fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Case Against Satan by Ray Russell horror book reviewsThe Case Against Satan by Ray Russell

Up until a few years ago, the name “Ray Russell” was only familiar to me by dint of his work as a screenwriter on such marvelous horror/sci-fi films as Mr. Sardonicus (1961), The Premature Burial (1962), Zotz! (also from 1962) and X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (1963). It wasn’t until I noticed a highly complimentary review of his 1962 novel The Case Against Satan, in Jones & Newman’s excellent overview volume Horror: Another 100 Best Books, that I even knew he was an author at all, but I’ve since run across a quote from a guy named Stephen King, calling Russell’s original novella Sardonicus “perhaps the finest example of the modern gothic ever written”! I’d been thus trying to lay my hands on a copy of The Case Against Satan for some time, but to no avail. The book has been out of print for decades, and copies on eBay and Amazon either look very beat up or are prohibitively expensive. Fortunately, for all lovers of vintage horror, Penguin has come to the rescue with a brand-new edition of the Russell book. Dealing as it does with a case of satanic possession and the resultant exorcism, the story line here may seem a tad overfamiliar to audiences who, ever since the phenomenal worldwide success of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, have been subjected to any number of such goings-on in both book and on film. But Russell has the honor of having gotten there first; his novel beat Blatty’s to the devilish punch by a good nine years.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsAdmittedly, there are many similarities between the two books. In Russell’s, a borderline alcoholic priest, Father Gregory Sargent, moves to his new parish in _____ (the small town is never named; call it Anywhere, U.S.A.). On his very first day on the job, a 16-year-old girl (Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist, by contrast, was only 11), Susan Garth, is brought to his rectory by the distraught papa. It seems that not only had the formerly chaste Susan sexually assaulted and attacked Sargent’s predecessor, but is now using foul language and showing an aversion to stepping into the church on Sundays. Sargent’s superior, the Bishop Conrad Crimmings, immediately senses what is amiss, and his suspicions are soon confirmed when a crucifix held against Susan’s arm actually burns into her skin! The bishop orders Sargent to perform an exorcism on the child, who he deems “possessed,” while Sargent begins to realize that although he absolutely does believe in God, he is not so sure that he can buy into the concept of an actual Devil. Heretical thoughts! Still, the exorcism does go forward, while the girl’s maniacal laughter, curses and screams make the local populace wonder, with increasing suspicion, just what is going on in the local rectory…

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsOK, I’m going to be honest with you: I have never read The Exorcist, so cannot compare the respective literary merits of the two books. (I DID see the 1973 film version, which Blatty scripted to Oscar-winning effect, when it first opened, and can say that, as was the case with most people, it scared the poop out of me.) I have to take the word of two authors, thus, that Russell’s is the superior work. In the Jones & Newman volume, Darrell Schweitzer tells us that it is “by far a better book than … Blatty’s later, more sensational reworking of the same material.” And in his introduction to the new Penguin edition, Laird Barron writes that the Blatty work “reads much like an expansion of Russell’s short novel … Russell’s cuts a bit closer to the bone.” Although apparently much more restrained as regards language and shocks than the later book, Russell’s still delivers some effective frissons. Thus, Susan DOES writhe and contort her body horrifically, at one point throwing herself clear across the room. (Don’t look for any 180-degree head swivelings, however!) And for those for whom a good exorcism wouldn’t be complete without the regurgitation of some horrible green bile, well, Russell does have Susan spew “jet after jet of reeking substance that covered her and splattered the wall and ran sluggishly in long viscous tendrils down to the floor.” If it’s shockingly foul language that you deem a mainstay of a good satanic possession, however, please know that Susan here remains fairly civil in that regard, only letting slip with an occasional “S word.” What actual cursing Susan is guilty of is only referred to afterwards by the author as “filth,” “epithets” and “offers … vile and … increasingly recondite.” Shocks may have been what Blatty was after, but Russell seems to be more interested in the battle of wits between the incredulous modern priest and his seemingly wiser and older bishop. The author also shows us how a modern-day exorcism can engender doubt and suspicion in a community, as its residents become ever more alarmed by the eerie noises coming from the rectory. Russell, who writes elegantly and marvelously (he is especially good at rendering highly realistic dialogue), demonstrates, in addition, a keen gift for creating a claustrophobic atmosphere. The exorcism itself, taking place on a steamy September night in a locked bedroom and during a raging thunderstorm, shows that gift to a marked degree. The book is also carefully ambiguous, and all the supernatural events that we are witness to, as Sargent reminds us, just might have a prosaic, mundane explanation. (Those crucifix burns just might be psychosomatic, for example.) Still, the reader is really in no doubt as to the true state of affairs here, and by the book’s conclusion, even Sargent (whose favorite apostle, he admits, is the doubting Thomas) becomes swayed.

For readers today, The Case Against Satan might not have the impact that it must have had in 1962. Over the past 53 years, exorcisms, the Devil, drunken priests, child molestation, incest, bad language and so on have most assuredly lost their ability to shock; we see worse on our TV screens, what with prime-time programming and the 11:00 news, every day. For readers back when, however, Russell’s book must surely have carried a wallop. Still, from its ominous first chapter to its sweet and cozy Yuletide ending, the book manages to enthrall and captivate even a modern-day reader. I DO still want to read Blatty’s book (especially since it was chosen for inclusion in Jones & Newman’s first volume, Horror: 100 Best Books), but very much doubt that it will be as concise, intelligent and thought provoking as Russell’s. If I may quote from Schweitzer’s piece again, “The Case Against Satan is a model of what a good horror novel should be. It is a lost gem that cries out to be reprinted.” And now, thanks to the fine folks at Penguin Classics, a new generation CAN finally discover this infernally fine work for itself. More than highly recommended…

Published in 1962. Before The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, there was The Case Against Satan. By the twentieth century, the exorcism had all but vanished, wiped out by modern science and psychology. But Ray Russell—praised by Stephen King and Guillermo del Toro as a sophisticated practitioner of Gothic fiction—resurrected the ritual with his classic 1962 horror novel, The Case Against Satan, giving new rise to the exorcism on page, screen, and even in real life. Teenager Susan Garth was “a clean-talking sweet little girl” of high school age before she started having “fits”—a sudden aversion to churches and a newfound fondness for vulgarity. Then one night, she strips in front of the parish priest and sinks her nails into his throat. If not madness, then the answer must be demonic possession. To vanquish the Devil, Bishop Crimmings recruits Father Gregory Sargent, a younger priest with a taste for modern ideas and brandy. As the two men fight not just the darkness tormenting Susan but also one another, a soul-chilling revelation lurks in the shadows—one that knows that the darkest evil goes by many names. For more than sixty-five years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,500 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.


  • Sandy Ferber

    SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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