TV Series – Father Thomas Ortega is an up-and-coming young priest in Chicago, rebuilding his long-neglected parish and working with the bishop and a local fundraising committee to organize the Pope’s visit to the Windy City. His neat professional trajectory is interrupted when Angela Rance, one of his parishioners, comes to him with a request: her daughter is possessed by a demon, and she wants him to do an exorcism. Rebuffed by the bishop, Ortega turns to Father Marcus Keane, a renowned exorcist who Ortega has never heard of — until the fellow priest appeared in his dreams. Meanwhile, Angela struggles to keep her family together as the demon’s power over her daughter grows more malevolent by the day.
I’m not usually a huge fan of religious horror, and I didn’t much care for the original Exorcist – I just don’t find it all that scary. But while the TV series has just as many jump scares and gross-outs as the movie, with a whole season it has time to do some more interesting things, too. The Rance family dynamics are fascinating, even before the demon shows up, and Father Thomas and Father Marcus are polar opposites in the classic tradition of buddy-cop dramas. There’s conspiracy and ominous foreshadowing; there’s tension over what it means to be a priest; there’s discussion of Gnostic heresies and the dangerous influences of Ouija boards. Most interesting, though, is the portrayal of demonic possession from the point of view of the girl being possessed, letting you see both the power it offers her and the subtle ways it makes her suffer. I really didn’t think you could make a feminist version of The Exorcist, but I think this show has pulled it off.
Movie – It’s Thanksgiving, and all the girls are going home from their rural boarding school — all the girls, that is, except for Rose, who wants a chance to talk to her boyfriend before meeting her parents, and Kat, whose parents are dead. Fenced in by snow and isolation, things begin to go slowly but inescapably wrong within the near-empty school. Meanwhile, Joan is hitching a ride in the direction of the school with a kindly married couple. If they have any idea what’s waiting for them at the school, they show no signs of it, but they won’t be pleased at what they find.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a slow-burn kind of horror movie, the kind where the eerie wrongness creeps up behind you so slowly you hardly know it’s there. If you’re in the market for thrills, look elsewhere, but if you want to become completely terrified of the thick blanket of snow that traps you indoors with whoever — and whatever — is inside with you, this movie directed by the son of Anthony Perkins, made famous by his role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, will be just your cup of tea.
Book – There’s a building in Brownsville, Texas, one of the poorest cities in the country, where something terrible happened. A lot of terrible things happen in Brownsville — right on the Mexican border, it’s a center for drug trafficking as well as immigration, both legal and not, and the usual urban crimes born of poverty and desperation — but this was bad enough that the whole building lies under its shadow.
This isn’t the usual kind of true crime book, and if you try to read it that way you’re going to be disappointed. The facts were never really in doubt. In the spring of 2003, John Allen Rubio, with the assistance of his common-law wife, horribly murdered his three children. The oldest girl was only three years old. Less than a day later, they both confessed to the police; Rubio believed the children were possessed. Or maybe, he admitted when questioned, it was the spray paint he’d been huffing.
But Tillman isn’t telling that story as much as she’s telling the story of the community in which that crime occurred. What did the neighbors think of John and Angela, both before and after the murders? What was it like, to be them, to live in their world? And if John truly, sincerely believed that the children were possessed when he killed them, does that make him not guilty by reason of insanity? What if he had schizophrenia? What if he had brain damage from long-term drug use, or a low IQ from his mother’s long-term drug use? If the state of Texas executes him for his crime, what does that say about us, and the world we live in? And can the community ever come to terms with what happened? Tillman doesn’t offer answers to these questions, but she asks them with care, and I think they’re important ones.
Book – I swear, Daryl Gregory writes some of the most interesting, original premises I’ve ever seen. In this, his first novel, it’s possession by entities that everybody calls demons, but are clearly cultural archetypes – the Captain is Captain America, the Truth is a Dick Tracy/noir pulp hero, the Hellion is Katzenjammer Kids meets Dennis the Menace, and the Little Angel is Shirley Temple meets the World War I “Angel of the Battlefield.” And everyone in the book is smart enough to know that; I appreciate that in a story.
There’s a wonderful cast of characters in Pandemonium, from Del himself to his older brother Lew, their mother (whom they call the Cyclops since she’s missing one eye), the Irish exorcist Mother Mariette, and the entity formerly known as the author Philip K. Dick. They’re all struggling to understand this thing that’s been destroying peoples’ lives for the past fifty-odd years, but they’re all also so wrapped up in their own damages and perceptions that it’s clearly going to take them a while.
One of my favorite parts of the book were the Demonology inserts, short chapters describing possession incidents by various demons. These bits did a wonderful job fleshing out the universe of the book as well as letting you meet some demons who weren’t tremendously important to the main narrative. They also led me, subtly but ingeniously, to the climax of the book, which struck just the right balance between explaining enough to make it satisfying and not explaining so much that it seemed like all the fun was being explained away.