The Exorcist leaves scares for the silver screen

The Exorcist is every parent’s nightmare: Losing a child to a horrible, un-diagnosed disorder that changes the child into a murderous monster while it kills her.

A blurry face on front cover of The Exorcist.
Nothing is clear in The Exorcist, not even the victim herself.

A divorced actress, Chris MacNeil, distracted by work, notices odd sounds in her apartment before she notices odd behavior in her 11-year-old daughter.

When Chris finally consults a doctor, he can find nothing to account for Regan’s sudden personality change.

Chris turns to a Jesuit priest who is also a psychiatrist. Father Karras knows the church is skeptical of reports of possession and unlikely to authorize an exorcism without very good reasons.

Dust jacket notes say William P. Blatty read every work in English on the subject of exorcism before writing The Exorcist. That’s how the novel reads: like research notes propped up by cardboard figures.

The novel is gruesome but not terrifying. To create terror, readers must see the victims as people like themselves, but Blatty’s characters lack personalities.

Subplots about a creepy butler with a drug-addicted daughter and a Columbo-styled homicide detective pad the novel without adding to the main story.

Like Love Story, The Exorcist needs to be acted out, and like that novel’s author, Blatty was a screenwriter before this, his first novel.

The Exorcist by William P. Blatty
Harper & Row, ©1971. 340 p.
1971 bestseller #2. My grade: C

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

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Great Lion of God is a mangy beast

The Apostle Paul is one of the towering figures of the New Testament, but little is known of his pre-Damascus Road experiences.

dust jacket of Great Lion of God features lion rampant
Lion rampant symbolizes courage, nobility.

In Great Lion of God, Taylor Caldwell imagines a Jewish-Roman family and childhood experiences to account for his behavior in later life.

Not content with that, she also deliberately sets out to draw comparisons between the Roman era and twentieth century America, with an ultimate goal, she says in her introduction, to influence people to study the scriptures.

With all those weighty goals, it’s no surprise the novel feels as if it’s back is broken.

Caldwell extensively researched the background of her story and the pictures she draws of the different communities and cultures in the first century are fascinating. Unfortunately, the historical characters she moves through these scenes are not fascinating.

Caldwell’s attempt to make Paul appear a man like ourselves backfires: Readers won’t want to be like Paul. From childhood, the Paul of the novel is cold and generally unpleasant.

Even the youthful sexual experience Caldwell invents to account for Paul’s alleged anti-woman attitudes doesn’t make him interesting. The man is boring.

If you’re interested in Paul, read his letters: He’s at his best there.

Great Lion of God by Taylor Caldwell
Doubleday, 1970. Book Club Edition. 597 pp.
1970 bestseller #5. My grade: B

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

A Good Woman skewers Christian humbug

original "Good Woman" cover with author's dedicationEmma Downes is a good woman.

Deserted by her husband, she started a business, supported herself, raised their son, now a missionary in Africa, and became a force to be reckoned with in her church.


A Good Woman by Louis Bromfield
Frederick A. Stokes, 1927. 432 pp. 1927 bestseller #10. My grade: A.

When natives attack Phillip’s African mission, Phillip escapes, dragging his virgin wife back to the states with him.

Missionaries board steam locomotive in Congo about 1900.
Phillip and Naomi left Africa after their mission was attacked.

Naomi would have preferred martyrdom, but Phillip has lost faith in his mother’s God and in his missionary calling.

Back home, Phillip takes a laborer’s job in the mills while his mother tries to put a good face on things — tough work, especially when her husband shows up after a 26 year absence.

Louis Bromfield builds his complex plot from the story’s setting and the personalities of his characters.

Bromfield draws Emma with deft strokes. She has guts, stamina, business acumen, determination, but she’s also manipulative, controlling, and self-deluded.

Emma’s religion is “ a practical, businesslike instrument of success,” her God conveniently pocket-sized, but Emma doesn’t know that.

Some of the incidents are shocking, but not unbelievable. The superficial way Bromfield relates horrific events powerfully suggests they are too awful to be spoken of.

Emma hasn’t a clue what Christianity is all about. Her cluelessness makes this book important — and vastly entertaining—90 years after its initial publication.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

In the Wilderness character tells

dark landscape of forbidding rocky hills
The wilderness is a frightening place.

In the Wilderness is an antidote to salacious later twentieth century bestsellers.

But Robert Hichens’ novel is strong stuff that many readers may find hard to swallow.


In the Wilderness by Robert Hichens
1917 bestseller #7. Project Gutenberg EBook #4603] My grade: A-

Dion Leith is passionately in love with Rosamund Everard, who finds him a nice, clean-living young man. Though trained as a singer, Rosamund feels her vocation is in a religious order, not marriage.

