Fear of William Friedkin’s 1973 film, The Exorcist, is a rite of passage for Catholics in New Jersey. Children and grandchildren of immigrants, their childhoods are suffused with the supernatural. Crucifixes, not plain crosses, hang above doorframes. Catholic school closings brought those children to public schools, where the vocal faith of their Protestant classmates seems foreign. Catholics are an idiosyncratic bunch. We allow our theologies to splinter, moving in the directions of our personal desires and demons. In one of the strangest states in the union, a place where webbed highways connect farms to coasts to wrecked cities, Catholic children sneak glances at the film, worried that it might come true.
The novelist and critic William Giraldi’s hometown of Manville is largely indistinguishable from my own roots in Hanover Township. We are separated by a half-hour drive on clogged Route 287. Our shared upbringing made me surprised to read that although his mother saw The Exorcist while pregnant with him, Giraldi did not watch the film until more than 30 years later. He admits that he might have avoided the film since he was a “child of Roman Catholicism, weaned on drama, ritual, hocus-pocus, and flesh-fetishism that for eons have made Catholicism an attractive option for those who crave pageantry.” The Exorcist did not scare him. He lived through the Satanic Panic of the ’80s, which showed that evil was “more terrifyingly, the work of average psychopaths,” not the devil.
Giraldi skewers the film in this essay, although his criticisms are delivered with the smirk of someone who is trying to convince himself there is nothing to fear. He thinks The Strangers (2008) is a far more effective work of terror, since there is the “very real possibility that this can happen to you: no incubi or other paranormal nonsense.” He quotes from James Baldwin’s masterful 1976 book-length essay, The Devil Finds Work, noting Baldwin’s rebuke of The Exorcist’s central premise:
I have seen the devil, by day and by night, and have seen him in you and in me: in the eyes of the cop and the sheriff…in the eyes of some preachers, the eyes of some governors, presidents, wardens…and in the eyes of my father, and in my mirror…[The devil] does not levitate beds, or fool around with little girls: we do.
Giraldi channels Baldwin when he writes that the “psyche needs Satan, his minions, his habitat; we need those metaphors to illustrate the horrors deep within us, the awfulness of being human.”
I enjoyed Giraldi’s essay, even if I disagree with him here; ontologically, his assertion doesn’t mean Satan couldn’t also exist. Many of our most forceful metaphors have real figures. But what has always scared me most about The Exorcist is not merely possession and helplessness, but that this drama, however hyperbolic, occurs within a home. It is a film of hallways and bedrooms. In one infamous scene, actress Chris McNeil has a house party attended by the director of her current film, Burke Dennings, as well as several members of the Georgetown community. Chris’s young daughter, Regan, comes downstairs, and tells a guest — an astronaut — “you’re gonna die up there.” She then urinates on the carpet. But immediately before that scene, Burke, drunk and belligerent, gets in an argument with the McNeil butler, Karl. Burke calls Karl a Nazi. Karl chokes Burke before they are broken apart. Burke laughs, claps his hands, and asks what is being served for dessert. This tightly shot, shadowed moment is lost among the more gory and obscene sequences, but it struck a chord with me. What Giraldi found wanting in The Exorcist was real life terror. I found evil right there, in the kitchen.
It is important to understand these cultural and religious tensions to appreciate Giraldi’s fictional approach, which began with the satirical Busy Monsters (2011), but reaches a new level in his second novel, Hold the Dark. Giraldi’s critical treatment of The Exorcist echoes a line from his first novel: “A lapsed Catholic is the most devout Catholic of all.” Critic D.G. Myers correctly places Giraldi in the same breath as Christopher Beha. Beha’s first novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder (2012), was concerned with questions of faith, although at the time Beha identified as a lapsed Catholic, both in essays and interviews (Beha told Terry Gross “I’m someone who was raised Catholic and was indeed a believing Catholic, not just a cultural Catholic by upbringing, who then lost his faith. And in lots of ways, faith became much more interesting to me once I didn’t have it.”).
With the recent release of Beha’s second novel, Arts & Entertainments, he now identifies as a rare practicing Catholic writer of literary fiction. While talking about how his new novel might be seen as a satirical counter to the “very narrow version of scientific materialism” present in celebrity and reality television culture, Beha sounds like an eloquent apologist: “If you believe that God has endowed each of us with a soul and placed us here for some reason other than our own gratification, it becomes more difficult to treat the rest of the world as bit players in your own personal drama.” As for literature:
The publishing industry in this city tends to view the introduction of religion into contemporary realist novels as a willful act that must have some strong rhetorical justification. From where I stand, the exclusion of religion is the willful act. Novelists never get asked why they don’t include religion in their books, or why the religion they do include — often just a species of madness — bears so little resemblance to religion as it is practiced by the majority of Americans. If they were asked, I suspect, most of these writers would not have a very good answer. It simply doesn’t occur to them. Whatever one’s beliefs, this seems like a basic failure of verisimilitude. Reality includes religion; realism should, too.
Beha’s evolution as a Catholic doesn’t surprise me. Catholicism is as much a culture as it is a religion. It is indelible. A tattoo. One of the difficulties of writing about a Catholic writer’s religious practice is that practice might depend on the day of the week, the location of the moon. Although he no longer professes the faith, Giraldi is, through and through, a Catholic writer. Beha is interested in representing how Catholicism affects contemporary reality. Giraldi depicts a soulless, surreal world, where evil is overwhelming. Their foundations are the same. Their performances differ.
