Yesterday, author and director William Peter Blatty died. Most people will remember him as the guy who wrote The Exorcist. I’ll remember him as the guy who took the freedom he got from The Exorcist and wrote two complicated, thorny, hopeful horror novels and then adapted them into two complicated, thorny, hopeful horror movies (which he also directed). And I’ll remember him as a novelist who was capable of turning out dialogue that read as sharp and surprising as Elmore Leonard’s, only with a far more philosophical bent.
Born to Lebanese immigrants, Blatty was raised by a single mother whose poverty turned his childhood into a constant flight to stay one step ahead of eviction. Blatty received a deeply Catholic education and was a deeply devout Catholic. He was so religious that the needle that goaded him into writing The Exorcist was watching Rosemary’s Baby with its famously ambiguous ending that, to him, felt like a cop-out. How the hell could a horror movie end with the forces of evil triumphant? A few years later, he pitched a courtroom novel about a kid who kills an adult and uses a claim of demonic possession as her defense to Mark Jaffe of Bantam Books, a paperback company (Bantam would later sell the hardcover rights to Harper & Row). It was a New Year’s party, everyone was drinking, Jaffe bought the book. It wound up getting titled The Exorcist.