Legion (Not the TV Show)

Legion (Exorcist, #3)Legion by William Peter Blatty
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In the twelve years that passed between THE EXORCIST and LEGION, its sequel, author William Peter Blatty honed his writing skills. For the most part, I found LEGION to be a much better written novel than THE EXORCIST, at least on the prose level. When it comes to focus, however, I found Blatty’s writing here as frustrating as ever. Whole scenes and conversations amount to nothing and go nowhere. The entirety of the story is crammed into the first few chapters and the last few chapters, with the middle chapters containing little more than filler, especially the multiple chapters that follow Dr. Amfortas, a character who ultimately winds up not doing much at all. If Amfortas were removed from the novel, nothing would change but the word count.

Lieutenant Kinderman is presented somewhat better here than he was in THE EXORCIST, but his dialogue still comes off like someone doing a bad impression of a nebbishy Jewish person. The dialogue of his mother-in-law, whom we meet in Kinderman’s home life, is even worse. The mystery at the heart of the novel is good, and the supernatural elements are chilling, and they alone are what save LEGION from being utterly forgettable. I’m a big fan of the film adaptation — released as THE EXORCIST III: LEGION and starring the great George C. Scott as Kinderman — but the end of the novel is both different from and, unexpectedly, worse than the movie’s. The film’s producers famously demanded that an exorcism be added to the climax, since the word “exorcist” was in the title and they thought that was what the audience wanted to see. I always thought it was a mistake and wondered what the real ending was. Well, now I know. In the novel, the killer’s motivation, which involves a character we meet only once in a complete throw-away of a chapter, is resolved off-page when we’re told that character died from a stroke, and so the killer just stops killing and — literally — lies down and dies. The end.

There’s a theological philosophy couched in the novel that’s interesting, something about who is really watching over the world since it clearly isn’t God, and I wish more time had been spent exploring it. I also wish it had tied in a little better with the plot. But then, I kind of wish everything had tied in a little better with the plot. Ultimately, LEGION is a messy novel with a few good scenes and a couple of good chills, but not a novel I would recommend to anyone but Blatty completists or fans of Lt. Kinderman who want to see where his adventures take him after THE EXORCIST. For everyone else, rent the movie instead, bad exorcism scene and all.

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The Scariest Part: J.R.R.R. Hardison Talks About DEMON FREAKS

This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is author J.R.R.R. Hardison, whose latest novel is Demon Freaks. Here is the publisher’s description:

It’s the night before the SAT test. The forces of darkness are stirring.

Twin brothers, Bing and Ron Slaughter, know they’ve got to cram like their lives depend on it because their college plans sure do. If they don’t ace the test, they’ll be doomed to spend the rest of their days flipping burgers at the McDonald’s their parents run. That’s why they hatch a plan to meet up with the members of their punk band, the Ephits, spend the night studying at a secluded cabin in the woods, and maybe squeeze in a little jamming. What could go wrong with a brilliant plan like that?

Ancient evil. That’s what.

As a cataclysmic lightning storm rolls in, Bing, Ron and the rest of the Ephits find themselves tangled in a sinister plot to summon a demon. Yes, demons are real. To survive the night, the band must find a malevolent artifact, battle bloodthirsty monsters and stand against the most dangerous and powerful foe humanity has ever faced…the Golfer’s Association.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for J.R.R.R. Hardison:

I do OK in caves, but I don’t love them. It’s an imagination thing. I see possibilities — and I see them more clearly the darker my surroundings get. People get lost in caves, they get trapped in them, drowned in them. They succumb to hypothermia, starvation, bad air. And there are bugs. Troglobites, they call them. I’m not fond of bugs, especially not odd, pale, never-seen-the-light-of-day, bulging-blind-eyed troglobites that might get on you while you can’t see them, or worse, crawl up your nose when you’re dead.

My cave paranoia increases in regards to the safety of other people. That’s not because I’m altruistic. It’s just because I’ve always been pretty lucky, and I feel like I would probably blunder my way out of any subterranean void in which I was lost. But my luck doesn’t extend to other people, like my wife, and I don’t trust my adventurer skills anywhere near enough to believe I could help someone else if something went wrong. If a part of the cave floor gave way and a fellow explorer was hanging over the edge of a lightless abyss, I’m pretty sure their desperate fingers would slip through my clumsy grasp. If underground floodwaters suddenly surged around our necks, it seems like a foregone conclusion that I’d be unable to hold my breath long enough to pull my submerged companion from the icy deluge. And if a falling stalactite pinned a loved one, my well-intentioned but misguided attempt to get help would only result in blind wanderings that would doom her bones to molder in eternal darkness.

