A grotesque, isolated Gothic mansion hidden deep in the woods may not seem like the best place to house a group of mentally unstable military inmates, but that’s precisely the role it serves in William Peter Blatty’s 1978 novel The Ninth Configuration, released this past April in a new paperback edition by Tor. That setting, coupled with the fact that Blatty is also the author of The Exorcist, might lead readers to suspect this is a horror novel, but that’s not the direction the author chose. Instead, what he produced is a compact, visceral examination of the nature of faith and the existence of God.
“Center Eighteen,” as the camp is called, is home to more than 20 military officers (and one astronaut), all of whom were brought down by sudden bouts of mental incapacity. We get a glimpse of their delusions throughout the book, but Blatty centers the tale around two men: Cutshaw, an astronaut who broke down just hours before he was scheduled to go to the moon, and Kane, a psychiatrist whose unorthodox methods may be the key to determining if the men are truly sick or just trying to dodge their duty. Problem is, Kane is not a well man himself. He’s experiencing vivid dreams that may actually be flashbacks, and as he struggles to help the men he finds himself spiraling deeper into his own pit of self-doubt and depression.
Big chunks of The Ninth Configuration consist of conversations between Cutshaw and Kane. This is not a case of two characters spouting exposition in order to move the story forward; it’s two intelligent men stating their views on, among other things, the necessity and reality of God, each trying to make the other one blink. It may feel like wheel-spinning to some readers, but I found it refreshing and engaging to spend the time in these characters’ heads.
If I have any complaints, it’s that I would have liked the setting and isolation to play more of a role in the story, if only to get more passages like this:
It crouched beneath the stars under clustered spires like something enormous and deformed, unable to hide, wanting to sin. Its gargoyles grinned at the forest pressing in on it thickly all around.
Good stuff. Also good is the twist Blatty throws in near the end, as well as the gut-punch of a conclusion.
The Ninth Configuration is a reworking of an earlier novel by Blatty, Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane!, and is also the basis of the 1980 film directed by Blatty himself.