Ray Russell illustration by Henry Chamberlain
When you write a story about the Devil, you are in some sense, summoning him. You cannot take that lightly for one very good reason: if you don’t take it seriously, you will amount with less than a gripping story. Ray Russell knew not to disturb Satan for no good reason. Russell was, by extension, part of the original Southern California Writers Group of the Sixties. This was “The Group,” the guys who went on to do such amazing things as write for the original Twilight Zone. Ray was not so much a regular at gatherings but he knew the art of writing as well as the best of them. He published the best of them as the fiction editor at Playboy, no less. And his own writing rose to the occasion too. One shining example of this is his 1962 novel, “The Case Against Satan.”
The early Sixties were dripping with modern cool with trailblazers bursting upon all the arts. In writing, one fertile ground was pushing the limits of gothic and dark fantasy. It is in “The Case Against Satan” that Russell broke new ground and created the contemporary demon possession story. It is more than fair to say that it was the precursor to William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel, “The Exorcist.” And, most assuredly, it is a novel still every bit as chilling today, oddly enhanced by its vintage. Certain modes of communication, like social media, just weren’t available to our characters in 1962 while others were more commonly relied upon, like a simple pamphlet, printed by the local zealot, and circulated amongst the neighborhood.
This is a story that depends a lot upon communication. Susan, a pretty sixteen-year-old, will prove a most enigmatic figure who may, or may not, be possessed by Lucifer himself. Her every word seems to harbor a double meaning. And, as we progress, all depends upon what is true and what is false. This is also a philosophical story as Susan will bring two men with very differing views together to help save her soul. The argument between them is one of faith. Can you only believe what you choose to believe or, when push comes to shove, must you give yourself completely over? The question is whether Satan actually exists. Sure, God is relatively easy to believe in. But, if there is a God, is there not a Satan?
Russell is more than just a master of the horror genre. You could say that simply writing horror is only the first step. In order for it to matter, the writer has to take on his own leap of faith. The writer has to have skin in the game, so to speak. Well, Russell is, without a doubt, a writer willing to give his skin, and heart, over to what he did. He has a way of drawing you in completely too. You arrive closer and closer to the bogeyman to find yourself butting right up against him and then you may gasp, or you may be in awe, as to how you got there. Russell does not hammer away. He may mention something only once but that one time will suffice. You cannot help but bookmark it and eagerly anticipate a return.
Much in line with the trim and fast-paced novels of the era, like Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel, “Psycho,” this is story that is very focused, very much a page-turner, with an eerie elegance running throughout. It breaks my heart to think that this was never turned into a major motion picture. With some adjustments, it could still be made as an updated version. Or, better yet, you could remain close to the spooky cool of the original.
Perhaps it might do well to adapt this story into a play. “Doubt” comes to mind. For this is very much a story about overcoming one’s doubt. It is, in large part, a story about Gregory, a priest in crisis, at a crossroads in early middle age. And his counterpart, mentor, and friend, is a visiting bishop. In fact, the meeting between them was to be fleeting at best. However, circumstances would dictate otherwise. Above all else, Russell masterfully balances the inner and outer turmoil of these two, among a cast of other characters emerging from varied backgrounds, all brought together by a demon possession, that may or may not be true.
“The Case Against Satan” is a 160-page paperback published by Penguin Random House. For more information, and to purchase, visit our friends at Penguin Random House right here.