Satan on their shoulders – “Hostage to the Devil” by Malachi Martin
Malachi Martin was a priest, theologian, and one of the premier authorities on the Roman Catholic church. He often worked on cases of possession, and is said to have taken part in hundreds of exorcisms in his lifetime.
He’s also a novelist, but “Hostage to the Devil” isn’t fiction.
The book is a collection of accounts of five modern American possessions and exorcisms. Originally published in 1976, the book was re-released in 1992 with a new preface by Mr. Martin, who died in 1999. (This is the version I read, which contains information about what happened to the possessed folks post-exorcism, which is interesting.)
The names of the possessed have been changed to keep their identities unknown, but the five subjects are normal folks from fairly regular walks of life – they could be anybody: Marianne K. lived in New York in the sixties. Though she earned a degree in Physics, she dropped out of postgraduate courses and was working as a store clerk. Johnathan Yves was a young priest who struggled with the idea of holiness as opposed to earthiness. Richard O. was a post-op transsexual (referred to as “Rita” in passages of the book) who struggled with the idea of masculine/feminine forces in the universe. Jamsie Z. was a young Armenian man who had achieved some fame as a radio personality. Carl V. was a professor of parapsychology.
Though all their cases are different, they share common factors. And, if these accounts of exorcism are all completely true, then William Blatty’s classic novel/film “The Exorcist” is pretty dead-on when it comes to the way an exorcism runs.
Prior to their possession (in some cases years in advance) each of the people describes a figure that seemed to join them. Jamsie Z. has the most vivid picture of this figure, calling him “Uncle Ponto” and even considering him a friend at times. This figure seems to linger around them, unseen by other people, and tries to coerce the person into giving themselves over to them.
Another unifying factor shared by all these cases is a smell. The friends and families and doctors around all of these people describe a unique smell – not a nasty smell, but a musky smell – like a “freshly washed animal.”
There are other unifiers as well. People around a possessed person will often feel uneasy, or leave a conversation with said person feeling like they just made decisions and can’t remember why.
Of the five accounts, I found Marianne’s story the most interesting – and it kicks off from a moment where, pre-exorcism, a man tried to mug her. Apparently she turned around and once he got a look at her, and the creepy smile she gave him, he bailed. Yikes. Imagine being freaky enough that you scare away a mugger just by smiling.
There are some truly horrifying moments in this book. Neither priest nor victim is safe when it comes to possession. Poor Father Gerald (who presided over Richard O.’s exorcism) has to deal with some of most startling events in any of the cases in the book, and it led to his meeting an early death.
Martin realizes his audience are likely exorcism novices, and therefore explains (in a glossy overview way) the stages of exorcism and how the process works. This is incredibly helpful in the different accounts, particularly when the priests, looking back on the exorcisms they performed, are explaining their thought processes during the ritual.
Though the book has a lot of highly interesting information, I felt it was longer than it needed to be. Martin’s attention to detail is lovely, but sometimes there’s just too much information thrown at the reader. Within the context of the book, we not only get the life stories of the five possessed, but also of the priests that presided over their exorcisms. All of these people are fascinating, and valid, but perhaps one more run past an editor’s desk would have done a little more trimming. I found myself skimming several of the “early years” pages.
“Hostage to the Devil” is a unique and fascinating collection of case studied about modern exorcism. However, for a book about something as thrilling as the idea of demon possession, the book gets a little dry at times.