A sermon convinces her to accept Dion’s proposal. They marry, have a son.

Rosamund’s love is all for their son. She scarcely notices when the woman in a notorious divorce case pays attention to Dion.

When the Boer War breaks out, Dion volunteers. In his absence, Rosamund moves to an English cathedral village where her music and religious interests are welcome.

When he returns from South Africa, Dion accidentally shoots his son while the two are shooting together at Rosamund’s suggestion.

Rosamund screams, “Murderer,” and locks the cottage door against Dion.

Repudiating the values that locked the door on him, Dion leaves England for non-Western, non-Christian places, for drugs, debauchery, and the Other Woman.

Hichens doesn’t deliver a tidy, happily-ever-after ending.

It’s more of a “we’re going to grow up together” ending, a glimmer of hope that two very dissimilar people can create more happiness than unhappiness for each other.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Tell No Man shows muscular faith

Tell No Man is the story of a rising young stockbroker involved in a passionate affair with a sexy socialite to whom he’s been married several years.

Service in Korea shook Hank Garvin badly. When a long-time friend commits suicide, Hank’s foundation gives way.


 

Tell No Man by Adela Rogers St. Johns

Doubleday, 1966. 444 pages. 1966 bestseller #7. My grade: A.


1966-07_tellnomanShortly thereafter, Hank has a Damascus Road experience.

Like Paul, Hank’s ready to chuck everything to follow Jesus, believing he will do the same works Jesus did.

Mellie, Hank’s atheist wife, is ready to chuck Hank if he persists in going into the ministry.

Hank is convinced Mellie will stick with him.

She does, but soon realizes she “didn’t come first with Hank any more. God came first.”

That changes their marriage.

Adela Rogers St. Johns chose Mellie’s godmother, a Bible-reading Catholic and veteran Chicago newspaper reporter, to tell the story.  Her credentials give the narration authority: She is well-placed to know, to see, to speak truth.

I rarely find religious novels inspiring. This one is not just inspiring but inspiring in practical ways.

The events that lead up to the story’s climax will be familiar to anyone who’s read religious novels.

The climax, itself, however, is both a logical outgrowth of St. Johns’ plot line — and an absolutely stunning surprise.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Funny Literal Kids Make Laddie Sparkle

Laddie is the pride and joy of the Stanton family and hero to his youngest sister, who tells his story.

When Laddie asks Little Sister to deliver a letter to a Princess in the big wood, she discovers Laddie has fallen for a English lovely girl just moved to the neighborhood. Little Sister approves of the courtship, although her mother doesn’t.

Pamela Pryor’s family got off to a bad start with their God-fearing neighbors in the 1900s mid-west farming community. They think the English newcomers are heathen.

With Little Sister’s help, Laddie’s romance prospers and the Pryor family brought into the good graces of the community.

The plot is hackneyed and the main characters straight off the shelf, but the minor characters and minor incidents are jewels.

Although Gene Stratton-Porter imbues Little Sister with a child’s literal mind, no one would ever think the writing was by an elementary school child.

Nor is the story written for children. Stratton-Porter is talking to adults about how to live out Biblical principles in everything from showing hospitality to environmentally friendly farming practices.

Part romance, part morality play, Laddie escapes being saccharine because Little Sister and her older brother Leon are funny kids.

Laddie:  A True Blue Story
by Gene Stratton-Porter
Grosset & Dunlap, 1913
541 pages
1913 bestseller #3
Project Gutenberg ebook # 286
My Grade B-

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Inside of the Cup is empty for today’s reader

Bible in pew

When the aged rector of St. Johns dies in a booming mid-western city, the vestry look East for “a level-headed clergyman about thirty-five years old who will mind his own business.”

They hit on John Hodder.

For a year, Hodder more than lives up to their expectations. But gnawing at the back of his mind is a sense that the business of the church is making Christians.

Hodder learns that people living around St. John’s despise the church because they suffer daily from the effects of the church leaders’ “sound business sense.”

On the verge of chucking his job, Hodder meets a former member of St. Johns known throughout the city as a man who helps others. Mr. Bentley inspires Hodder to rethink his theology.

Hodder denounces his congregation’s Pharisees, including the major financial contributor whose daughter Hodder loves.

The central dilemma of Winston Churchill’s  The Inside of the Cup is ageless. The novel, however, is done in by Churchill’s ponderous prose. Hodder appears incapable of ordering coffee in less than 500 words.

Whatever value readers of 1913 found in The Inside of the Cup has evaporated.

Or perhaps it just was displaced by the weight of all those words.

The Inside of the Cup
by Winston Churchill
Illustrations by Howard Giles
MacMillan, 1913
513 pages
Project Gutenberg e-book #5364
My grade: C

Photo credit: Bible in Pew by sraburton

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni