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Ray Russell's Incubus: A Lost Gem from America's Twentieth Decade

· 15 min read
Ray Russell's Incubus: A Lost Gem from America's Twentieth Decade
John Cassavetes in John Hough's 1982 adaptation of Ray Russell's novel Incubus.

Hard as it might be to believe, the years that stretched from roughly 1967 through the bicentennial year of 1976 brought even more foment, outrage, unrest, and upheaval to America than the most recent decade has managed. The escalation of the Vietnam War, the student protests against that war, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., psychedelia and the sexual revolution, Woodstock, the political resurrection of Richard Nixon, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the moon landings, the Manson murders, second-wave feminism, the Pentagon Papers, the shootings at Kent State, Watergate, the fall of Nixon, the rise of the summer blockbuster film—it was an era of almost unprecedented social and cultural turmoil.

Perhaps that explains why so many remain fascinated by that era today. All sorts of recent cultural properties have revisited it: the 2020 Amazon Prime TV series Hunters (set in 1970s New York City and starring 1970s icon Al Pacino), How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (the recent HBO documentary about the Bee Gees), Emma Cline’s 2016 novel The Girls (set in 1969 and inspired by the lives of some of Charles Manson’s female followers), Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (which re-imagines the Manson killings), Elvis & Nixon (a 2016 film by Liza Johnson), I Am Not Your Negro (a 2016 documentary by Raoul Peck, based on material written by James Baldwin in the mid-1970s), Seberg (a 2019 biopic of the actress Jean Seberg directed by Benedict Andrews), Aaron Sorkin’s recent feature film The Trial of the Chicago 7—even The Queen’s Gambit, the immensely popular Netflix miniseries about a female chess prodigy, takes place in part during the late-1960s.

While a lot of contemporary writers and directors are creating stories that attempt to capture the zeitgeist of America’s 20th decade, one largely forgotten book, published 45 years ago, did a pretty good job of sampling and synthesizing many of the era’s pop-cultural trends. Incubus, a 1976 horror novel by Ray Russell, reads as though the author were attempting to combine the essence of every bestselling book and blockbuster film of the era into a single intellectual property. The cover of my old paperback copy explicitly references both The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. Like The Exorcist, published five years earlier, Incubus deals with an ancient evil from Catholic theology that rears its ugly head in modern-day (1970s) America. And like Rosemary’s Baby, published nine years earlier, it deals with women being raped by a demonic force. (The 1982 film adaptation of Russell’s novel would star John Cassavetes, who had already appeared in Roman Polanski’s 1968 adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby.)

Curiously, while the novel evokes both The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, it reminds me even more of Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws, which was published in 1974 and became Steven Spielberg’s breakthrough film the following year. The action in Incubus unfolds in a small (fictional) coastal California town called Galen. Jaws takes place on a small (fictional) island off the coast of Long Island, New York, called Amity. Spielberg’s movie was filmed on an island (Martha’s Vineyard) off the coast of Massachusetts, while the town of Galen, CA, is described by Russell as “the most New Englandish town you’ve ever seen outside of New England. It’s something about the way the piers look, and the fishermen with their nets… They say some of the movie companies have made films there, stories with New England settings, and the audiences were none the wiser.”

Benchley’s novel opens with Chrissie and Tom having sex on a beach, after which Chrissie runs naked into the sea only to be killed by a mysterious monster (which turns out to be a great white shark). The opening scene of Incubus begins with Melanie and Tim enjoying a naked midnight swim before Melanie is attacked and raped by a terrestrial monster (later revealed to be a demon with an enormous phallus known as an incubus). She survives but later dies in the hospital without disclosing what assaulted her. From here on out, Incubus follows the Jaws story arc as townspeople are attacked and killed by an unseen force the authorities are powerless to stop. A mysterious stranger from out of town arrives to offer arcane knowledge of this ancient enemy, and eventually the monster is defeated but one of our primary characters loses his life in the process. This isn’t to say that Russell plagiarized Benchley. He emphatically did not. In fact, Jaws tells much the same story as the 1957 film The Monster That Challenged the World (to name just one example). What’s more, Jaws is just one of many cultural properties Russell plundered.

