Review of William Peter Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration

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Review Written by: Jonathan E.

Written by: William Peter Blatty

Published by:Tor Books

 

For those of you unfamiliar with or distanced enough to forget this particular scene in the groundbreaking 1973 horror film The Exorcist, the “up there” to which Regan is referring is the moon.  It seems that astronaut Billy Cutshaw’s sole purpose in the film is to provide a possessed Regan with simply another victim to harass, and through the film’s point of view, little to nothing is thought of him afterwards.  Incredibly minor characters with incredibly strange or horrific experiences show up all the time in film and literature—particularly of the horror/suspense variety—yet because we, the audience, are so concerned with the endeavors and emotions of the main characters, we don’t exactly have the time or disposition to properly empathize with characters who experience such moments.  In Cutshaw’s case, consider what would possibly happen to the psyche of man preparing for a notoriously dangerous mission when a little girl at an innocent cocktail party looks him dead in the eye, warns him that he is going to die on said mission, and then urinates on the carpet in front of everybody.

This question isn’t directly explored in William Peter Blatty’s subsequent novel The Ninth Configuration, in which Captain Billy Cutshaw serves a primary role as a patient in a military mental hospital; however, readers of both novels (or viewers of the films) are certainly encouraged to draw their own conclusions.  Neither Regan nor any of the events in The Exorcist are mentioned in The Ninth Configuration, but prominent themes of struggling with or doubting God’s existence and coming to terms with metaphysical, existential, and psychological human conditions are central to both stories. The Ninth Configuration, however, should not be seen as a sequel or a spinoff, rather as its own original story that exists separate from its predecessor but within the same literary universe (the way Quentin Tarantino films seem to share one universe).

The protagonist in The Ninth Configuration is Colonel Hudson Kane, a psychiatrist sent by the Pentagon to Center Eighteen, a Gothic mansion deep in the woods serving as a mental hospital for Marines, to determine whether its 27 patients actually are sick or simply feigning sickness to avoid military service.  If this story sounds a little Catch 22, which was published seventeen years prior, that’s because it is; however, Blatty’s novel serves more as a contemplation on the metaphysical than as a concern for the satirical elements present in Joseph Heller’s novel. Kane himself, put in the precarious position of determining the psychological conditions of the 27 inmates, struggles with similar questions of faith and ultimately, his own demons (metaphorically speaking, as opposed those found in The Exorcist). He asks another character (and essentially himself), “If we could scrub away the blood, do you think we could find where we’ve hidden our souls?”

Despite the novel’s modest size, Blatty, of meticulous craftsmanship, is able to pack quite a lot into its 172 pages.  The mystery is absorbing, if not a little predictable at times given the amount of films and novels written about similar situations, and the characters are round and sympathetic. Although the relationship between Kane and Cutshaw carries the novel, characters like Reno, who runs an in-house Shakespearean theater for dogs, and Major Groper, the center adjutant who ironically struggles with his own concept of power in such a twisted setting, paint the story with a more humanized hue.

Blatty certainly wants to unsettle the reader at times and make the reader laugh at times, but it seems that his ultimate intent is to leave the reader in a state of reflection on the themes and discussions espoused in the novel. It isn’t preachy, but the many of the conversations feel as if they are part of a Socratic Dialogue. For example, Kane, at one point in the novel, considers the paradox:

Yet why should Nature implant in everyone a desire for something unattainable? I can think of no more than two answers: either Nature is consistently mad and perverse; or after this life there’s another, a life where this universal desire for perfect happiness can be fulfilled.

Many novels fall victim to such dialogue working in detriment to the plot itself, but Blatty makes it clear that the plot in this novel relies on this kind of contemplation and thus never once feels contrived. The Ninth Configuration doesn’t necessitate but might deserve a second read even, especially considering many could finish it in one or two sittings.   And if all of this is totally lost on the reader (which I highly doubt could ever be the case), he or she can at least take solace in knowing that the innocuous astronaut at Mrs. MacNeil’s cocktail party is a person with fears, hopes, and dreams as well.

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