CriminOlly thinks: A fascinating examination of faith and a superbly subtle horror story. 5/5
Title: The Case Against Satan | Author: Ray Russell | Publisher: Penguin Classics | Pages: 140 | Publication date: 1962 | Source: Self-purchased | Content warnings: Yes | Tolerance warning: No
As a horror fan of some 35 years, I’m amazed that I’d never heard of Ray Russell’s 1962 exorcism novel The Case Against Satan until it was mentioned by the excellent YouTube horror reviewer ‘Plagued by Visions’. It’s a beautifully written book that combines many of my favourite themes and which clicked with me immediately.
The premise is simple and familiar from later works (most notably of course William Peter Batty’s The Exorcist). Two catholic priests work to save the soul of a 16-year old girl who has been possessed by the Devil. Or perhaps it’s about two middle aged men who imprison and torture a mentally ill teenager. That balanced subtlety of telling is what makes the book work so well. It treads the tightrope between supernatural and psychological explanations fantastically well. What makes it even better is that whichever side you chose to believe it’s a chilling tale.
At only 140 pages it’s a book with no fat at all, the writing has the kind of stripped down style which I love with a very grounded feel and great dialogue. The contemporary 1960s suburban setting proves perfect and the words flow from the page into the reader’s brain effortlessly. That skilful writing allows Russell to explore a wide range of themes without ever distracting from the story. The nature of faith, the power of guilt, mental illness, abuse within the Catholic Church. All are covered with an even handed style that encourages the reader to think rather than just accept.
And of course it’s a great story too. It’s packed with incident, tension and variety, with the priests battling gossip and prejudice as much as they are the forces of darkness. It’s a horror story, a mystery, a psychological thriller and a theological discussion all wrapped up into one creepy little package. Highly recommended.
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.
Content Warning: Religion, rape, child abuse
Tolerance Warning: All good