A sub-genre of exploitation cinema known as the women-in-prison film (or WiP) was enjoying one of its occasional renaissances at the time that Russell wrote Incubus. That renaissance began in 1969 with the release of two iconic WiP films, Jesus Franco’s 99 Women and Lee Frost’s Love Camp 7. Other films quickly followed, including Gerardo de Leon’s Women in Cages (1971, featuring Pam Grier, and a favorite of Quentin Tarantino), Jack Hill’s The Big Bird Cage (1972, starring Pam Grier), Joe Viola’s The Hot Box (1972, co-written and produced by Jonathan Demme for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures), and Caged Heat (1974—Jonathan Demme’s first directorial effort, also for Corman, and starring one of my favorite actresses, Cheryl Smith). Doubtless mindful of this fad, Russell has the authorities in Galen, CA, seclude the town’s female citizens in an unused college dormitory building for their own protection. They lock the women in away from the incubus, bar the doors and windows, and station guards around the building. It’s a classic WiP set-up down to the mandatory lesbian shower scene.

Ray Russell’s opus combined not only elements of popular films and novels but also elements of popular nonfiction as well. In 1974 and 1975, around the same time Peter Benchley’s Jaws dominated the New York Times fiction bestseller list, TV newsman Edwin Newman’s book Strictly Speaking, a plea for better English usage, spent 26 weeks on the Times nonfiction bestseller list. Though largely forgotten now, Newman’s language guide was a huge hit, in part because he was a TV celebrity and therefore able to promote his book on various talk shows (it was the first usage guide I ever purchased for myself, and it remains a favorite, as does Newman’s follow-up, A Civil Tongue). Samuel “Doc” Jenkins, the town physician in Galen, CA, and one of the main characters in Incubus, seems to have been patterned after Newman. He is described as being “in his mid-50s now, tall, gangling, with bristly iron-gray hair and a perpetually ironic expression.” At the time of Strictly Speaking’s publication, Edwin Newman was 55, stood six-feet-one-inch-tall, had short iron-gray hair (at least it looked iron-gray on our black-and-white TV set), and was famous for his perpetually ironic expression.

Doc Jenkins contributes a column to the Galen Signal, the local newspaper, in which he mostly comments on the English language, its use and misuse. Russell gives the reader a long example of Doc’s writing—an essay poking fun of the recently adopted honorific “Ms.” Feminists had been trying to introduce it into the mainstream for decades but it didn’t become widespread until the advent of Gloria Steinem’s magazine Ms., which debuted in January 1972. Doc also complains several times about the use of the word “normalcy” instead of “normality” and blames (falsely according to many linguists, who claim the word appeared in dictionaries as early as the 1850s) former US President Warren G. Harding for coining the word in his 1920 presidential campaign slogan “Return to Normalcy” (which might well have served as Joe Biden’s slogan a hundred years later).

All sorts of other American pop-cultural artifacts are hinted at. One of the characters is named Mary Lou Grant, which seems to be an amusing reference to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, whose main character, Mary, worked for a crotchety old newsman (somewhat like Edwin Newman) named Lou Grant. The show ran from 1970 to 1977 and was a huge hit at the time of Incubus’s publication. A spin-off, called Lou Grant, ran from 1977 to 1982 (the only time in TV history that a one-hour drama series was spun off of a half-hour sitcom). Incubus also seems to have been influenced by the immensely popular 1972 ABC TV movie The Night Stalker, about a vampire terrorizing Las Vegas, and its 1973 sequel, The Night Strangler, about a killer preying on exotic dancers in Seattle. The first of these became the most-watched made-for-TV-movie in history when it was first aired. It was so popular, in fact, that it was released in cinemas overseas. The sequel was nearly as popular. Incubus riffs on some of the major elements of these two films: an ancient mythological evil unleashed in a contemporary American setting, sexually desirable female victims horribly murdered, newspaper reporters playing prominent roles in the story, ineffective cops, and so on.

The book’s portrait of teenage life and lust in small town America seems to echo both Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 film The Last Picture Show and George Lucas’s 1973 film American GraffitiPlay It Again, Sam, a 1972 film written by Woody Allen, may also have been an influence (one of the teenage characters in Incubus is a Humphrey Bogart fan). The most important character in Thomas Tryon’s 1974 novel Harvest Home, meanwhile, is the Widow Fortune, the oldest citizen and matriarch of a spooky New England community who may have influenced Russell’s character of Agatha Galen. She too is the town’s oldest citizen, a descendent of the town’s founder, and lives with her nephew, Tim, in a big creepy mansion. To be sure, the book also draws influences from products of earlier eras, such as John Huston’s 1941 film The Maltese Falcon and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel The House of the Seven Gables. But for the most part, Russell seems to be trying, Frankenstein-like, to cobble together a pop-cultural landmark from bits and pieces of other recent pop-cultural landmarks—films and books and TV shows that were still very fresh in the collective memory.

