Maybe it’s just me, but there’s nothing like a “Based on a true story” message at the start of a movie that drives a horror fan to Wikipedia afterwards. I’m guessing that I can’t be the only one who came to this book after watching James Wan’s The Conjuring, and the truth is that I picked up the book to be entertained — more specifically, to be scared. (Ed Warren may argue that this makes me a more inviting candidate for demon visitation, or a more innocent spirit manifestation, but at least I have better weapons now.) The Demonologist is touted as a reference book for exorcists-in-training, and you can’t get more authoritative than that — provided, of course, you give credence to the preternatural in the first place.
So is it scary? Oh, it is — but only if you’re a believer. And by “believer” I don’t necessarily mean a devout and practicing Catholic like Ed Warren, I mean anyone who concedes even the slight possibility of people lingering on — whether as spirits or as mere energy — after death. If you believe this, then from there it’s a slippery slope — at least if you allow yourself to be seduced by the Warrens’ lucid explanation — to accepting the existence of malevolent entities. But it sure helps if you’re a Catholic, and I guarantee you, you’ll be good and scared.
As a book though — and not just in terms of the stories being told — The Demonologist is a mixed bag. The chapters are divided somewhat arbitrarily, sometimes by case, sometimes by theme, and it’s confusing. Structurally, it’s repetitive, as the same practical advice gets duplicated towards the end. Stylistically, The Demonologist is a bit of a mess, as it’s written as a series of interview transcripts by Gerald Brittle, who isn’t the most critical raconteur. Some of the cases would have been more effective in the telling had they been fully narrated in the first person by Ed Warren. (Note that Lorraine Warren, clairvoyant and Ed’s wife, is as much a part of the interviews, but there’s only one demonologist in the title.)
At certain points one wishes Brittle — and indeed, there’s not much of him in the book, which is why The Demonologist reads more like dictation — would interject with questions of his own. Ed Warren would interpret, with seeming authority, a demon’s utterances — and then turn around a page later and remind the interviewer that “demons are master liars” and that nothing they say — ostensibly the basis for Warren’s pronouncements — should be trusted. Or Warren would expound at length on the demonic realm, for instance, then glibly provide the caveat “I’m a practicing demonologist, not a theologian.”
What makes The Demonologist particularly interesting is how it stands as a kind of template / blueprint for just about every haunted house / demon possession cultural artifact in the past few decades — far more so, I would argue, than William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. (I mentioned something similar in my blog entry on The Conjuring; it’s no different from previous movies, but that’s because of the source material.) Every film staple you’ve seen — doorknobs that won’t turn, people that levitate, furniture that moves, mysterious knocks on the walls, footsteps in the middle of the night — they’re all enumerated here as evidence of an “inhuman presence.” Even waking up the same time in the middle of the night (I felt the proverbial shiver down my spine just now, re-reading the passage below):
Most notably, the individual in an infested environment will have an unshakeable feeling of another presence in the house. This sense of presence will develop to a point where the individual… may begin waking up at fixed times of the night, or at precisely three o’clock in the morning.
And yes, I woke up at three in the morning for two successive nights after reading this book.