a third installment that is in fact the true sequel to the first movie and overall not a bad horror flick for its time.
Less well known is the fact that the film bases itself on Blatty’s novel Legion, the literary sequel to his hit novel. In this book, protagonist Lieutenant Kinderman investigates a series of murders made strange by varying sets of fingerprints all seeming to imitate the methods of a deceased serial killer. The novel reads like a murder mystery mixed with possession novel, with a slight air of 80’s serial killer novel a-la The Silence of the Lambs. The killer is loosely based on the real-life Zodiac Killer, and the demon a return of the cruel spirit of the original Exorcist novel, this time in the body of a priest instead of a young girl.
When one reads this horror novel, particularly if it is an early edition with the yellow book jacket and seventies/early-eighties fabulous photo of Blatty on the back cover, one might at first feel like it is a softening of the first installment’s tone. With references to popular novels such as Scruples and computers as a ‘new’ technology of the time, one feels tempted to emit pixilated chuckles in the shape of tiny green Space Invaders.
But this never quite gets fully in the way of Blatty’s talent to disturb the consciousness. For the pages of this novel, though perhaps less frequently than its predecessor’s, still offer a disturbing analysis of the fragility of the human consciousness. Perhaps no one else has a more uncanny ability to show mental illness and demonic possession in revolving parallel that makes the spine shiver. The novel shows a sardonic underbelly of pessimism toward science, and in the character of Doctor Amfortas, it underscores the possibility of mental weakness of those in our society who are thought to be mentally the strongest. These fears combined with the sequence of murders lay out a narrative arc that in several key moments causes the reader’s mind to fracture with fear.
Although the novel ends on a slightly proto-new age upbeat note, Blatty’s work cannot quite fool one into thinking its primary impact is one of catharsis. His enduring motif, that it is possible that God is not there, but the Devil still is, still carries the day. It results in a late Twentieth Century tale that functions to undermine all concepts of what is safe, and through the metaphor of demonic possession, points toward a future that threatens to dismantle all the faithful soul took for granted and thought comfortable about identity and salvation.