In any case, I write not to condemn Russell for all this borrowing but to praise him for his effort. I enjoyed Incubus when I read it back in the 1970s, but I didn’t notice just how steeped the book was in the cultural zeitgeist (I was steeped in it too, and when you’re a fish, you don’t think much about the water). I enjoyed it even more when I read it again just recently, nearly 50 years removed from the era that gave birth to it. It definitely has “1970s” written all over it. Russell was a fiction editor for Playboy back in the 1950s and remained on friendly terms with Hugh Hefner, the magazine’s founder, for the rest of his life. What distinguishes Incubus from Jaws and many other iconic tales of the era is its fairly graphic sexual content, which is at least partially the result of Russell’s association with Playboy and his knowledge of what readers (male readers, at least) wanted. Playboy’s popularity peaked in the 1970s (the November 1972 issue was the magazine’s all-time bestseller, with nearly 7.2 million copies sold), so the fact that Incubus didn’t make much of a splash in the 1970s must have disappointed Russell and his publishers who must have thought such a quintessential piece of contemporary pop-culture was a sure bet.

But when he set out to write Incubus, Russell may also have felt as though the pop-fiction gods owed him a bestseller. His first novel, The Case Against Satan, is a story about a young girl possessed by a demon and the two Catholic priests who help drive it out of her. It was published in 1962 and generated little attention. Nine years later, William Peter Blatty would tell much the same story in The Exorcist and be rewarded handsomely for his effort. It is no exaggeration to say that Blatty’s novel and William Friedkin’s 1973 film adaptation (from an Oscar-winning script by Blatty) became American pop-cultural landmarks. My cheap 1974 paperback copy of the novel shows that, in its first three years, The Exorcist went through 13 hardback printings (Harper & Row issued a new batch of hardbacks about once a month for the first 13 months of the book’s existence) and 22 paperback printings (six in July of 1972 alone). Those numbers reflect only American sales and don’t include the mail-order book-club edition put out by the Literary Guild, a subscriber service with thousands of members.

If Blatty ever acknowledged any sort of debt to The Case Against Satan, I haven’t noticed. In fact, he made a point of telling interviewers that his novel was inspired by a real-life 1949 exorcism that he read about during his student days at Georgetown University in the early 1950s. Blatty did not plagiarize Russell’s novel, but the similarities between the two books are numerous. In both novels (spoilers abound hereafter), the victim of demonic possession is a young female—12-year-old Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist and 16-year-old Susan Garth in The Case Against Satan. The exorcism in both stories is conducted by two priests, a younger one who is skeptical about Satan and prefers psychological explanations for the girl’s strange behavior, and an older one who is more familiar with exorcism and believes fervently in the devil’s existence. Both girls live in a single-parent household, Regan with her divorced mother, and Susan with her father, a widower. Both girls’ lives have been blighted by their terrible fathers. Both books prominently feature a courageous and helpful servant, Karl Engstrom, who serves as a butler and chauffeur in the MacNeil household, and Mrs. Farley, who is the housekeeper at the rectory in The Case Against Satan.

The young priest in The Exorcist is named Damien, after Father Damien, a Catholic saint who ministered to lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai in the 19th century. Father Gregory Sargent, the young priest in The Case Against Satan, keeps a copy of Damien the Leper, a biography of St. Damien, displayed on his rectory bookshelf. In both books, a suspicious death draws a police detective into the story. William Kinderman, the detective in The Exorcist, seems to have been modeled, at least partially, on TV’s Lt. Columbo, an Italian American whose first name is reputed to be Frank. Lt. Frank Berardi, the detective in The Case Against Satan, shares an Italian-American heritage with Colombo as well as his rank and his first name (but couldn’t have been inspired by Peter Falk’s character because Falk wasn’t cast in the role until 1968; curiously, Lee J. Cobb, who played Kinderman in the film version of The Exorcist, was offered the role of Lt. Columbo before Falk but turned it down).

One of the most memorable parts of William Friedkin’s film is the sight of little Regan (Linda Blair) sending projectile vomit over Father Karras (Jason Miller). Here’s an excerpt from The Case Against Satan:

There was a rattling, gagging sound from the girl, and they turned to watch in pity and loathing as she retched violently, her body curling in spasms, her fingers and toes clenched, her gaping mouth spewing jet after jet of reeking substance that covered her and splattered the wall and ran sluggishly in long viscous tendrils down to the floor.

In The Case Against Satan the young priest asks the older one if he believes everything the demon tells him. The older priest responds, “No. Not necessarily. Neither do I disbelieve him. That is his most fiendish trick—to weave truth and falsehood together into a single texture so that one is indistinguishable from the other.” In The Exorcist, the older priest tells the younger, “The demon is a liar. He will lie to confuse us; but he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us.” As I’ve argued in these pages before, it’s fairly clear that Blatty intended Regan’s demonic ordeal to serve as a metaphor for the toll that divorce can take on a child’s mental health. It’s also fairly clear, when reading The Case Against Satan, that Russell intended Susan’s demonic ordeal to serve as a metaphor for the toll that childhood sexual abuse can take on a girl’s mental health.

