"The Case Against Satan" Book Review
Written by Gabino Iglesias
Published by Penguin Classics
Written by Ray Russell
1962 (Penguin Classics edition, 2015), 160 pages, Fiction
Released on October 13th, 2015
Not immediately bringing up Ray Russell’s The Case Against Satan whenever a conversation about demonic possession in horror literature pops up is one of those unpardonable crimes that are regularly perpetrated by a large percentage of horror fiction fans. The novel, which is a classic that should be read based on its merits even if it was published today for the first time, is part of the genre’s DNA in much the same way William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist is. Elegant, fast-paced, and infused with a wonderful mixture of creepy atmosphere and uncertainty, this relatively short novel is required reading for anyone who cares about possession narratives or the history of our genre.
Susan Garth is a sweet, somewhat shy, soft-spoken teenage girl. Her family history is rocky, but she’s in school and regularly goes to church with her father. That changes when she suddenly develops bizarre fits that include an aversion to churches that makes her passionately refuse to go and the sudden appearance of vulgarity in her discourse. Then, while in his presence in an attempt to get help, she gets naked in front of the parish priest and attacks him. Fearing demonic possession, Bishop Crimmings calls on Father Gregory Sargent to help. Gregory is younger than the Bishop, has very different ideas when it comes to the way troubled youth should be handled and helped, and has a history with the bottle. What the two men of the cloth embark on is a scary, dangerous mission in which possession, pain, and secrets coalesce to blur the line between a shattered psyche and demonic possession.
A great book is made even better by an outstanding intro, and the one Laird Barron provided for this book is the best one I’ve read this year. I could go on and on about how it explains why the novel matters and the mark Russell left on horror, but this is a review of the book, not the intro, so I’ll skip all that and leave this piece of it here:
"There were moments when the sun coagulated between the teeth of distant peaks and the brass shell of sky peeled back to reveal the stars welded to a deeper darkness, and the moon would heave, yellow as an old cracked skull bone of some massive space-faring thing. I would be reminded with the cold that seeped up through the soles of my boots and stole into my blood that I was minute and impermanent, that every work of civilization is a speck upon the face of a speck floating upon an infinite abyss."
Once the introduction is over, readers are hurled into Russell’s narrative and very quickly become ensnared by the mixture of storytelling skills and writing chops he brings to the table. The Case Against Satan is a relative short read and the frenetic pace makes it feel more like a novella than a novel, but Russell manages to cram a plethora of nuanced characters, a gripping story, and even some very interesting passages in which religious beliefs and modern psychoanalysis go head-to-head. These last passages have a wonderful duality because they add an intellectual/spiritual level to the argument at hand while also complicating the narrative by introducing even more possibilities and angles into a situation already ripe with them. In the words of the Bishop:
“The concept of God and Diabolus struggling for the human soul is accepted only if it translated into Freudian jargon—the superego and the id struggling for human reason. This is all very tempting, very clever. But clever people can explain away anything their way—you know that. In fact, I can use this same sort of reasoning to explain psychoanalysis my way.”
Perhaps what makes this novel worthy of attention, more than the fact that it’s now a canonical text, is the fact that Russell created something that was at once horrific and weird, provocative and sad, smart and very entertaining. The Case Against Satan is the story of a girl whose inner demons may or may not come from Hell, but it’s also the story of how flawed humans deal with her problems as well as with their own reflection in the mirror of her evil presence. Too many modern horror authors rely on gore or hyper-violence to place their readers in an uncomfortable spot, but Russell did it without any of the above. Instead, what he wrote was a novel that pushed a lot of boundaries in the mainstream fiction landscape of 1962 and that would eventually become a classic that precedes some better-known novels. Kudos to Penguin for finally putting it out again and giving it the recognition it deserves.