NEW YORK • William Peter Blatty, the author whose best-selling book The Exorcist was both a milestone in horror fiction and a turning point in his own career, died last Thursday in Bethesda, Maryland. He was 89.
The cause was multiple myeloma, his wife Julie Blatty said.
The Exorcist, the story of a 12-year-old girl possessed by the devil, was published in 1971 and sold more than 13 million copies.
The 1973 movie version, starring Linda Blair and directed by William Friedkin, was a runaway hit, becoming the highest-grossing film to date for Warner Bros. It earned Blatty, who wrote the screenplay, an Academy Award. It was also the first horror movie nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.
The Exorcist marked a radical shift in Blatty's career, which was already well established in another genre: He was one of Hollywood's leading comedy writers.
He collaborated with director Blake Edwards on the screenplays for four films, beginning in 1964 with A Shot In The Dark, the second movie (after The Pink Panther in 1963) starring Peter Sellers as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau and, in some critics' view, the best.
The phenomenal success of The Exorcist essentially signalled the end of Blatty's comedy career, making him for all practical purposes the foremost writer in a new hybrid genre: theological horror. It was a mantle he was never comfortable wearing.
When he declined his publisher's entreaties for a sequel to The Exorcist and instead delivered an elegiac memoir about his mother, I'll Tell Them I Remember You, published in 1973, he felt the first cinch of the horror-writing straitjacket.
"My publisher took it because I wanted to do it," he was quoted as saying in Faces Of Fear (1985), a collection of interviews with horror writers by Douglas E. Winter. "But the bookstores were really hostile."
Blatty gave various accounts of what led him to try his hand at horror. He sometimes said the market for his comedy had waned in the late 1960s and he was ready to move on. At other times, he said that his mother's sudden death in 1967 had led to a renewed commitment to his Roman Catholic faith, and to a soul-searching about life's ultimate questions, including the presence of evil in the world.
In every account, he said the idea for The Exorcist was planted in 1949, when he was a student at the Jesuit-affiliated Georgetown University in Washington and read an account in The Washington Post of an exorcism under the headline, Priest Frees Mt Rainier Boy Reported Held In Devil's Grip.
The incident came back to Blatty 20 years later as the basis for a book about the battle between Good and Evil.
He began writing what he thought would be a modest-selling thriller about a girl, a demon and a pair of Catholic priests.
Halfway through, he later said, he sensed he had something more. "I knew it was going to be a success," he told People magazine. "I couldn't wait to finish it and become famous."
He is survived by his wife, their son and three daughters, two sons from earlier marriages, seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.