The Case Against Satan
by ray russell
foreword by laird barron
penguin classics, 160 pages, $15
Ray Russell enjoys the distinction and curse of being a horror writer’s horror writer. Though he helped rescue baroque gothic tales from Lovecraftian tendrils with his more Hemingwayesque renderings, he achieved nothing higher than cult status. Better-known figures such as Stephen King and Guillermo del Toro tout him, and his short story “Sardonicus,” a minor classic, received a film adaptation for which he wrote the screenplay.
Still, a majority of Russell’s bibliography remains out of print. If one wants to find a copy of Unholy Trinity, a 1967 paperback is available on Amazon for as little as $19.99 and as much as $83.95. A few updated and mercifully cheaper editions are fairly recent developments. In 2013, Penguin released a story collection, introduced by del Toro. Last year, his 1962 debut novel, The Case Against Satan, was brought back into print.
In the novel, sixteen-year-old Susan Garth is described as “very disturbed mentally” and suffering from “fits.” She is physically incapable of entering her local church, and soon enough she is shifting from her devout, almost idealized persona of passive purity into an infernal beast eager for defilement. When her widowed father refuses psychiatric help (“They just want you to talk about every nasty, filthy thing that ever passed through your mind”), she is left in the care of her newly, and unhappily, transferred parish priest and his bishop to remove what at least one of them is convinced truly ails her.
The Case Against Satan is the prototypical novel of demonic meddling in earthly things, coming ahead of the modern occult classics Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist by six and nine years respectively. In the latter, the Holy Trinity, in a manner of speaking, is accounted for: the innocent child under siege; the intellectually passionate, spiritually bereft, and personally flawed young priest; and the older clergyman with a “faith and . . . attitude towards dogma . . . as strong and imperishable as rock. And as rigid.” Present, too, are the gory details that fuel our idea of exorcism today: the chants, levitations, blasphemy, profanity, and projectile vomiting (“her gaping mouth spewing jet after jet of reeking substance that covered her and splattered the wall and ran sluggishly in long viscous tendrils down to the floor”).
The Exorcist, the book and its condensed film version, was masterly in its ability to captivate, and even traumatize, its audience with a combination of Catholic ritual and grindhouse shocks. Though pulpy in subject and purple in prose, William Peter Blatty’s bestseller has endured. Its characterizations created modern archetypes. By contrast, The Case Against Satan seems restrained and dated. It is less interested in characters—very little is heard from Susan Garth—than it is in depicting their multilayered struggles.
But where The Exorcist leaves no doubt as to what the adversary is, Russell leaves open more than a few possibilities, almost to the point that his title assumes a double meaning. The Case Against Satan anticipates the Twin Peaks idea that the demonic is enabled, if not manifested, by “the evil that men do.” Here one gets the sense of del Toro’s assessment that Russell is “a fascinating combination of the liberal and the heretic.”
This review first appeared in the May 2016 edition of First Things.
Chris R. Morgan writes from New Jersey.