Pure Potboiler: On Ray Russell’s ‘The Case Against Satan’
By Ryan Joe
Ray Russell’s The Case Against Satan is a pure potboiler with grand aspirations.
Most exorcism stories are implicitly about a bunch of sexually excitable old men trying to deal with a teenage girl. Gabriel García Márquez’s Of Love and Other Demons springs most immediately to mind. But The Case Against Satan is about as implicit as a hammer to your nuts.
Despite the eerie cover (which I previously described as “AWESOME”), The Case Against Satan is less about supernatural possession and more about the fallout of a sexual assault (or an attempted sexual assault). At the end, while one of the priests who participated in the exorcism (described in the grisly detail now customary in cinematic depictions) continues to believe the devil was somehow involved, the stronger implication is that the girl acted out because her father murdered her mother, then either raped her or tried to rape her. I mean, shit, I’d act out too.
It’s not unusual either for exorcism stories to introduce some narrative skepticism about the nature of supernatural possession. It’s an effective device to ease in readers. It takes a while, for instance, before the concept of an exorcism is introduced in The Exorcist. And in The Taking of Deborah Logan, there’s a debate whether the titular character is possessed of demons or Alzheimer’s (it was, of course, demons). Both of those examples are from movies, by the way.
Russell however weaves those threads of skepticism through the entire novel. The actual exorcism happens relatively early, within the first third. The remainder is about how the two priests involved must deal with revelations that occur during the exorcism — as well as the strength of their faith.
I give Russell credit for trying, but I have a fundamental problem with this conceit. The girl is the one who truly suffers. She is victimized both by her father and the priests who perform the exorcism. I don’t know if Russell is fully cognizant of this. Ultimately, he relegates her to the status of plot device — her narrative purpose is to drive a theological debate between two men.
The other issue that undermines Russell’s ambition is his language. At times, this shit reads as straight-up parody. Consider the following sequence:
“What if I told you it was–” Thunder ripped the sentence in two with an ear-smiting cracking. “–Father Halloran!”
“Liar!” cried the Bishop, as the rain was unleashed against the window with a patter, then a swelling hiss, then a heavy, steady, unrelenting roar.
Hey, I’m all for this sort of cornball stuff. Just take yourself less seriously if you’re going to do it.