by Karen Ullo
In all the ink that has been spilled about the twentieth century heyday of Catholic fiction— that Golden Age of Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, J.R.R. Tolkien, Evelyn Waugh, et. al.--only rarely do we hear mention of William Peter Blatty. Yet Blatty was a practicing Catholic, and he is certainly a major twentieth century author whose work contains an explicit presentation of Catholic truths. The plot of The Exorcist hinges on the Church and its representative priests being the only source of Good capable of defeating True Evil. Blatty even called it “an apostolic work, to help people in their faith.” So where, in all our recent literary pining, is the nostalgia for The Exorcist?
The Exorcist is not a perfect book. Personally, I find parts of it gratuitous, and I wish Blatty had been clearer in the end: that he had spelled it out in no uncertain terms that it is Christ working through Fr. Karras who conquers the demon, not the erstwhile exorcist himself. It is legitimate to argue the merits of Blatty’s Hollywood-infused style of storytelling versus the more traditional literary styles of the other authors I mentioned, though I, as a trained screenwriter, have to side with Blatty. It’s fair to claim that his portrayal of demonic possession isn’t accurate, though I prefer to give fiction writers license to err on the side of drama. However, I suspect there is really only one reason why Catholic literary circles so often omit The Exorcist from the “canon” of twentieth century Catholic literature.
It’s because it scares the bejesus out of us.
Let’s go back another hundred years. The nineteenth century produced a veritable banquet of literary horror, stories that took such deep root in the Western imagination that we now remake and reimagine them endlessly, until even their very names have come to seem like clichés. Frankenstein. Dracula. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Yet the age of Gothic horror was not one of ludicrous caricatures, but one that gave us enduring works about spiritual crisis from some of the era’s greatest authors. It’s difficult to relegate Victor Hugo to the literary sidelines, yet it was a horror novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, that first vaulted him to literary fame. A Christmas Carol may not be Charles Dickens’s finest masterpiece, but it is certainly one of his most popular works—and what is it to be visited by four ghosts in one night but horror?
The purpose of a horror story is to personify sin, often but not always in a supernatural form. Such stories allow us to take the part of ourselves that is the ugliest, the most malignant, the most intransigent and terrifying—the part that is already dead—and give it a shape with which we can grapple. The literary monster comes in varying degrees of embodied-ness and varying degrees of evil, ranging from Quasimodo, malformed but still capable of goodness, to the pure evil of Blatty’s demon. But the literary monster is always an outward projection of some part of the brokenness within our human souls. This remains true whether or not the author is a believer; it requires no religious conviction to be disgusted by the hideous deeds of which mankind, and one’s own self, are capable.
It is the nature of the literary monster to represent sin, the fallen state of man, which is a spiritual truth; therefore, it is the nature of horror stories to be vehicles for portraying spiritual struggle. It is not an accident that the nineteenth century spawned the greatest horror stories ever told. It was a century of great spiritual upheaval, one that questioned and corroded the traditions of Christianity, when adherents of Science began to position themselves as enemies of Faith. Yet the nineteenth century did not achieve the moral relativism of the twentieth. The ultimate source of morality had been called into question, but Good and Evil were still real things that one could speak of without being mocked. Even a serial philanderer and Catholic apostate like Victor Hugo still considered that there was such a thing as Good, and he spent his life working to reform his troubled nation.
In such a climate, it is almost inevitable that horror stories would flourish.
Read Part 2 here.
Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned (Wiseblood Books) and Cinder Allia, as well as the managing editor of Dappled Things, a quarterly journal of Catholic art and literature. She holds an MFA in screenwriting from the University of Southern California. You can find her on the web at karenullo.com.