Newly reissued by Penguin Classics, Ray Russell’s short novel The Case Against Satan is a stranger book than it first seems. It is, to an extent, the story of an exorcism–but as unsettling as the possibility of demonic activity in the narrative is, Russell’s telling also implicates bigotry and at least one patriarchal institution along the way. I talked with Laird Barron, who contributed a foreword to this new edition, about this novel and Russell’s literary legacy.
Where did you first encounter The Case Against Satan? Has your opinion on it shifted over time?
My preadolescent reading career was freewheeling…with the exception of books that dealt with the occult. Audrey Rose; Rosemary’s Baby; The Shining; The Exorcist; The Case Against Satan, etcetera, were present in our home, but kept under the hawk-eyed guard of my evangelical mother. She hated that such “tripe” existed, but surely loved to read it for educational purposes. Consequently, I sneaked a few peeks at these forbidden tomes (and was able to read The Shining, Audrey Rose, and The Exorcist cover to cover), but Russell’s was one that I didn’t fully explore until much more recently.
Russell’s descriptive style is bone-lean and his dialogue is terse. That has helped The Case Against Satan to weather the decades. The book is of a particular time and place, yet concerns itself with philosophical conundrums and mysteries that will persist long after we’re all pushing daisies.
Where would you say that this fits in to Russell’s larger body of work?
It’s a sleek novel that reads like a novella and I think it slots quite snugly with Russell’s short fiction. Russell’s work often turns the lens on questions of good and evil and shades of gray that delineate the borderlands. The power of suggestion, humankind’s capacity for self-delusion and cruelty, our abiding fascination with the occult…These are prevalent elements in his other works and occur with a vengeance in The Case Against Satan.
Do you see any influence that Russell’s fiction may have had on horror fiction in general?
Yes, and the “possession” genre profoundly so. Russell seems to have influenced Blatty in a big way. Possibly Levin. It’s a big old raveling ball of yarn after The Case Against Satan with the glut (by 20th century standards) of possession and occult novels and films. Today, young writers may suppose they pay homage to William Blatty or that other virtuoso of Gothic horror, Shirley Jackson, but in many ways it’s Russell lurking behind the tattered curtain.
In Russell’s “A Footnote,” he suggests that he may have been (literally) bedeviled by flies when writing a part of this novel. Do you think that this was a genuine statement of belief, or a detail to reward readers who stuck around?
One infamous sign reads: Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.
Anecdotes should be taken with a grain of salt, should be engraved above an author’s doorway. More seriously, the key to resolving that question circles back to one’s interpretation of the novel itself. Did Satan truly manifest within the girl, or was the evil of the banal, utterly mortal variety? Whatever case one makes for or against the supernatural as an inciting force in the novel might be applied to Mr. Russell’s comment.
Have you found that any aspects of this novel have had a specific influence on your own writing?
I’d established an ironclad identity prior to tackling Russell. Nonetheless, if an artist isn’t constantly swimming forward, he or she is dying in place. He reminds me that simplicity and an unvarnished style can be a match for baroque pleasures and a postmodern love affair with opacity.