Book Review : Ray Russell - The Case Against Satan (1962)
I know what you're thinking. The word itself "exorcism" is often associated with William Friedkin's immortal adaptation of William Peter Blatty's novel The Exorcist in contemporary culture. It's that obsolete religion ritual that was performed in that freaky possession movie that terrified America in 1973. But demonic possession and the terrors of religion were in collective consciousness way before Blatty, Friedkin and Linda Blair made an entire generation lose their shit. Almost forgotten to history until Penguin decided to reprint it in 2015 is Ray Russell's demonic possession novel The Case Against Satan, which addressed the issue in a whole other way: it used the phenomenon as an allegory for our limited capacity to understand our origins.
The Case Against Satan couldn't be any more different from The Exorcist and that is why the two novels can still coexist fifty-something years down the road.
So, The Case Against Satan is the story of Father Gregory Sargent, a forward thinking religious man and scholar with conflicting ideas about human nature. He is a renowned thinker, publishing his thoughts to great acclaim outside the Catholic community, which he can't reconcile with his vocation. That is until young Susan Garth is brought to her office. Once a sweet and docile little girl, Susan started acting strangely as of late, refusing to attend church and rebelling against authority figures in her life. What his going on with young Susan exactly? Is she just a rebellious kid going through a difficult time or is there something darker underneath? Father Sargent was chosen to help Susan because he, more than anybody else in the world, would understand and take the appropriate course of action.
There are two worlds colliding in The Case Against Satan : religion and, let's call it "enlightenment". I don't want to call it science because it isn't but Father Sargent has very progressive ideas that shape his understanding of the world. This is how The Case Against Satan differs from The Exorcist. It presents demonic possession and the ritual of exorcism in a whole different way: Father Gregory Sargent, who thinks of God and Satan in symbolic terms, isn't convinced that Susan Garth is actually possessed. The exorcism is a test of faith to him and he's afraid for the consequences of the process for her frail body instead of worrying about defeating evil. The Case Against Satan is a novel about the clash between religion and enlightenment in the sixties more than it is about good vs evil.
"I got a mind of my own, but you can't say Church is like Communism! Why, they hate each other!"
"Of course they do," said Talbot eagerly. "Because they're very much alike. Exactly alike. They're both totalitarian, you know what that means?"
Garth was not sure.
."Total is what it means. Total power, total control. Control over everything - over the body, over the mind. The Communists tell you what books you should read and what books you shouldn't. So does the Church. They write history to please themselves. So does the Church. Ideally, they'd rather you didn't read at all. So does the Church - why, they not only have their own distorted version of the Bible, but they actually discourage laymen from reading it! It's up to them to "interpret" it for you!"
The conflict between religion and enlightenment featured in The Case Against Satan can be better understood using the brash statement that "God is dead," made by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in the nineteenth century. That claim, which is still often made fun of in contemporary culture, announced that religion lost its place as the source of ultimate truth. And it was never really replaced with science or philosophy which cultivate doubt and limitations of human knowledge. In The Case Against Satan, this failure of enlightenment to heal Susan Garth is met with (religious) faith, which is portrayed through Father Sargent as finding the strength make choices you don't quite understand. Ray Russell portrays faith and enlightenment as complementary to each other, yet inadequate in themselves.
So, The Case Against Satan was intense. It both conveys ideas that were new and revolutionary at the time (nine years before William Peter Blatty's The Exocist was published) and visceral, terrifying scares. It can be portentous and telegraphic at times, ramping up the important scenes with overwrought exposition, but it ultimately does what fiction does best: illustrate ideas we're not ready to accept in a finite, controlled setting. Religion was slowly starting to lose its stranglehold on culture in the early sixties and it's novels like The Case Against Satan that helped reassess its position in people's lives. Real-life beliefs and otherworldly terror coexist perfectly in Ray Russell's The Case Against Satan, making it an potent horror novel to this day.