Four decades after it first shook the nation, then the world, William Peter Blatty's thrilling masterwork of faith and demonic possession returns in an even more powerful form. Raw and profane, shocking and blood-chilling, it remains a modern parable of good and evil and perhaps the most terrifying novel ever written.
Release date: October 4, 2011
Print pages: 400
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William Peter Blatty
Like the brief doomed flare of exploding suns that registers dimly on blind men’s eyes, the beginning of the horror passed almost unnoticed; in the shriek of what followed, in fact, was forgotten and perhaps not connected to the horror at all. It was difficult to judge.
The house was a rental. Brooding. Tight. A brick colonial gripped by ivy in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. Across the street was a fringe of campus belonging to Georgetown University; to the rear, a sheer embankment plummeting steep to busy M Street and, just beyond it, the River Potomac. Early on the morning of April 1, the house was quiet. Chris MacNeil was propped in bed, going over her lines for the next day’s filming; Regan, her daughter, was sleeping down the hall; and asleep downstairs in a room off the pantry were the middle-aged housekeepers, Willie and Karl. At approximately 12:25 A.M., Chris looked up from her script with a frown of puzzlement. She heard rapping sounds. They were odd. Muffled. Profound. Rhythmically clustered. Alien code tapped out by a dead man.
For a moment she listened, then dismissed it; but as the rappings persisted she could not concentrate. She slapped down the script on the bed.
Jesus, that bugs me!
She got up to investigate.
She went out to the hallway and looked around. The rappings seemed to be coming from Regan’s bedroom.
What is she doing?
She padded down the hall and the rappings grew suddenly louder, much faster, and as she pushed on the door and stepped into the room, they abruptly ceased.
What the freak’s going on?
Her pretty eleven-year-old was asleep, cuddled tight to a large stuffed round-eyed panda. Pookey. Faded from years of smothering; years of smacking, warm, wet kisses.
Chris moved softly to her bedside, leaned over and whispered. “Rags? You awake?”
Regular breathing. Heavy. Deep.
Chris shifted her glance around the room. Dim light from the hall fell pale and splintery on Regan’s paintings and sculptures; on more stuffed animals.
Okay, Rags. Your old mother’s ass is draggin’. Come on, say it! Say “April Fool!”
And yet Chris knew well that such games weren’t like her. The child had a shy and diffident nature. Then who was the trickster? A somnolent mind imposing order on the rattlings of heating or plumbing pipes? Once, in the mountains of Bhutan, she had stared for hours at a Buddhist monk who was squatting on the ground in meditation. Finally, she thought she had seen him levitate, though when recounting the story to someone, she invariably added “Maybe.” And maybe now her mind, she thought, that untiring raconteur of illusion, had embellished the rappings.
Bullshit! I heard it!
Abruptly, she flicked a quick glance to the ceiling.
There! Faint scratchings.
Rats in the attic, for pete’s sake! Rats!
She sighed. That’s it. Big tails. Thump, thump! She felt oddly relieved. And then noticed the cold. The room. It was icy.
Chris padded to the window and checked it. Closed. Then she felt the radiator. Hot.
Puzzled, she moved to the bedside and touched her hand to Regan’s cheek. It was smooth as thought and lightly perspiring.
I must be sick!
Chris looked at her daughter, at the turned-up nose and freckled face, and on a quick, warm impulse leaned over the bed and kissed her cheek. “I sure do love you,” she whispered. After that she returned to her room and her bed and her script.
For a while, Chris studied. The film was a musical comedy remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. A subplot had been added that dealt with campus insurrections. Chris was starring. She played a psychology teacher who sided with the rebels. And she hated it. This scene is the pits! she thought. It’s dumb! Her mind, though untutored, never took slogans for the truth, and like a curious bluejay she would peck relentlessly through verbiage to find the glistening, hidden fact. And so the rebel cause didn’t make any sense to her. But how come? she now wondered. Generation gap? That’s a crock; I’m thirty-two. It’s just stupid, that’s all, it’s a…!
Cool it. Only one more week.
They’d completed the interiors in Hollywood and all that remained to be filmed were a few exterior scenes on the campus of Georgetown University, starting tomorrow.
