The Good Demon author Jimmy Cajoleas joins us today to talk about some of his favorite horror novels other than the famed Exorcist.
If you’re looking to read something spooky this October (or any other month, really), but don’t know where to start, then you’re in luck! The Good Demon is about a girl named Clare who was forcibly exorcised and will now do anything to get her demon back.
In honor of his book, and the fact that Halloween is right around the corner, Cajoleas shares five of his favorite possession books.
5 horror novels that aren’t ‘The Exorcist’ — by Jimmy Cajoleas
No specter lingers larger over horror culture than William Peter Blatty’s masterpiece, The Exorcist. Much of this is due to its beloved film adaption, widely believed to be one of the greatest horror movies of all time, but the book is no slouch either. It really is that good –terrifying, strange, and genre-defining, it changed horror forever. I’d be willing to wager that most people’s conception of demonic possession is derived more from The Exorcist than any actual religious text. In writing my own demonic possession book, I knew it was a cultural force I would have to reckon with.
It also wasn’t my first introduction to demons. As a kid growing up in Mississippi, my mom used to tell me stories about her great uncle, a small-town preacher in Tennessee who had his own encounters with the demonic. These stories would become a lifelong spiritual fascination for me, eventually leading up to my new young adult novel, The Good Demon.
I also knew that, if I was going to say something original about possession, I would have to leave The Exorcist behind, to seek out what other brilliant, terrifying, and fascinating works lurked in its shadow. So here are five other books, both fiction and nonfiction, that deal in the realms of the demonic, with often surprising results. In each of these works, the demonic appears in vastly different forms — as a metaphor for war-time trauma, as the key to a hidden self, as the spiritual darkness creeping over 1980s America, as literal fallen angels come to steal, kill, and destroy. In no particular order, these are my favorite possession stories.
‘Come Closer’ by Sara Gran
Oh man, this book. It’s pretty much perfect. I can’t think of another book I’ve read in the last 10 years that scared me more. This is the book that convinced me you can write about demons and possession in strange and interesting ways, and it’s the first one I ever read that was centered on the possessed person’s experience over that of the exorcist. Come Closer follows a woman named Amanda as she begins making a series of baffling decisions without understanding why exactly she’s making them (and without clear memories of doing the things she does). As Amanda slowly loses control of her life, she begins to wonder if there is an outside force driving her into self-destruction, or if it’s only herself.
Gran’s book is as much about loneliness and isolation as it is about any supernatural happenings, and she expertly grounds the book so firmly in Amanda’s psyche that it becomes a work of deep sympathy and love. I don’t want to say too much about this book because I don’t want to give anything away, but if you like your horror quiet, spooky, and character-based, this book is meant for you. Come Closer stands as one of the great literary horror novels ever written.
‘My Best Friend’s Exorcism’ by Grady Hendrix
The rare exorcism book that will make you cry, My Best Friend’s Exorcism is both a truly scary tale and a loving tribute to high school friendship. I stumbled onto this book because its cover was absolutely perfect, and its VHS-like presentation sent me back to my childhood, wandering the horror aisle of the local video store, gazing up at all the mysterious and terrifying covers of movies I was too young to rent. I would sit there and imagine what they could be about, desperate for the day when I was old enough to take one home see for myself.
Hendrix’s nostalgia-loaded book carries that same feeling of illicit discovery, of the joy that comes with sneaking out at night and doing what you’re not supposed to with your best pals. It also chronicles the effects of trauma — spiritual and physical — and the myriad ways that best friends drift apart. A book that is every bit as big-hearted as it is terrifying, My Best Friend’s Exorcism was a joy all the way through. Also, bonus points for having the single best, most creative exorcism scene ever written.
‘Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism’ by Jen Percy
The only nonfiction book on this list (I learned enough about demons and possession from my youth group, as well as stories from my parents, to last a lifetime), Demon Camp tells the story of a Special Ops veteran named Caleb, freshly back from Afghanistan, who believes he has brought a demon with him back from war. The book follows Caleb to a minister in rural Georgia who is dedicated to “deliverance,” casting demons of “destruction” and “religion” and “whoredom” from the afflicted.
Percy is an astonishingly good writer, and she throws herself headlong into the story, physically and emotionally, even going so far as to have a deliverance herself. More than anything, this book nails the terror and wildness of living in a world crackling with spirits, where every action is the result of angels and demons at war, how a person can get addicted to that feeling, the rush and paranoia of seeing monsters in every shadow. It’s dangerous psychic territory — very close to my own upbringing — and Percy never condescends. A miraculous book.
‘The Bird’s Nest’ by Shirley Jackson
Okay, this is not technically an exorcism book. In fact, it’s a book about a woman named Elizabeth, who (spoiler!) we slowly come to understand is suffering from dissociative identity disorder. Her other personalities — Beth. Betsy, and Bess — take control at various moments in Elizabeth’s life, leaving her a prisoner in her own body. Though there are no actual demons in this book, Shirley Jackson writes it very much as a story of possession, with the psychiatrist Doctor Wright acting as the exorcist, trying to reign all of Elizabeth’s various selves into one functional personality. It’s also terrifically scary (the first emergence of Betsy!), though written with the gentleness and compassion that always lurks behind the viciousness of the best Shirley Jackson stories.
Look, you don’t need me to recommend Shirley Jackson to you, as she’s one of the greatest writers who ever lived (full stop, no qualifiers). Her writing can leap from funny to terrifying in one single perfect sentence, and no one ever wrote with greater heart and empathy about even the most unlikable of characters. All of Jackson’s books are essential, and The Bird’s Nest is no exception. Avoid at your own peril.
‘This Present Darkness’ by Frank E. Peretti
Let it be known from the start, I am not recommending this book. Sort of a Michael Bay version of The Screwtape Letters, Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness features a world of spiritual warfare where muscular angels with broadswords battle bat-winged demons for the sake of a small town’s soul. The book paints a universe suffused with the supernatural, demons lurking in arcades and on college campuses, whispering lies in the ears of weak adults and impressionable teens. A direct product of the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, to call Peretti’s book “problematic” — spiritually, socially, culturally — is an understatement. However, growing up in my Southern Charismatic Christian home, the book was treated like Gospel.
I first read This Present Darkness when I was nine years old, and to be honest, a lot of it stuck, in ways both positive and destructive. Its depiction of a small town infiltrated by a demonic conspiracy was an obvious inspiration for my own book, but the idea that every person apart from a small coterie of hardcore evangelicals is demon possessed (or at least demonically-motivated) is beyond destructive, not to mention paranoid. But we can’t help what forms us, and I have to give This Present Darkness its due. It remains to this day the most terrifying book I’ve ever read, though perhaps not for the same reasons it was when I was a kid.
More about ‘The Good Demon’
Those titles will certainly keep you busy for some time, but in case you’re looking for one more recommendation, why not check out Cajoleas’ The Good Demon? Read the synopsis:
It wasn’t technically an exorcism, what they did to Clare. When the reverend and his son ripped her demon from her, they called it a “deliverance.” But they didn’t understand that Clare and her demon — known simply as Her — were like sisters. She comforted Clare, made her feel brave, helped to ease her loneliness. They were each other’s Only.
Now, Clare’s only comforts are the three clues that She left behind:
Be nice to him
Remember the stories
Clare will do anything to get Her back, even if it means teaming up with the reverend’s son and scouring every inch of her small, Southern town for answers. But if she sacrifices everything to bring back her demon, what will be left of Clare?