A teenage girl’s demonic possession forces a young priest to confront his own crisis of faith in this rediscovered piece of pulp theology.
Russell (Absolute Power, 1992, etc.) is perhaps best known for the screenplays of X: The Man With the X-ray Eyes and Mr. Sardonicus (adapted from his own short story), though his novels and stories earned him a 1991 World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement. This novel—his first—begins when young Father Gregory is called to take over a parish from an abruptly departed predecessor. He’s barely settled when one of his new parishioners brings in his teenage daughter, telling tales of the girl’s rebelliousness. Gregory, a believer in psychoanalysis and the author of magazine articles that have troubled his superiors, is reluctant to believe what his bishop immediately apprehends: that the girl is possessed by the devil. Many of the plot elements—young female victim; older priest stalwart in his belief; younger colleague’s faith imperiled by his acceptance of contemporary rationality—turned up in William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, and it may be that Blatty’s lashings of gore and sexualized violence were his shrewdest innovation. For too much of its brief length, Russell’s novel reads like a theological debate, and a dusty one at that. The whodunit element grafted onto the denouement is a clumsy concession to storytelling.
There’s no doubt that Russell got to demonic possession before Blatty and Ira Levin, but that alone isn’t enough to possess anyone to read this book.