"Exorcist Falls" Book Review
Written by Angry Scholar
Published by Sinister Grin Press
Written by Jonathan Janz
2017, 452 pages, fiction
Released on March 15th, 2017
Jason Crowder is a priest in Chicago, a city ripe for diabolical hijinks. Rudely awakened one night by officer Danny Hartman of the Chicago PD, Jason is called to a posh home in an upscale neighborhood to perform an exorcism on Danny’s nephew Casey. Requisite “old priest” Father Sutherland, Jason’s mentor, is also called in, and together they eventually pry the boy out of the demonic spirit’s grip. Unfortunately, a few unexpected things also go down: terrible family secrets are revealed; Jason kills the person he believes to be an infamous murderer, the Sweet Sixteen Killer, only to learn that he was wrong and the real killer is still at large and closer than he ever imagined; and the demon hops into Jason’s body.
All that happens in Exorcist Road, the prequel to Exorcist Falls (included with the novel). The novel itself begins with Jason awaiting the arrival of the Sweet Sixteen Killer. Jason plans to use the demon inhabiting him, whose name is Malephar, to kill the killer and become a kind of (admittedly badass) demonic superhero, fighting crime and kicking ass for the Lord. Of course, this being a horror novel, Janz has other things in store for his hapless hero, and the ensuing ups and downs of Jason’s dark adventure are worthy of the most picaresque of picaresque novels. He learns to exercise a degree of control over the demon, only not really because it’s a demon and it makes his bones spontaneously break and burst out of his skin and stuff and then heals him because fuck you I’m a demon. What really happens is that he strikes a deal with the demon, who needs a living host: Jason will provide that host as long as Malephar protects the woman Jason has come to love, because a possessed priest has bigger shit to deal with than breaking his vows.
Exorcist Falls is nothing if not interesting. It’s an interesting premise: a sort of Spawn-cum-Exorcist hero, using infernal powers for good. It’s got some interesting characters, like a serial killer with an unlikely day job, and a demon very worthy of comparison to Spawn’s nemesis, the Violator (at least in terms of their similarly snarky attitudes). And it’s overt in its borrowings from The Exorcist, which I appreciate. (Janz acknowledges that novel’s influence in his introduction.) I can’t say I particularly cared about any of the central characters, except perhaps Malephar himself, but the overall shape of the narrative is compelling enough to keep the pages turning.
On the down side, the book suffers from a certain heavy-handedness (much like Blatty’s own diabolical novel). Told from Jason’s perspective, the novel is over-narrated and at times pedantic in its word choice, as in this passage:
I once witnessed an injury in a pickup basketball game that is indelibly inscribed on my memory. The young man—the brother of an acquaintance, I’ve long since forgotten their names—had driven toward the basket on a fast break and was attempting to jump stop with the evident intention of faking out the defender giving chase from behind. The young man did evade the defender, who leapt into the air to block a shot that never came. But the ball handler’s left knee, rather than planting solidly on the hardwood and allowing him to gather himself for an uncontested shot, hyperextended in the most unnatural manner, the sight of it almost as grotesque as the protracted popping sound his knee made in giving way.
With its bizarre language choices and detached, naive commentary on human behavior, this passage resembles nothing so much as sports commentary by H.P. Lovecraft. All it needs is some gibbering madness and non-Euclidean geometry. While this may be (and probably is) a deliberate stylistic choice on the part of the author, it doesn’t translate into compelling reading: instead it feels awkward, stilted, and unrealistic. The language is generally overblown, unnecessarily complex and artificial, pulling the reader out of what would otherwise be a tense and unsettling narrative.
Other issues creep in. Malephar causes one character to cut his own throat with a piece of broken glass. A short time later in the narrative, another character refers to the first as having “[blown] his brains out,” a mistake which, though ultimately immaterial, is jarring. Worse, nobody ever really questions the reality of the demon. During the original exorcism, two people died. Rather than arresting the person clearly and, through basic forensics, demonstrably responsible for one of them, the police instead question him and apparently accept his story of a diabolical entity. Jason’s superiors in the church do, too. Only one person in the whole novel, an incidental police detective named Ambrose, actually rejects the possession story outright.
Exorcist Falls is a bloody romp with some good ideas that suffer somewhat in the execution. If you like Christian-themed horror you’ll probably dig this, and it deserves credit for the novel premise of a possessed priest fighting crime (albeit badly). But the ponderous writing style makes it a bit of a slog, and the basically unlikeable characters make it easier to root for the bad guy than the supposed heroes.