Thursday, February 20, 2020

"Exorcism" (1972) by Eth Natas...or was it Stephen King?

Exorcism (1972), Lexington House
I decided that 2020 would finally be the year that I make a concerted effort to reduce the 'unread' pile of vintage horror paperbacks that I've collected over the years. Granted, I have been reading a book here and there, but I add more to the pile than I take away. These are primarily thrift store finds that I couldn't pass up, based on cover art or back cover blurbs, and it's only after I get them home that I research the book and author--many of whom are new to me. Case in point: Eth Natas. This is a pseudonym--an anagram for "The Satan," no less--and as it turns out, some circles believe this book was in fact written by Stephen King.

Note: there are many spoilers ahead for Exorcism, but since few will likely get the chance to read it--the book is pretty scarce, and online copies range anywhere from $20 to $100 (making my $2 find a bargain!)--you may as well read on.

The fake Richard Bachman
First I should address the elephant in the room. Did Stephen King in fact write this book? Back in the mid-1980s, when King finally admitted that some of his work had been published as "Richard Bachman" (after repeatedly denying it), the push was on to uncover other pseudonyms that the prolific horror author may have used. That's when Exorcism (1972), by Eth Natas, first came to light. In his book Stephen King as Richard Bachman (1985), Michael R. Collings suggested that King admitted to a group of friends that he had written Exorcism one night during a drunken stupor as a means to cash in on the success of William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist (1971). This also helped pay the bills; by this point King had written a handful of novels that had gone unpublished, and it was still a couple of years before the success of Carrie (1974) sent him into the stratosphere. King has always denied publicly that this is his work, so the jury is still out. Myself, I have a hard time believing that Exorcism is a work by Stephen King--even an inebriated Stephen King--although to be fair it does read as though the author, whoever they may have been, was under the influence of something when they put pen to paper. The story is God-awful, and if Stephen King was responsible, there's good reason for him to deny it.

My first edition copy has a plain black cover with the title in yellow, and features this enticing blurb: "Rosemary's Baby opened the door to the occult. You are now invited to witness: Exorcism." Strange indeed, considering this book has little to do with Rosemary's Baby, aside from an element of witchcraft and a hint of satanism. It's a far more blatant rip-off of The Exorcist. Exorcism follows the same basic plot, although with way less detail because you can only cram so many words into a 190-page story printed in large type! Written in first person, this sordid tale opens with Bentley Morton, a middle-aged estate lawyer in New York, who hints that this "journal" details his niece's intrusion into what had been a well-ordered life--telling us that "if you find yourself reading this chronology, I assure you I am quite, quite dead." [On a side note, Stephen King had a character with the surname Morton in Carrie, while characters named Ben appear in 'Salem's Lot and It, among others--okay maybe I'm looking for connections where truly there are none...]

Morton's niece, Melanie, has just arrived to live with him after being orphaned; her parents were recently killed in a freak accident in the Peruvian Andes. The last time he had seen her was over three years ago, since their families lived on opposite coasts. Therefore the young woman he sees before him is a bit of a surprise, or as he puts it:

"A little girl stood there trying to smile at me, and all I could think of was to hold out my arms. While we were silently hugging each other I realized she was not quite so little, and several passers-by gave me knowing smiles...she had become quite a little lady indeed...very attractively assembled."

Morton's inappropriate comments about his niece, who is sixteen years his junior, get creepier as the story unfolds, such as when they are out sailing. He inadvertently brushes her rear end, noting its "firmness," and as she rests her head in the crook of his arm, wearing a skimpy bikini with her face just inches away from his, he can't help but notice her "young breasts" and after a few moments he's completely transformed "from a state approaching relaxation to one arousing all of my senses." Gross! And it gets worse, believe me.

Alternate cover of the 1972 edition
Then we're introduced to Morton's (age-appropriate) fiancée Kay, whom he seems to love deeply although she's really just a plot device. One night, while they're making love, he spies Mel secretly watching them, her face contorted in rage (clearly this won't bode well for Kay). This discovery leads to one of Morton's most hilarious lines in the book: "My insides froze; my movements ceased abruptly; my penis quickly withered." Prior to that it was a pretty good erotic scene, although the mood was somewhat lessened by the use of the word "phallus."

As Mel's condition deteriorates, she unceremoniously murders Kay so that she can have Morton all to herself. By this point she is full-on possessed by the spirit of a young girl named Lotte, who had been murdered by her father in Morton's house some forty years earlier, after she herself had killed his girlfriend (there's a hint of inappropriate relationships in that household, as well). For Kay, it's too bad, so sad. Rather than turn over his niece to the authorities so that she can get the help she truly needs, Morton immediately covers up the murder as best as possible, and thinks of ways he can keep Mel safe (including thoughts of running away with her to South America). To him, it seems, blood is thicker than water.

