A couple of years ago Penguin Classics released a reprint of Ray Russell’s long out of print collection of Gothic tales entitled “Haunted Castles”. This was my introduction to the work of the late master of the modern Gothic tale. I loved his dark imagination, his humor, and his understanding of the Gothic genre which I feel is sometimes lost on many would-be practitioners nowadays.
Unfortunately, most of his other work remained out of print, until now. Penguin has reprinted his 1962 novella “The Case Against Satan”, which tells the tale of Father Gregory, a young priest who’s losing his faith until he is confronted by the challenge of Susan Garth, a pretty young girl from his parish who is acting out in strange ways that defy logical explanation. Her brusque father demands that the church help him save his daughter, but is skittish about sending her to psychiatrists for mental evaluation because “They don’t have any sense of what’s decent or proper…They just want you to talk about every nasty, filthy thing that ever passed through your mind”. Hmmm.
After a meeting between Susan and the stout Bishop Crimmings, wherein he performs a secret test to see if the troubled teen shows unconscious signs of diabolism, it is determined that she is possessed and the dour old bishop enlists Father Gregory to assist him in the task of driving the devil out of this innocent young child.
“The Case Against Satan”, by Ray Russell, Penguin Classics (2015).
Sound familiar? Of course it does; a few specifics aside, this is the basic story-line for William Peter Blatty’s infamous book, “The Exorcist”, which came out in 1971–9 years after Russell’s book. In fact, Russell’s slender volume almost reads like an outline for Blatty’s version of the tale, minus the spinning heads, graphic vulgarity, and violence. There is even a vomiting scene, although it is handled a little more artfully:
“There was a rattling, gagging sound from the girl, and they turned to watch in pity and loathing as she retched violently, her body curling in spasms, her fingers and toes clenched, her gaping mouth spewing jet after jet of reeking substance that covered her and splattered the wall and ran sluggishly in long viscous tendrils down to the floor.”
“The Case Against Satan”, Award books 1972 paperback edition touting the tagline “Shattering, terrifying–a novel of the divine and the diabolic that goes beyond ‘The Exorcist'”.
Susan, aged 16, is not quite as young as Blatty’s 11 year old Regan, she doesn’t swear as much, and most of her vulgarities are implied. She does, however, get naked in front of Gregory’s predecessor, Father Halloran, and after an unsuccessful attempt at seducing him, pounces on the poor Father and tries to throttle him. Father Halloran gets so spooked that he refuses to see the girl again and there is some speculation that this is the reason for his request to secure a transfer to another parish.
Paperback Library 1963 edition of “The Case Against Satan”, with cover art depicting the scene where Susan disrobes in front of Father Halloran.
Added to the drama are Mrs. Barlow, a nosy parishioner who demands to know why Father Gregory hasn’t been showing up to say mass on Sunday, as well as what all of the racket is the Chandlers (another parish family) heard coming from the rectory during the wee hours of the night. Also, there is an anti-Catholic pamphleteer, John Talbot, who keeps feeding the fire with lurid accusations to stir unrest within the community.
Although somewhat ambiguous in regards to whether the girl’s ailment is demonic or psychosomatic in origin, Russell’s book leans a lot more to the latter explanation. Father Gregory seems to think that Susan is acting out in response to having suffered a traumatic experience. Bishop Crimmings, conversely, takes the supernatural stance and insists on an exorcism and that Gregory perform it as a way of confronting his own wavering faith head-on.
In some ways “The Case Against Satan” is a less lurid, more philosophical take on the topic of demonic possession. The novella is a quick read, and in light of all of the explicitness we are bombarded with these days in the media and on the Internet, the horrors therein may seem mild in contrast but, make no mistake, I don’t doubt that in 1962, the topics of diabolism, incest, child molestation and priests of lapsed faith who indulge in more than ceremonial communion wine raised some hackles.
PAN books edition of “The Case Against Satan”, from 1965.
Russell’s prose is crisp, and unadorned, although being a writer of the Gothic he does insert the occasional purple passage and drops allusions which show a taste for the macabre. His description of Father Gregory’s thoughts upon seeing the prostrate and bound Susan on a bed spring, which he compares to a medieval rack, is a good example of this.
My only complaint was in the final chapter, “The Hand of God”, which serves to wrap up the loose ends of the story after the climactic scene in the rectory, where Father Gregory calls Susan to follow up on her condition after the exorcism. She seems much happier, and says she wants to become a med student, with an eye towards eventually becoming a medical missionary. Gregory’s response is not only condescending, but surprisingly inappropriate considering what he himself believes the girl went through prior to the alleged possession.
That aside, I loved the book and highly recommend it to lovers of Gothic fiction, especially the sub-genre of demonic possession. Hopefully Penguin will be pleased enough with the sales of this volume to eventually release Russell’s supernatural thriller, “Incubus”. You’ll surely see another review from me if and when they do.