Giraldi opens Hold the Dark with an epigraph from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s long poem, “The Wreck of the Deutschland”: “O unteachably after evil, but uttering truth.” Giraldi read Hopkins as “penance and purification. Penance because every former Catholic feels the guilt pangs of apostasy.” In an essay on the Jesuit poet, he references the “molars of melancholy” and the “tarred abyss” of Hopkins’s life, and channels the poet Geoffrey Hill when summarizing Hopkins’s passion: “Last days and last things are always looming. The time for astonishment is short. Stretch for austerity made sublime. Cry the miracles of God.”
The tension that occurs when an unbeliever so effectively uses the language of belief makes Hold the Dark a charged work. The novel begins with an ominous note: “The wolves came down from the hills and took the children of Keelut.” The children are taken without “a scream, not a howl to give witness.” One of the children kidnapped from this isolated Alaska town is the six-year-old son of Medora Slone, who responded by “trek[ing] over the hills and the across the vale all that evening and night and into the blush of dawn with the rifle across her back and a ten-inch knife strapped to her thigh. The revenge she wanted tasted metallic.”
All this happens on the first page, and Giraldi doesn’t let up. His pace creates a claustrophobic atmosphere. Medora writes Russell Core, a wolf expert, to “Come and kill [the wolf] to help me.” Her husband Vernon is fighting his own battle in a desert war, where a soldier knives out the “eyes and tongues of the dead — these would be his keepsake.”
Core’s arrival as an outsider to Keelut gives Giraldi an opportunity to describe setting without sounding contrived. Medora’s cabin is sketched in pared sentences, as is the town:
Adjacent to some cabins were plywood kennels for sled dogs. Unlabeled fifty-five-gallon drums, rust-colored, most with tops torched off. Shovels and chain saws and snow machines. Coleman lanterns dented and broken. Gas-powered auger to drill lake ice. Blue tarp bunged around a truck’s engine on sawhorses. Vehicles mugged by snow and stranded. The church an unpainted A-frame beside the schoolhouse. And all around, those hills with howls hidden within.
Readers of Cormac McCarthy will find precedent, but not mirror, in the careful description of Blood Meridian. Giraldi creates a rhythm with these descriptions. The repetition is like stakes in this Alaskan ground, a tangible contrast to the moments when his prose becomes more lyric, as when Russell longingly looks at Medora: “The firelight had died and the blue-white night was unnaturally intense around her. He saw the folds of her waist, the weighted breasts falling to either side of her rib cage, the cup of flesh at her elbow. He lay unmoving in a kind of fear looking at her over his cosseted body, his breath stifled lest she hear him watching, lest he disrupt this midnight vigil.” In a world where children disappear into the dark, even the remaining adults seem like ghosts.
Giraldi’s concrete topography contrasts with the aphoristic pronouncements of his characters. Medora assures Russell that “The wildness here is inside us …Inside everything.” Keelut is unique. “There’s something off,” Medora says, “something wrong with the sky here.” Although Russell is pragmatic, assuring Medora that the wolves are “nothing more” than “hungry animals,” either this place or her presence begins to inhabit his psyche. Unable to find her missing son, he returns to her cabin, where he notices a door that leads to an unfinished root cellar. There he discovers her son’s frozen body.
The revelation upends the plot at the right moment. Vernon, injured, returns home from war, and Medora disappears, the target of a manhunt. Vernon is silent when asked about his wife, although later he does more than simply not cooperate with the police. He wants to find her on his own terms. Giraldi’s plot is tight, and best experienced in the actual paragraphs, not summarized here. This is one of the few novels that earns the title of literary thriller, so the thrills should remain in the actual book.
Between the many bullets and arrows, Giraldi is also building an examination of evil. This is a new Catholic fiction, one forged in the smithies of writers who reject belief but retain reverence for religious language. His work recalls McCarthy, a fellow lapsed Catholic, in more than mere prosody. Bryan Giemza notes that McCarthy’s “literally liturgical” prose shows his “fascination with the mystery of evil,” a description that could also be applied to Giraldi. His characters speak with real fear. One of the investigators worries “there are forces in this world you cannot digest or ever hope to have hints of.” The narrow slice of Alaska in Hold the Dark is a place of ritual and prophecy, where violence is the only future in sight. Myers calls it “an archive of bloodshed,” and wonders if “Christ’s blood was ‘shed profusely in the scourging’ and ‘poured out on the cross’ (to quote the Church’s litany of the precious blood), why should anyone be surprised at the bloodbaths men create in order to seek out, again and again, the salvific torture of the flesh?” It’s a smart reading of a book that can handle such theological inquiry without demanding it. Giraldi’s endgame, in his fiction and his criticism, appears to be searching for transcendence in a world plagued with evil. Hold the Dark will be tough to stomach for many. It is a violent, dark novel, written by a man who thinks “knowledge and art are survival,” someone who still considers sin real.
Giraldi’s previously mentioned epigraph comes from a poem about the 1875 shipwreck of the SS Deutschland, in which five Franciscan nuns were among the dead. Hopkins’s poem is an elegy for those women, a prayer that they have gained redemption. Giraldi has discarded that theological framework, but remains artistically formed by those stories, and that formation gives power to his pages.