The similarities go on and on, but there are also plenty of differences. Both priests survive their battle with the demon in The Case Against Satan. Neither priest does in The Exorcist. Regan’s mother is wealthy, famous, and socially prominent. Susan’s father is obscure, undistinguished, and kept financially afloat only by the dwindling insurance payoff he got after he murdered Susan’s mother and made it look like an accident. Regan’s mother is a model parent. Susan’s father is, to say the least, not. Russell was a gifted stylist whose prose is admirable. Blatty was a journeyman author whose prose is serviceable.

But the biggest and most glaring difference between the two novels is how explicitly coarse and graphic Blatty’s novel is in comparison with Russell’s. In The Exorcist, Regan masturbates with a bloody crucifix while shrieking imprecations at her mother that Russell probably couldn’t have had printed in a mainstream novel back in 1962. Russell’s novel was probably fairly shocking in 1962 (I can’t locate any original reviews online), and even now it has the power to make a reader flinch. But Blatty took what was shocking in Russell’s story and cranked it all up to 11. In 2015, when Russell’s novel was reprinted in a Penguin Classics edition, even the reviewer for Kirkus Reviews, who didn’t like the book (“reads like a theological debate”), conceded that The Exorcist recycled many of Russell’s plot elements and that “Blatty’s lashings of gore and sexualized violence were his shrewdest innovation.” Reasonable people can disagree about which novel is better, but there’s no question that Blatty’s uninhibited prose makes The Exorcist a more powerful reading experience. Few mainstream bestsellers, even in the five decades that have passed since the publication of The Exorcist, have ever been so profane.

So when Ray Russell set out to write a bestseller that would incorporate elements of a variety of cultural touchstones from the 1960s and 1970s, this is probably why he leaned heavily into the violence and the sex. He may have concluded that William Peter Blatty drew his primary inspiration for The Exorcist from The Case Against Satan and then simply piled on the sensationalism. He probably also realized that the title of his own exorcism novel had been too long and too scholarly-sounding to attract pop-fiction fans. The title of Blatty’s novel was uncluttered, comprising just an article and an unusual noun derived from Catholic theology. Russell probably tried to do him one better by dropping the article and using a noun from ancient mythology that has also found its way into Catholic theology. Many of the bestselling novels of the era bore titles just a word or two long: JawsCurtain, Trinity, The Deep, Ragtime, Shogun, Centennial, Wheels (the book that finally knocked The Exorcist from the number-one spot on the New York Times’s bestseller list), The Word, The Other (the eighth bestselling novel of 1971, the year that Wheels and The Exorcist finished in the top two spots), The Betsy (number four that year), and so forth.

With Incubus, Russell seems to have been trying to do for the years 1967–1976 what Ernest Cline’s 2011 sci-fi novel Ready Player One did for the 1980s—funnel much of its pop-cultural wheat and chaff into one grand unified theory of bestsellerdom. It worked for Cline. Ready Player One was a huge bestseller that spawned a major motion picture also directed by Steven Spielberg, as well as a second novel, Ready Player Two. It should have worked for Russell too. Incubus is a gripping thriller that revels in the pop culture of its era (Ms. magazine, Playboy, hippies, Edwin Newman, JawsThe Exorcist, and so on). But therein lay the problem. Back in 1976, no one was especially nostalgic for 1975 or 1974 or even 1969, for that matter. What’s more, unlike Ready Player OneIncubus doesn’t explicitly name-check all of its influences. Edwin Newman and Jaws and The Exorcist and The Night Stalker are never mentioned in Incubus. Russell evokes their memory obliquely.

Today, the 10 years that brought us hippies, Woodstock, the moon landing, Watergate, the Manson murders, and the explosive 1968 Democratic Presidential Convention are cool again. In Incubus, Russell evinced a knowledge of the era as sharp and as encyclopedic as Quentin Tarantino’s or Aaron Sorkin’s. Alas, because he didn’t do the kind of explicit name-dropping that those two directors did in their most recent films, you have to be as old as I am to appreciate Russell’s accomplishment. But if you enjoyed Hunters, or How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, or The Trial of the Chicago 7, or any of the other many recent evocations of that strange era that stretched from 1967–1976, you might like Incubus as well. But read it carefully—the Easter eggs haven’t been as garishly decorated as they were in Ready Player One.

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