Heavy lids. She was getting drowsy. She turned to a page that was curiously ragged. Her British director, Burke Dennings. When especially tense, he would tear, with quivering, fluttering hands, a narrow strip from the edge of the handiest page of the script and then slowly chew it, inch by inch, until it was all in a wet ball in his mouth.
Crazy Burke, Chris thought.
She covered a yawn, then fondly glanced at the side of her script. The pages looked gnawed. She remembered the rats. The little bastards sure got rhythm, she thought. She made a mental note to have Karl set traps for them in the morning.
Fingers relaxing. Script slipping loose. She let it drop. Dumb, she thought. It’s dumb. A fumbling hand groping out to the light switch. There. She sighed, and for a time she was motionless, almost asleep; and then she kicked off her covers with a lazy leg.
Too hot! Too freaking hot! She thought again about the puzzling coldness of Regan’s room and into her mind flashed a recollection of working in a film with Edward G. Robinson, the legendary gangster movie star of the 1940s, and wondering why in every scene they did together she was always close to shivering from the cold until she realized that the wily old veteran had been managing to stand in her key light. A faint smile of bemusement now, and as a mist of dew clung gently to the windowpanes. Chris slept. And dreamed about death in the staggering particular, death as if death were still never yet heard of while something was ringing, she gasping, dissolving, slipping off into void while thinking over and over, I am not going to be, I will die, I won’t be, and forever and ever, oh, Papa, don’t let them, oh, don’t let them do it, don’t let me be nothing forever and melting, unraveling, ringing, the ringing—
She leaped up with her heart pounding, hand to the phone and no weight in her stomach; a core with no weight and her telephone ringing.
She answered. The assistant director.
“In makeup at six, honey.”
“How ya feelin’?”
“Like I just went to bed.”
The AD chuckled. “I’ll see you.”
Chris hung up the phone and for moments sat motionless, thinking of the dream. A dream? More like thought in the half life of waking: That terrible clarity. Gleam of the skull. Nonbeing. Irreversible. She could not imagine it.
God, it can’t be!
Dejected, she bowed her head.
But it is.
She padded to the bathroom, put on a robe, then quickly pattered down old pine steps to the kitchen, down to life in sputtering bacon.
“Ah, good morning, Mrs. MacNeil!”
Gray, drooping Willie, squeezing oranges, blue sacs beneath her eyes. A trace of accent. Swiss. Like Karl’s. She wiped her hands on a paper towel and started moving toward the stove.
“I’ll get it, Willie.” Chris, ever sensitive, had seen the housekeeper’s weary look, and as Willie now grunted and turned back to the sink, the actress poured coffee, then sat down in the breakfast nook, where, looking down at her plate, she smiled fondly at a blush-red rose against its whiteness. Regan. That angel. Many a morning, when Chris was working, Regan would quietly slip out of bed, come down to the kitchen to place a flower on her mother’s empty plate and then grope her way crusty-eyed back to her sleep. On this particular morning, Chris ruefully shook her head as she recalled that she had contemplated naming her Goneril. Sure. Right on. Get ready for the worst.Chris faintly smiled at the memory. She sipped at her coffee and as her gaze caught the rose again, her expression turned briefly sad, her green eyes grieving in a waiflike face. She’d recalled another flower. A son. Jamie. He had died long ago at the age of three, when Chris was very young and an unknown chorus girl on Broadway. She had sworn she would not give herself ever again as she had to Jamie; as she had to his father, Howard MacNeil; and as her dream of death misted upward in the vapors from her hot, black coffee, she lifted her glance from the rose and her thoughts as Willie brought juice and set it down before her.
Chris remembered the rats.
“I am here, Madam!”
He’d come catting in lithely through a door off the pantry. Commanding and yet deferential, he had a fragment of Kleenex pressed to his chin where he’d nicked himself shaving. “Yes?” Thickly muscled and tall, he breathed by the table with glittering eyes, a hawk nose and bald head.
“Hey, Karl, we’ve got rats in the attic. Better get us some traps.”
“There are rats?”
