The Case Against Satan, by Ray Russell (Penguin Classics, Reissued 2016)

Cover of The Case Against Satan by Ray Russell. The Case Against Satan details a young woman’s exorcism at the hands of a bishop and a priest. The bishop, traditional and hard-line, clashes with the modern young priest; the girl, who may or may not be possessed, tries to use this conflict to her advantage. At just 140 pages, the book doesn’t waste any time, taking us through the whole experience in brief but powerful chapters.

Russell’s spare but expressive prose drives the story and adds to the horror of the situation. Some of his characterizations feel a little on the nose, from the bigoted crank to the perverted, murderous father. The recent sexual abuse scandals also color how one views this book. Despite these qualms, the book managed to hold my interest to the end, and the final revelation is both surprising and satisfying.

The Case Against Satan delves into the role unconscious motivations may or may not play in an individual’s salvation. Would God damn you to hell for an action you committed unconsciously? The anguish surrounding this question reflects a growing anxiety about how psychology was revealing and restructuring our views of the mind, even of the soul.

There’s a subtle irony in the title. The modern priest, Gregory Sargent, doubts the existence of the devil. Over the course of the book, he comes to believe that Satan is a real creature that wills evil. Who is making “the case against Satan” here––and what kind of case is it? Are we arguing that Satan is wrong, or debating his existence?

Last Night at the Viper Room, by Gavin Edwards (It Books, 2013)

Cover of Last Night at the Viper Room, by Gavin Edwards.I’ve never seen a River Phoenix movie.* After reading this book, I’m not sure I want to. Not because he sounds untalented, but because this book hints at the darker side of Hollywood that’s now coming to light.

Let me clarify. Edwards never says that Phoenix abused, or was abused, by anyone in Hollywood. A few situations detailed in the book seem…dicey, to put it charitably, but there’s plenty of disturbing content here without stooping to speculation.

River Phoenix was born into the Children of God cult, which preached and practiced child sexual abuse. River lost his virginity at age four. It was okay, he insisted later in life; “I took a vow of chastity from ten to fourteen.” The family (then the Bottoms––yes, they named their son “River Bottom”) lived as missionaries in Venezuela, where River and his siblings sometimes sang on the street to earn money. His parents were either too brainwashed, dissociated, or unaware of the abuse to leave after River’s early experiences in the cult.

The Bottoms eventually left the Children of God and moved to Hollywood. They changed their last name to “Phoenix,” symbolizing a new beginning. River wanted to change the world through music, though he took some acting jobs to make money for the family. As time passed, he decided that he could also change the world through acting.

Phoenix co-starred in Stand by Me with Jerry O’Connell, Wil Wheaton, and Corey Feldman. This section is hard reading, given Feldman’s descriptions of endemic sexual abuse that he endured as a young actor. Did his costars suffer the same fate? Was River seen as an “easy target,” given his background? Last Night… doesn’t say, but these unanswered questions cast a shadow over the entire book. Even potentially innocent comments, such as River’s (and Corey’s) agent comparing child actors to meat, look more sinister in light of the scandals now engulfing Hollywood.

By all accounts, River Phoenix was a gentle and kind person until the last six months of his life, when his addictions consumed him. I felt sorry for him, but mostly I felt angry at all the people who failed him, both through action and inaction.

 

*Since writing this, I’ve seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He was a good actor. I’m still not sure I want to see any more.