William Peter Blatty And The Good Among Evil

william peter blatty

William Peter Blatty passed away and I never took the chance to thank him.

Blatty became internationally famous with the publication of The Exorcist. The film based on the novel was a cultural phenomenon, and is among the scariest movies ever made.

I first saw The Exorcist as a teenager up late watching cable TV at a friend’s house. We were horrified by the shocking events depicted. I didn’t watch the film again for decades.

A few years ago I read the novel that became the film. To my surprise, I found that the point of the novel was not the horrific account of a young girl possessed by a demon. The film’s gross-out special effects make the titular exorcism the main event. But the events leading up to it are what drives the novel forward.

The protagonist of the novel is Father Damien Karras, a Jesuit priest experiencing a crisis of faith. Karras has retreated into the sciences and academia to avoid confronting his doubts about the nature of good and evil.

Blatty’s depiction of a man coming face to face with things that science cannot explain spoke to me. I had long abandoned church at the time I read the book. Despite an interest in returning, I knew it would not be to the denominational muddle I had left behind.

Dimitir and doubts

Wanting to read more of Blatty’s work, I picked up Dimitir, the tale of a mysterious agent of retribution. The events of the novel span the globe, and include a stop at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Jesus’ burial. His description of the Orthodox Christian guardians of the tomb piqued my interest. Here was a Christian tradition in existence since the time of Jesus. What’s more, it had none of the trappings of American Christianity I had known.

One character in Dimitir comments on the historic roots of Christianity. He speaks of the importance those first believers placed on the events they had seen:

“In less than twenty years they’re recruiting in Rome and practically taking over. You’ve got to wonder. Something happened to these guys. Something big. Like a resurrection, maybe, I dunno. Getting killed is an awful lot of trouble to go to just because you’re feeling bored and the fish aren’t biting.”

Reading Blatty’s work, I began to acknowledge an ancient Christian tradition. It was unlike everything I knew. And it continued unbroken to this day. I knew I had to seek it out and, if possible, become joined to it.

Thanks To Mr. Blatty

William Peter Blatty’s Catholicism runs deep throughout his work. It informed his worldview. His struggles were the struggles of the flawed men and women his novels depict.

His work also helped me make sense of the ancient nature of Christianity. It helped me to abandon Evangelical Christianity for something more like the faith of the first followers of Jesus.

For years I had thoughts of writing to Mr. Blatty, to tell him how much his work had meant to me. But I never took the time. Fan letters aren’t my thing. And why would a famous author care anyway? Now I have missed the chance.

The Exorcist is imprinted on the psyche of America. Most people know it only as a scary movie. But behind the sensation is a serious novel about faith and the real presence of evil in the world. The novel is also about the triumph of good, and the Hope that whispers to us in times of trial.

My belated thanks, Bill.

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