“I just said that.”
“But the attic is clean.”
“Well, okay, we’ve got tidy rats!”
“Karl, I heard them last night.”
“Maybe plumbing,” Karl probed; “maybe boards.”
“Maybe rats! Will you buy the damn traps and quit arguing?”
Bustling away, Karl, said, “Yes! I go now!”
“No not now, Karl! The stores are all closed!”
“They are closed!” chided Willie, calling out to him.
But he was gone.
Chris and Willie traded glances, and then, shaking her head, Willie returned to her tending of the bacon. Chris sipped at her coffee. Strange. Strange man, she thought. Like Willie, hardworking; very loyal, very discreet. And yet something about him made her vaguely uneasy. What was it? That subtle air of arrogance? No. Something else. But she couldn’t pin it down. The housekeepers had been with her for almost six years, and yet Karl was a mask—a talking, breathing, untranslated hieroglyph running her errands on stilted legs. Behind the mask, though, something moved; she could hear his mechanism ticking like a conscience. The front door creaked open, then shut. “They are closed,” muttered Willie.
Chris nibbled at bacon, then returned to her room, where she dressed in her costume sweater and skirt. She glanced in a mirror and solemnly stared at her short red hair, which looked perpetually tousled; at the burst of freckles on the small, scrubbed face; and then crossing her eyes and grinning idiotically, she said, Oh, hi, little wonderful girl next door! Can I speak to your husband? Your lover? Your pimp? Oh, your pimp’s in the poorhouse? Tough! She stuck out her tongue at herself. Then sagged. Ah, Christ, what a life! She picked up her wig box, slouched downstairs and walked out to the piquant, tree-lined street.
For a moment she paused outside the house, breathing in the fresh promise of morning air, the muted everyday sounds of waking life. She turned a wistful look to her right, where, beside the house, a precipitous plunge of old stone steps fell away to M Street far below, while a little beyond were the antique brick rococo turrets and Mediterranean tiled roof of the upper entry to the old Car Barn. Fun. Fun neighborhood, she thought. Dammit, why don’t I stay? Buy the house? Start to live? A deep, booming bell began to toll, the tower clock on the Georgetown University campus. The melancholy resonance shivered on the surface of the mud-brown river and seeped into the actress’s tired heart. She walked toward her work, toward ghastly charade and the straw-stuffed, antic imitation of dust.
As she entered the main front gates of the campus, her depression diminished; then lessened even more as she looked at the row of trailer dressing rooms aligned along the driveway close to the southern perimeter wall; and by 8 A.M. and the day’s first shot, she was almost herself: she started an argument over the script.
“Hey, Burke? Take a look at this damned thing, will ya?”
“Oh, you do have a script, I see! How nice!” Director Burke Dennings, taut and elfin and with a twitching left eye that gleamed with mischief, surgically shaved a narrow strip from a page of her script with quivering fingers, cackling, “I believe I’ll have a bit of munch.”
They were standing on the esplanade that fronted the university’s main administration building and were knotted in the center of extras, actors and the film’s main crew, while here and there a few spectators dotted the lawn, mostly Jesuit faculty. The cameraman, bored, picked up Daily Variety as Dennings put the paper in his mouth and giggled, his breath reeking faintly of the morning’s first gin.
“Oh, yes, I’m terribly glad you’ve been given a script!”
A sly, frail man in his fifties, he spoke with a charmingly broad British accent so clipped and precise that it lofted even the crudest obscenities to elegance, and when he drank, he seemed always on the verge of a guffaw; seemed constantly struggling to retain his composure.
“Now then, tell me, my baby. What is it? What’s wrong?”
The scene in question called for the dean of the mythical college in the script to address a gathering of students in an effort to squelch a threatened sit-in. Chris would then run up the steps to the esplanade, tear the bullhorn away from the dean and then point to the main administration building and shout, “Let’s tear it down!”
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Chris told him.
“Well, it’s perfectly plain,” Dennings lied.
“Oh, it is? Well, then explain it to me, Burkey-Wurky. Why in freak should they tear down the building? What for? What’s your concept?”
“Are you sending me up?”