All of this is a long way of saying that the scariest part for me in writing Demon Freaks was a sudden silence in the lightless void below the craggy slopes of Mt. St. Helens. I’d decided to visit some caves to prepare for writing the sequence in which two of the central characters are lost in a maze of tunnels and caverns under the clubhouse of the evil Golfers’ Association. For the record, it is a mistake to first research the dangers of caves before physically going into them. Google searching turns up a wide array of stories that all begin by coupling a cave name with the capitalized word disaster, and then end with people dying. The Nutty Putty Cave Disaster, the Mossdale Cavern Disaster, the Cave Creek Disaster…the list goes on. The National Speleological Society also keeps a handy official Journal of Record of Caving Accidents and Safety Incidents that tracks American caving mishaps going back to 1961. The incident entries in this journal are suggestively spare, like, “Fatality. Falling stone,” and “Fatality. Fell into pit.”

After all that reading, it was with some trepidation that I found myself joining various cave tours and forcing myself to hang back just far enough from the group to lose sight of the others. But I never felt really unsafe. Even if I managed to get separated from the group, a guy with a walkie talkie would undoubtedly track me down, or another tour would come along in ten minutes. More often than not, a tour guide would just say, “Sir, please keep up.”

So that’s why I finally decided to visit a nearby cave on an unguided tour with my wife. At 2.5 miles, Ape Cave is the longest continuous lava tube in the continental United States. It’s not a particularly dangerous cave, but as the website ominously informs you, “No cave can ever be considered completely safe.” They urge you to wear warm, heavy clothes (it’s generally about 42 degrees inside), to bring at least two light sources with spare batteries, and to never touch the walls. Never touch the walls? Yes. They harbor “cave slime,” which sounds like it might eat you alive, but is actually just an important food source for the troglofauna — the various creatures that live in the cave.

On the drive out to the cave, I managed to get myself a little worked up about the whole thing, much to my wife’s amusement. This was going to be just the two of us, inside miles of inky dark lava tube, no guide to pull our bacon out of the fire. She was rolling her eyes, but I was almost ready to turn back. Then we arrived at the site and found it swarming with other weekend thrill-seekers and inexperienced cavers. It was not just going to be the two of us.

Yes, it was a very cool way to spend an afternoon. Yes, there were a few heart-racing moments that involved scaling a slick lava wall or scrambling on our bellies through narrow crevices. And yes, I saw a few fearsome cave crickets. But for the most part, it was a pretty tame adventure.

There was one moment we found ourselves alone and out of ear shot of the crowds. We were crouched below a bulging ceiling of blobby black rock in a section of tube about six feet across, and I suggested we turn off our lights to get a better feel for the darkness. The second we flicked our switches, we were blind. In the absence of other sound, my wife’s breathing seemed very loud. Then there was a soft scrabbling and the sound of her breathing stopped. It just stopped.

I listened, strained actually, to catch the whisper of another breath. I reached out, groping for her in the pitch. But there was nothing. Nothing. The eyes of my imagination opened wide and beheld every account of every caving disaster spread before me. “Fatality,” I thought. “Fell into pit.”

And then someone else’s flashlight beam hit us. There was my wife a few feet further than expected, caught in the act of creeping away, a big grin on her face. She insists that she was just “helping” my writing process by holding her breath so that I could feel the full effect of the cave. Me, I don’t believe that for a second.

Demon Freaks: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powell’s / IndieBound

J.R.R.R. Hardison: Website / Twitter

Jim has worked as a writer, screen writer, animator and director in entertainment and commercials since graduating from Columbia College of Chicago in 1988. He is the author of The Helm, which YALSA praised as one of 2010’s best graphic novels for young readers, and has directed animated commercial and entertainment projects, including spots for M&M’s, AT&T, and Kellogg’s. He co-founded Character LLC in 2000 and has given story advice to many of the world’s largest brands, such as Target, Verizon, Samsung, McDonalds and Walmart, and has even appeared on NBC’s The Apprentice as an expert adviser on brand characters. Jim lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, two kids and two dogs. Fish WielderJim’s debut novel, was released in 2016, and Demon Freaks, his second novel, was released in October 2017.

