I have to admit that as far as horror subgenres go, demonic possession stories aren’t usually my favorite thing, but for some reason, while scrolling through my Kindle recommendations, Nick Roberts’s 2022 novel The Exorcist’s House kind of popped out at me, so I thought I’d give it a whirl. Roberts is a West Virginia-based author who won the Debut Novel of the Year award in 2021 for his first novel Anathema; The Exorcist’s House is his second book.
And I will say right out of the gate that even though the tale isn’t the most original thing ever, it was still a hell of a lot of fun, and I’d definitely recommend it if you’re into the classic exorcism tropes; it also has some nods to Rosemary’s Baby in there too, which I appreciated.
The novel is set in the author’s home state in the 1990s, starting out with a brief prologue taking place in spring of 1993. An old man named Merle Blatty is sitting on a rock on his land, having a smoke and talking to his faithful bloodhound, Buck. From the tone of his thoughts and the things he says to the dog, we’re led to believe that he’s resigned to his fate, and is ready to go back into his farmhouse and deal with whatever is going on in there. Because the name of the book is The Exorcist’s House, we assume that there are some demonic shenanigans occurring inside, and that the old man is fairly certain he isn’t going to survive the oncoming battle. He even briefly considers killing the dog as a mercy (NOOOOO), but thankfully decides to let the good boy fend for himself in the surrounding woods after whatever’s gonna go down, goes down. THANK YOU, Nick Roberts, for not killing the dog; I’m getting really bummed out by all these horror novels bumping off the cute pets, so it’s nice to read something where the dog not only survives, but (spoiler alert) helps to fend off the evil at the end. We love the hero animals!
Anyway, after Merle is evidently dispatched by the demon, we jump ahead a year to April of 1994, and begin to follow our main protagonists, the Hill family. Dad Daniel is a psychologist, mom Nora is a high school teacher who is also six months pregnant, and the couple have a sixteen-year-old daughter named Alice.
Daniel has gotten the wild idea in his head to buy a farm in rural West Virginia for cheap, fix it up, and then sell it for profit. Nora seems less enthused, but goes along with his plans, partly because she feels guilty for having had a fling with a co-worker a year before which she never told her husband about. The family is planning to live in the farmhouse over the summer, or at least until all the renovations are complete, then after they sell it, they’ll move back to the city, hopefully with a bunch more money in their bank account.
Naturally, it will surprise no one that the farmhouse and land they’ve purchased belonged to Merle Blatty, and the reason it was so reasonably priced was because the house was damaged by a vaguely unnatural fire that occurred the night Merle was killed. Only the second floor was burned, so Daniel hires a crew to come in and do a bunch of work on the place before they get there. By the time the Hill family arrives, much of the renovation has been done, and the place looks great. The foreman of the construction crew, however, sees something peeking out at him from the basement, and a few days later seemingly commits suicide in a really gruesome way.
The Hills are unsettled by this news, but not overly concerned, as the man actually died at a motel in town, and not at the house they’ll be occupying for the next few months. One thing that does sort of bother them, though, is the fact that somebody has been inside their house and nailed the door to the basement shut, hammering the nails in the form of a cross.
Not too long after the family moves in, they discover that their house, of course, used to belong to Merle Blatty, who actually wasn’t sanctioned by the church, but was something of a backwoods exorcist, who trained with some sympathetic clergy and would often help out in possession cases across the country where the official church didn’t want to get involved. Much of the information about Merle comes from a young man named Luke, who lives nearby and used to do handyman stuff and yard work around the farm when Merle was alive. The Hills also take Luke up on his offer to work for them as well, and Alice is immediately smitten. Merle’s old dog Buck, who has been living in the woods since his master’s death, also returns and is adopted into the family.
Slowly, though, weird things begin to happen, most of them at first revolving around the door to the basement coming open by itself, and various family members seemingly sleepwalking down there and seeing horrible things that are specifically tailored to them. They attribute these events to stress dreams at first, but they also begin to notice that they’re having instances of missing time, where it will suddenly be hours later and they won’t remember what they were doing.
Finally, Daniel, curious about this small, “secret” room he discovers in the basement that contains a deep well that someone hung crucifixes over, goes down there one night and is confronted with the terrifying spirit of Merle Blatty himself, who appears as a charred corpse and tells Daniel that he has to read through all of the journals Merle left behind in order to figure out how to seal the well in the basement, which is of course a gateway to Hell.
Daniel finds the old man’s journals and also a bunch of videotapes of all his exorcisms, and becomes obsessed with going through them. Meanwhile, the demon from the well is fucking with everyone’s minds, making them see ghastly things that aren’t there and apparently trying to turn them against one another. It all leads up to a classic exorcism battle between the family, a priest who trained Merle, and the demon inhabiting the basement, complete with levitations, fire, fucked up visions, and gloppy black substances galore.
As I said, this was actually a pretty fun read, and kept me interested all the way up until the very end. If I had a couple of minor nitpicks, I would point out that the author occasionally switching points of view from character to character within a single scene was a tad confusing; I’m usually more inclined to suggest starting another section when you’re changing POV characters just so we’re not hopping back and forth into two or three different people’s heads. It didn’t happen a lot, but it was a bit jarring.
I also thought the final confrontation between the family and the demon was a little bit abrupt and could have gone on for longer; that said, I eased off somewhat on that perception after I read the coda at the end, which introduced a new complication that I quite liked.
All in all, I would definitely recommend this book to fans of movies like The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Amityville Horror; it’s a very classic, demon possession-style narrative, but has enough unique character to make it worthwhile, and it comes across as very gruesome and cinematic, which were definitely points in its favor. It moved along at a good pace, and introduced a cool concept with the demon being able to show you really realistic hallucinations, so you could never be sure if what the protagonists were seeing was real. Very entertaining, and a great story to read for the upcoming Halloween season.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.