Book Review : William Peter Blatty - The Ninth Configuration (1978)
William Peter Blatty is primarily known for writing the screenplay for the iconic horror movie The Exorcist. Serious horror fans know The Exorcist is a novel, which Blatty adapted to cinema himself like a boss. Hardcore fans even know The Exorcist III is superior to the original and that it was the adaptation of another William Peter Blatty novel titled Legion. Point is, the man worked wonderfully well alone and built a legacy for himself. There's another book considered to be the enlightened William Peter Blatty novel by his small, but dedicated true blue fan base: The Ninth Configuration, which Blatty ALSO turned into a movie. Is the book worth its cult status or is Blatty just surfing his reputation on this one?
Let's get into it together.
The Ninth Configuration is the story of clandestine military program for soldiers with mental conditions. They're sent to castle manor deep into the woods and left to the medical staff to deal with. The first protagonist introduced is Billy Cutshaw, a former astronaut who broke down before being launched into space. He eventually meets army psychologist Hudson Kane, who is sent over by the U.S Army to take over the patient's treatment and gauge the program's efficiency. The two immediately bond, but Kane also quickly becomes haunted by recurring dreams that affect his ability to fulfill his responsibilities. What does Hudson Kane have buried into his past that Cutshaw and the patients has awoken? Sometimes the damned don't find a savior, but the savior finds damnation.
This novel is oozing with Jungian psychology. The Ninth Configuration is comedic on the surface (and sometimes genuinely funny) and might seem like it dismissively caricatures mental illness but there's more than one layer to its characters. Their lives are a precarious balance of images and symbols allowing them to find a form of peace, which is upset by the arrival of Colonel Kane in the castle. For example, a patient named Reno becomes obsessed with the idea that Kane is Gregory Peck from the Alfred Hitchcock movie Spellbound, which is an attempt to give a non-threatening role to an unknown variable in his life. He does into these crazed, uptempo diatribes about it, but putting a label on Hudson Kane is crucial to his balance. Jung's concept of "wholeness" here is represented by regaining lost honor and rejoining the battlefield to have a chance to display courage, which can only happen by mastering you fears in the castle.
Which leads my to my second point: The Ninth Configuration is, unlike The Exorcist and Legion, not a supernatural horror novel. It's not even that interested in religion, but its intellectual center of the novel is the argument about the existence of good and evil between Colonel Kane and Billy Cutshaw. And that argument is very cool. Cutshaw freaked out before going into space because it's a place where nothing matters, hence leading him to question morality as a human construction. I'm not going to spoil you the entire argument because it's really good, but I'll only say that William Peter Blatty made a clever use of the paramilitary setting in order to put morality in perspective. The book is trying to define the idea without falling into theoretical platitudes by giving emotionally broken soldiers a sense of meaning, notably through the concept of sacrifice which is discussed at length.
The Ninth Configuration is a comedic novel that represents madness as the loss of meaning in one's actions, or should I say the loss of faith in their meaning. It's never comedic for the sake of being comedic, though. William Peter Blatty never chases jokes and there's a latent meaning to almost every interaction. Not sure if I enjoyed it better than Legion, but it sure put on display the enormous range of Blatty's narrative talent. A must-read novel for Jung enthusiasts and perhaps THE definitive insane asylum novel over Ken Kesey's One Flew Over a Cuckoo's Nest but it's just one of the many things Blatty has done well over the span of his illustrious career. Stay tuned, I might get acquainted with the movie adaptation soon.