Book review: Hostage to the Devil

By Frisco Rosso

Hundreds if not thousands of books, films, documentaries and TV series’ have been inspired by the apparent possibility of human possession by a hostile supernatural entity. This macabre and terrifying form of entertainment has proved to be a cash cow for writers and movie producers over the years with readers and viewers finding themselves swamped with Ouija boards, bleeding palms, priests, evil spirits and vomiting, incontinent little girls.

I was genuinely blown away the first time I read William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. Although not quite the grandfather of all demonic possession and exorcism books, Blatty’s tale became the benchmark and stylistic trendsetter for future generations with a morbid appetite for evil, demonic stories.

The Exorcist was first published in 1971 and just two years later a timeless adaptation of the same title was conceived and directed by William Friedkin, which is regarded today as a classic of the horror genre.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Malachi Martin’s Hostage to the Devil – The Possession and Exorcism of Five Contemporary Americans was published shortly afterwards in 1976, during a time when stories of possession were at the forefront of audience and readership consciousness. Unlike The Exorcist however Martin’s book is considered to be a true and personal account of possession and exorcism.

Divided into four curiously named sections, The Fate of an Exorcist, The Cases, Manual of Possession and The End of an Exorcist, Hostage to the Devil at first glance resembles the sort of cryptic item a character from Silent Hill or Resident Evil would uncover in a murky catacomb, where no one can hear you scream.

The book begins with Martin recounting the sickening and gory tale of Father Michael Strong who seemingly paid a life-long price for failing to exorcise something unpleasant from a fugitive in Nanking, China in 1937. This brief chapter flings the reader directly into the hellish madness and misery suffered by possessed and priest alike and is also an insight into the menacingly explicit content in the remaining 460 or so pages.

Moving on, Martin then provides an introduction and overview of the role and responsibility of an exorcist, dispelling along the way numerous myths and half-truths often depicted in Hollywood. Unfortunately it seems that the bulk of the horrors seen in contemporary film and literature are accurate portrayals of the possessed condition. Delving into historic examples of Christian lore on the subject Martin essentially details the physical and psychological manifestations intrinsic to the victim as well as the protocol required to tackle the situation, assuming you haven’t run for the hills already.

The five cases that follow are detailed, harrowing and, according to Martin, true. But be warned: if you’re the sort to suffer nightmares easily then prepare for an inflated electricity bill as you’ll be forced to leave the lights on for the next week and a half. If however the vicarious thrill of touching the face of evil appeals to you then you’ll find yourself in demonic utopia.

Regardless of faith or ethos the cases are for the most part absorbing and provide examples of tense, sometimes feverish narrative that can have a lasting bitterness and in some ways depressive quality.

As I’ve mentioned, Hostage to the Devil is by no means a book for the fainthearted but I don’t mean simply in terms of the explicit content. The prose of even the most macabre fiction writers is generally a balance between story development, establishing mood and the elements of mystery and horror. Martin’s on the other hand, although purportedly factual, is relentless and at times overbearing in the horror stakes. This coupled with an occasionally inconsistent writing style that switches between formal, academic and creative makes the book a gruelling read.

Finishing off with an apparent “Exorcism for Dummies” Hostage to the Devil’s Appendix contains The Roman Ritual of Exorcism, Ritual for Exorcising Those Possessed by Evil Spirit, Exorcism of Satan and Apostate Angels and Prayers Commonly Used in Exorcisms – presumably included just in case Aunty Norma starts acting erratically and you feel the need to cleanse the old bat’s filthy soul. Otherwise, it is a section best used for reference purposes only.

Whether you choose to embark on this nonfiction journey as a sceptic, a believer or simply out of morbid curiosity Hostage to the Devil packs is a challenging read and packs a punch. Although Martin’s chronicle raises more questions than it answers it certainly provides some interesting perspectives of the human condition and faith that will remove even the most ardent curiosity seekers from their comfort zones.

Frisco rating: 6/10
Book details
Hostage to the Devil by Malachi Martin
Paperback, 477 pages
1992, HarperOne
ISBN: 978-0-06-065337-8


Frisco Rosso

With more tension than your mother’s suspension, I am Frisco Rosso. I’m likely to deliver a few lines worth at any given moment regarding film, music, sport, books and anything morally unsound that strikes a blow between the eyes in the name of entertainment.


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