by william peter blatty
forge, 304 pages, $24.99
The Exorcist—as William Peter Blatty, the now eighty-two-year-old author of the original novel and the screenplay based on it, is fond of saying—both made and ruined the writer’s career. Adjusted for inflation, the box-office receipts for the 1973 film place it among the ten top-grossing films of all time and rank it as the highest-grossing R-rated film ever—even ahead of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, a film Blatty admires. The difficulty for Blatty is that the success of The Exorcist made everyone forget everything else about him—a not so slight problem for the author not only of screenplays for such comedies as A Shot in the Dark (arguably the best of the Pink Panther movies) but also of eleven books, a number that keeps growing by the year.
He’s not complaining, of course; but Blatty always has thought of The Exorcist as a supernatural thriller, not a horror story. Just as Blatty’s characters are typically either believers undergoing a crisis of faith or agnostics who find their anti-creeds threatened by evidence for God that they cannot quite dismiss, so too do his plots create doubts about the clear lines of demarcation between sanity and insanity, modern rationalism and primitive myth, and comedy and tragedy. An admirer of Graham Greene—who described his own stories as existing on the “dangerous edge of things”—Blatty deserves to be called a Catholic writer. His preoccupation, in his dramatic writings, with the culture of violence and its logic of endlessly perpetuating vengeance is never an end in itself; rather, it is a mechanism for displaying the way the cycle of malice can be eclipsed only by a different sort of logic, that of sacrificial love.
And so it is with Blatty’s newest novel, Dimiter. This time the logic of redemption is expressed in sacramental terms, as grace operates through sensible signs and through the authority of the ordained priest.
The seeds of Dimiter date back to the 1970s, when Blatty was working with William Friedkin (in offices at the aptly numbered 666 Fifth Avenue) on the film of The Exorcist. The novel’s story stems from a newspaper report at the time concerning the execution of a Jesuit priest in Albania for the crime of baptizing babies in a labor camp. Before the plot of the novel moves to Jerusalem, it portrays a dramatically riveting interrogation scene in early—1970s Albania, a totalitarian and atheistic state.
Blatty has always had a gift for imaginatively arresting openings. Recall, for example, the way The Exorcist—as both novel and movie—builds tension by moving back and forth between an archeological dig in the antiquity-haunted world of northern Iraq and the sophisticated hub of modern world power in Washington, D.C., and Georgetown. Dimiter’s opening is equally captivating. During a protracted interrogation, a team of torturers subjects an unidentified and resolutely silent prisoner to brutal physical abuse. The prisoner refuses to talk, scream, or even flinch. When, on his own terms and in his own time, he decides to speak, he does so at length. Somewhat skeptical of his initial description of his origins and mission, his interrogators press him for more detail and greater honesty. He complies numerous times, concocting one story after another and then, having exhausted his listeners, looping back to his original tale. A polygraph confirms each of his stories. He soon escapes, killing many of his captors and leaving the head interrogator, Colonel Vlora, to mourn his dead son (one of the torturers) and ponder the inconclu-sive and contradictory clues about the identity of the prisoner, whose very photograph seems to change in appearance as it is viewed.
The influence of Graham Greene is evident in at least two ways. The first, reminiscent of early Greene thrillers such as The Third Man, is the baffling structure of Dimiter ’s plot, which is rendered even more opaque by a series of cases of mistaken identity. The first time through, readers will find themselves paging back and forth to try to keep up with fleeting hints about identities and allegiances. It is only at the end that clues are explained and identities exposed. As is intimated in Blatty’s reference to priests “trudging through the mountains hawking Masses and forgiveness,” Dimiter ’s theme of the political suppression of Catholicism calls to mind Greene’s The Power and the Glory. In that novel it is Mexican authorities that the whiskey priest defies; in Dimiter it is the authorities of totalitarian Albania, where priests are executed systematically or sent to labor camps, and where the Vatican plots with the CIA to send in an undercover bishop to ordain clandestine seminarians.
In fact, one of two wildly contradictory hypotheses that emerge about the mysterious prisoner in Albania is that he is a priest on a secret mission. Those who come into contact with him find his presence painful; he exudes a “brutal, terrifying energy”—an “inner light” that burns like forgiveness or goodness itself. The other hypothesis is that he is the legendary “agent from Hell” rumored to have been responsible for the poisoning of Ho Chi Minh while the Vietnamese leader was in Albania just before his death in 1969.
Dimiter reprises key themes from Blatty’s best-known novel. The dramatic depiction of the reality of evil in the face of various modern attempts at reduction is at the heart of The Exorcist. The action of the plot of that book confirms T.S. Eliot’s claim that the religious mind works by negation—by trying one hypothesis after another until nothing is left standing except faith. Sheer desperation leads an agnostic mother, Chris MacNeil, to approach Fr. Damien Karras, a Jesuit priest and Harvard-trained psychiatrist, to ask how to procure an exorcism. Startled, the priest responds that the first thing she will have to do is find a “time machine to take her back to the 16th century.” Such things, he explains, are just not done anymore, not after the developments of modern science—“all the things I learned at Harvard.” Fr. Karras, wracked with doubts about his vocation, agrees to examine MacNeil’s daughter, Regan. Thus begins his journey into the depths of hell. The skeptical modern priest will become the sacramental vehicle of the liberation of a soul from the clutches of evil. The significance of Fr. Karras’ given name, Damien, is not lost on the Jesuit archaeologist of the book’s opening, Fr. Merrin, who explains to Chris MacNeil that Damien was a priest who ministered to lepers on the island of Molokai and ended up contracting the disease himself. Sacrificial love defeats the cynicism of evil and undoes its mechanical chain of malicious acts.
In Dimiter a series of converging murder mysteries occurs in the midst of some of the holiest sites in the Christian world—the tomb of Lazarus, the rock of Agony, and the pool at Bethsaida. Describing both the history of these places and their souvenir shops, Blatty does a nice job of interspersing the sacred and the mundane, the holy and the mercenary. Most of the book’s characters are moderate unbelievers plagued by doubts as to whether the case against belief is as airtight as it seems. One character remarks on the implausibility of Christianity’s rapid progress: “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.” Another character, a scientist and medical doctor, sees in faith and science not opposition but complementarity. He describes how “in the subatomic world . . . electrons, like saints with bleeding hands, are reportedly seen in two places at once.”
All of the main characters in Dimiter have suffered soul-shattering loss, and many have endured or inflicted grave evil. In the midst of such a world, a world of political tyranny and personal betrayal, the very possibility of a love that transcends the logic of torture and vengeance staggers those who encounter it. The pivotal actions and great mysteries of the plot hinge on the power of a sacrament to effect transformation even in the souls of those who are not initially disposed to its conscious acceptance. The epigraph for the book, from the Acts of the Apostles, describes Paul’s blinding by the divine light on the road to Damascus.
One of the characters in Dimiter speaks for the book’s author in saying that greater than the mystery of evil is the mystery of goodness. As a writer imbued with the Catholic sacramental sensibility, Blatty has always understood what so many of his cheap imitators have never grasped: To take evil seriously, one must take goodness seriously.
Thomas S. Hibbs is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and dean of the honors college at Baylor University.