The Scariest Part: Tracy Townsend Talks About THE NINE

This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is author Tracy Townsend, whose debut novel is The Nine. Here is the publisher’s description:

A book that some would kill for…

Black market courier Rowena Downshire is doing everything she can to stay off the streets and earn enough to pay her mother’s way to freedom. But an urgent and unexpected delivery leads her face to face with a creature out of nightmares.

The Alchemist knows things few men have lived to tell about, but when a frightened and empty-handed courier shows up on his doorstep he knows better than to turn her away. What he discovers leads him to ask for help from the last man he wants to see — the former mercenary, Anselm Meteron.

Reverend Phillip Chalmers awakes in a cell, bloodied and bruised, facing a creature twice his size. Translating a stolen book that writes itself may be his only hope for survival; however, he soon learns the text may have been written by the Creator himself, tracking the nine human subjects of his Grand Experiment. In the wrong hands, it could mean the end of humanity.

This unlikely team must try to keep the book from those who would misuse it. But how can they be sure who the enemy is when they can barely trust each other? And what will happen to them when it reveals a secret no human was meant to know?

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Tracy Townsend:

It took every ounce of my will to keep from answering the phone on the first ring.

It was a Monday morning, and I was waiting for the call from the literary agent who’d read my manuscript with such fervor, we’d spent the last weekend chatting over email about my career. He’d read the whole manuscript in five days, then scheduled a call. We were to discuss a revise and resubmit, something he didn’t usually handle over the phone. This was Very Serious Business.

When my phone finally blazed to life, I did my best to be good. Disciplined. Focused. Professional. And I was, mostly.

I answered halfway through the second ring.

The conversation glowed with praise and visions of my potential. The agent had been looking for a writer of adult fantasy for while. He wanted something smart, nuanced, and dark. Something stylistically complex. He saw the right signs in The Nine. I listened. I paced. I always pace when I’m on the phone. It helps keep me from talking too fast. When we got to the part about the agent’s concerns, I had to sit down and take notes. Everything was fine (my now pent-up energy notwithstanding) until we got to his last concern.

“About the aigamuxa,” he said. “I’m not sure about them.”

My heart had been racing. Suddenly, it clogged with an emotion I couldn’t quite parse. Disappointment. Frustration. And, yes. Fear. I was ready to hear that he thought ogre-like antagonists with eyes on their feets were just too weird. Or that he wasn’t sure how they could be perceived as a threat, given that bizarre anatomy. I was ready for any of a half-dozen skeptical reactions to The Nine’s antagonist species, because I’d fielded them already with beta readers and critique partners. I wasn’t ready for this conversation, though.

“I think fantasy readers need a villain they can hate or fear. Something morally concrete. The aigamuxa,” he paused. “They actually have good reason to hate human beings. They were colonized and enslaved. Now they live on the margin of society, without any rights or security. Of course they hate people. Anybody would. How can you ask the reader to see them as the monsters?”

I blurted the words out before I could stop myself. “That’s not what I want at all.” So much for being professional.

My pen dropped from my hand, rolling off the notepad to sit beside my keyboard. What was I thinking? This agent had New York Times bestsellers on his list. Clients with movie deals secured on their debut novels. “Sold at auction” was quickly becoming his middle name. Why wasn’t I just saying, “Of course! I can change that!”?

“Let me explain,” I said, getting back to my feet to pace. I took a breath and tried to speak slowly. “The aigamuxa aren’t villains. They’re antagonists — the ones who oppose. And they are people. They may have claws and razor teeth and eyes on their feet, but they’re still people. They’re not wrong to hate humanity. I want the reader to recognize that. I want the reader to be afraid for the protagonists and to root for them and also recognize that what threatens them isn’t just evil for its own sake.”

“But readers need to know they’re on the right side. Tell you what. What if the aigamuxa are this proud warrior people and they lost some battle to humanity, and then got left alone to lick their wounds, so now they want revenge for the blow to their pride? Like Germany after World War I, perhaps?”