Yet Morton is still on the fence with how to best deal with the situation, and confides in his elderly neighbour, Colonel Sinclair--who actually first discovered Kay had been murdered. Strangely enough, Sinclair agrees that Mel should remain hidden until they can figure out what's really going on. A very odd reaction, but there's a good reason why. Turns out he is secretly a Warlock (I kid you not), and believes something otherworldly is going on. He had once been part of a coven in England before being ousted for his beliefs and relocating to the United States. Thankfully he's a student of the occult and an expert in all things demonic. In fact, he will be Mel's litmus test; if she truly is possessed by an evil spirit, she will have an adverse reaction to his presence because he is a witch (naturally). Later, once an exorcism looks like the only option, he offers to perform it himself although he's never done it before (but has been a witness to one). He suggests doing the ritual at his house, but needs some time to prepare. This leads to some filler scenes where Morton goes on a quest to uncover who might be possessing his niece--which surprisingly doesn't take that long and was a relatively simple process.

By this point in the story, I guess the author thought it needed a bit more spicing up. A first attempt sees Morton having a nightmare in which he's sitting in a clearing and tied to a stake, with a roaring fire nearby. Mel is also there, begging for help, but the more he struggles, the more the ropes tighten. Surrounding them is a circle of men and women, all naked save for black hoods, and they're chanting something imperceptible. Then one of the men breaks from the pack and heads toward him--and he clearly has something naughty in mind! My words won't do this scene justice, so here it is verbatim from the book:

"As he came closer I looked down and saw his penis hardening. I couldn't remove my eyes from it. When he was directly in front of me it was fully erect, swaying before me. Slowly, very slowly, he raised one arm and brought it down on my shoulder...I screamed..."

This "horrific threat" of gay sex (oh myyyy!) was subsequently followed by a scene that pushed the envelope a little further. Morton no longer finds himself able to address his niece by her real name, and now refers to her as Lotte--and she, speaking in a childlike voice, now constantly calls him "Daddy" (yikes). Perhaps this disassociation of Mel makes things easier for him because yes, they do end up consummating their relationship (I warned you it got creepier!). This unfortunate coupling happens after he inadvertently takes LSD; in fact, this was the gateway drug for Mel's possession in the first place. So say no to drugs, kids, because this might happen to you!

Manor Books edition (1974)
By now things are looking pretty dire for our hero, so it's time for Colonel Deus ex Machina to get going on that exorcism he promised. However, he's clearly in over his head; in the same breath he tells Morton that whomever performs the ritual often sees a violent end, but then says that he shouldn't worry because in most cases there's no ill effect whatsoever--to anyone involved! (So you know this will end poorly...)

They drug the girl, then tie her up at Sinclair's house. Before the ritual begins, Morton hides in an adjoining room that has a one-way mirror which allows him to see, but not hear, what's going on. The exorcism should be the most exciting scene in this story, but the writer got lazy (or should I say, lazier). Instead of putting readers front and centre with the action, we're stuck inside the other room with Morton. Since he cannot hear anything, all he does is give a boring play-by-play of visually what's happening.

Mel/Lotte ultimately wins that battle and forces Sinclair to commit suicide, after which Morton--somehow managing to avoid her evil influence--shoots her in the head. Then he burns Sinclair's house to the ground, with both bodies inside. I guess that's fitting, story-wise, because Lotte had been burned alive..? Anyway, Morton returns home then spends a few days feverishly writing of these horrific events; there's no further mention of his fiancée's murder, nor the presumed investigation into the fire. By this point I didn't care, because I was elated by the fact that I had finally finished this dreck. By the way, Morton kills himself at the end. Good riddance, I say!

I had mentioned that much of this story seems like a rip-off of The Excorcist. Here are a few examples:

  • Both Regan and Mel are young females who become possessed in a home that is not their own
  • Initially their guardians believe the problem is the result of losing a parent
  • As their conditions worsen, strange, supernatural events begin to happen inside the house
  • Both undergo horrific changes, physically and mentally
  • After doctors find no clues as to why this is happening, their guardians seek help from a more esoteric source, who has been involved in, or witnessed, an exorcism in Africa
  • This expert ultimately dies during the exorcism, leaving someone else to finish the job--who then ends up dead, as well
I'm sure there are many more examples, however I have already spent far more time on this review than the book actually deserves. Mr. King, if you indeed wrote this sleazy train wreck, I completely understand why you chose to hide it.

P.S. I'm keeping my copy just in case you do admit to writing it someday... ;-) 


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