“No, I’m asking ‘what for?’ ”
“Because it’s there, love!”
“In the script?”
“No, on the grounds!”
“Oh, come on, Burke, it just isn’t her. It’s not her character at all. She wouldn’t do that.”
“No, she wouldn’t.”
“Shall we summon the writer? I believe he’s in Paris!”
He’d clipped the word off with impeccable diction, his fox eyes glinting in a face like dough as the word rose crisp to Gothic spires. Chris fell to his shoulders, weak and laughing. “Oh, Burke, you’re impossible, dammit!”
“Yes.” He said it like Caesar modestly confirming reports of his triple rejection of the crown. “Now then, shall we get on with it?”
Chris didn’t hear him. Checking to see if he’d heard the obscenity, she’d darted a furtive, embarrassed glance to a Jesuit in his forties standing amid the cordon of spectators. He had a dark, rugged face. Like a boxer’s. Chipped. Something sad about the eyes, something grieving, and yet warm and reassuring as they fastened on hers and as, smiling, he nodded his head. He’d heard it. He glanced at his watch and moved away.
“I say, shall we get on with it?”
Chris turned, disconnected. “Yeah, sure, Burke. Let’s do it.”
“Oh, good Christ!”
She complained about the tag of the scene. She felt that the high point was reached with her line as opposed to her running through the door of the building immediately afterward.
“It adds nothing,” said Chris. “It’s dumb.”
“Yes, it is, love, it is,” agreed Burke sincerely. “However, the cutter insists that we do it,” he continued, “so there we are. You see?”
“No, I don’t.”
“No, of course you don’t, darling, because you’re absolutely right, it is stupid. You see, since the scene right after it”—Dennings giggled—“well, since it begins with Jed coming intothe scene through a door, the cutter feels certain of a nomination if the scene before it ends with you moving off through a door.”
“Are you kidding?”
“Oh, I agree with you, love. It’s simply cunting, puking mad! But now why don’t we shoot it and trust me to snip it from the final cut. It should make a rather tasty munch.”
Chris laughed. And agreed. Burke glanced toward the cutter, who was known to be a temperamental egotist given to time-wasting argumentation. He was busy with the cameraman. The director breathed a sigh of relief.
Waiting on the lawn at the base of the steps while the lights were warming, Chris looked toward Dennings as he flung an obscenity at a hapless grip and then visibly glowed with satisfaction. He seemed to revel in his eccentricity. Yet at a certain point in his drinking, Chris knew, he could suddenly explode into temper, and if it happened at three or four in the morning, he was likely to telephone people in power and viciously abuse them over trifling provocations. Chris remembered a studio chief whose offense had consisted in remarking mildly at a screening that the cuffs of Dennings’s shirt looked slightly frayed, prompting Dennings to awaken him at approximately 3 A.M. to describe him as a “cunting boor” whose father, the founder of the studio, was “more than likely psychotic!” and had “fondled Judy Garland repeatedly” during the filming of The Wizard of Oz, then on the following day would pretend to amnesia and subtly radiate with pleasure when those he’d offended described in detail what he had done. Although, if it suited him, he would remember. Chris smiled and shook her head as she remembered him destroying his studio suite of offices in a ginstoked, mindless rage, and how later, when confronted by the studio’s head of production with an itemized bill and Polaroid photos of the wreckage, he’d archly dismissed them as “obvious fakes” since “the damage was far, far worse than that!” Chris did not believe he was an alcoholic or even a hopeless problem drinker, but rather that he drank and behaved outrageously because it was expected of him: he was living up to his legend.
Ah, well, she thought; I guess it’s a kind of immortality.
She turned, looking over her shoulder for the Jesuit who had smiled when Burke had uttered the obscenity. He was walking in the distance, head lowered despondently, a lone black cloud in search of the rain. She had never liked priests. So assured. So secure. And yet this one…
“All ready, Chris?”
“All right, absolute quiet!” the assistant director called out.
“Roll the film,” ordered Burke.
Chris ran up the steps while extras cheered and Dennings watched her, wondering what was on her mind. She’d given up the arguments far too quickly. ...
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