The Case Against Satan
Ray Russell | Paperback Library | 1962 | 160 pages
“I hope you rot in Hell for eternity, you lousy son of a bitch.”
Written nearly a decade before William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist shocked readers with its depiction of demonic possession, The Case Against Satan details two Catholic priests in their struggle to free a young girl from—what seems to be—a diabolical influence.
Following a succession of strange episodes, Robert Garth brings his daughter, Susan, to the attention of Father Gregory Sargent, a new parish priest struggling with a history of alcoholism and doubt about his own faith. Susan suffers from a series of violent physical reactions against attending Mass, and exhibits an uncharacteristic display of vulgar behavior for such a previously sweet sixteen-year-old girl. Gregory learns that Garth also brought his daughter to seek the counsel of his predecessor, Father Halloran—towards whom she made carnal advances and violently attacked with her bare hands.
The arrival of Bishop Conrad Crimmings to the parish precipitates an impromptu experiment with Susan, involving the rosary blindly applied to her skin. Seeing the burn left on Susan’s arm after contact with the holy article, Bishop Crimmings concludes that her condition stems from demonic possession, and sets in motion the plans for her exorcism.
“Why, of course. I am human, am I not? A little girl. A little girl with filthy desires.” And she yelled, “DUNG!”
Perhaps shocking and controversial in the era of its first publication, the potentially blasphemous content in The Case Against Satan seems almost mild by comparison to more graphic, post-Exorcist horrors. Some of the language issuing from Susan during her exorcism is suggested rather than explicit, although disturbing revelations regarding incest and murder surface over the course of the sessions.
“Mankind is dung,” she said. “The Church is a dungheap, a congregation of dung. Dung in the wind! Father of dung! Son of filthy dung!”
Attempting to be more than a straightforward horror novel, The Case Against Satan functions as a dialectic between Crimmings and Gregory over the nature of possession. They argue whether psychologists are actually purging demons with their clinical methodology, or that church-appointed exorcists are relieving psychological problems through their benedictions. Believing in the literal presence of Satan in the young girl, Bishop Crimmings struggles to solidify the faith of Father Gregory, whose own interest in the field of psychoanalysis logically leads him to a less supernatural origin for Susan’s affliction.
The ambiguity of Susan’s illness is preserved throughout the story, with apparent psychological causes to her symptoms, although Gregory ultimately overcomes his own doubts to embrace his faith. Suspension of disbelief is a key artistic tenet, but since the novel invites the question, the application of existing rules of logic cannot be helped. How can any rational argument compete against the warped, self-affirming rationale—the lack of evidence against Satan is itself evidence that Satan is withholding evidence of his own existence—of true believers? Father Gregory ultimately offers his reductive version of the whole affair, “She was possessed of the Devil. They cast him out. She’s fine now.”
A few references to real-life exorcism cases and figures of Catholic psychoanalysis inform the details of Susan’s possession, intentionally blurring the line between fiction and reality. However, the author seems to finally side with the protagonist, descending into pure, unrepentant hokum in his epilogue, with an anecdote involving an inferred visit from the “Lord of the Flies” while writing the novel—ending with his typing the words, “Begone, Satan!“