I shook my head. “My characters have done terrible things. They aren’t the good guys. And mankind isn’t, either. They’ve treated the world like it only exists to fuel their knowledge of divinity, or like it’s some kind of puzzle God wants them to solve. If they were only good, what’s so scary about a book that records God’s judgments? What would anybody have to be afraid of, if we could be sure we were in the right? I don’t want to coddle my readers. I don’t want a story with neat moral boundaries and tidy, clean conflicts. It’s full of wounded hearts and people who have been done wrong. Monsters should get the same treatment.”

Another pause. “It’s your story. You should do what you think is right. I’m just not sure that’s going to work.”

We talked a little more, then hung up. Months later, I sent him the revision. As it turns out, the agent didn’t think it worked, but another agent did, and offered representation just hours after the first emailed his regrets. We went on to sell my book of washed-up mercenaries and antagonists with just causes and heroes with baggage and existential uncertainties. Fighting to keep my monsters human (and my humans a little monstrous) was the scariest part of The Nine because it was a battle for the soul of the book itself. I hadn’t set out to do something simple with my readers’ hearts, even if might sell more easily or get better reviews. I had set out to explore what scares me about human nature, what hope we have of redeeming ourselves, and what happens when we’re called to account for the wrongs we’ve done.

I had to write a book I was too scared to give up on. I hope it scares you the same way.

The Nine: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powell’s / IndieBound

Tracy Townsend: Website / Twitter / Goodreads

Tracy Townsend holds a master’s degree in writing and rhetoric from DePaul University and a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from DePauw University, a source of regular consternation when proofreading her credentials. She is a past chair of the English Department at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, an elite public boarding school, where she currently teaches creative writing and science fiction and fantasy literature. She has been a martial arts instructor, a stage combat and accent coach, and a short-order cook for houses full of tired gamers. Now she lives in Bolingbrook, Illinois with two bumptious hounds, two remarkable children, and one very patient husband. Her debut novel, The Nine, is the first in the Thieves of Fate series, published by Pyr November 14, 2017.

The Exorcist

The ExorcistThe Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve seen the movie a thousand times — it’s one of my all-time favorites — but I thought it was finally time to read the novel it was based on. Turns out, THE EXORCIST the novel is almost identical to THE EXORCIST the movie, which I suppose should come as no surprise considering William Peter Blatty wrote both of them. (It should be noted that Blatty got his start in screenwriting, not novel writing. He even wrote the screenplay for the excellent Blake Edwards/Peter Sellers Inspector Clouseau film “A Shot in the Dark”!) The novel delves a little deeper into discussions of witchcraft and the lives of the people around Chris MacNeil, such as Willie and Karl, her housekeepers, and Sharon, MacNeil’s assistant and Regan’s babysitter, but overall it’s nearly identical.

But while the story and the characters of THE EXORCIST remain indelible classics, the novel has some problems that kept me from fully enjoying it. One of the biggest issues for me is that Blatty keeps Regan mostly off the page for the first half of the novel, even after the possession begins. She’s talked about a lot more than we actually get to see her. It has a distancing effect that dilutes the horror of the story, which is something I’m pretty sure Blatty didn’t intend, and indeed he corrected it later with the screenplay. But the result of keeping Regan away from the reader for so much of the novel is that we get a lot more telling than showing, which is definitely less fun to read. (There’s significantly less of this in the second half, although it’s still there in places, and I have to wonder if all this telling instead of showing is a holdover from Blatty’s screenwriting experience.)

Another problem that kept me from fully enjoying the novel is the prose. It’s lifeless, clunky, and clipped, to the point where I grew confused in a few places about what Blatty is trying to convey. There are way too many one-word sentences, for instance, as if Blatty were rushing, still writing in short hand for a film script instead of penning the more immersive prose of a novel. Interestingly, the writing becomes significantly better in the second half of the novel, and the fact that this improvement accompanies Regan’s reappearance on the page strikes me as no coincidence. As a writer, Blatty is fully engaged in the second half of the novel, as everything comes to a head, and seems quite happy to leave the more shallow and skittish first half far behind.

One last issue I had was with Lieutenant Kinderman. In the film he’s a great character (wonderfully portrayed by Lee J. Cobb), but in the novel comes off as a kvetching Jewish stereotype. Since I myself am a kvetching Jewish stereotype, I found this somewhat grating.

I might be nitpicking ridiculously, but I think this is one of those rare occasions where the best version of the story is the film adaptation, rather than the novel it’s based on. Or at the very least, I came away from reading THE EXORCIST preferring the movie.

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