A chance glimpse at a textbook shelf in a university bookstore made me aware of Malachi Martin’s Hostage to the Devil, although it is several years old. I was intrigued that a major, secular, state university would offer a course requiring a book about demonic possession. I’m not completely naive about college students, but this seemed just a tad extreme. Nothing is more dangerous than a book dangling in such a context, like the Necronomicon of Abdul Alhazred. The world of the demonic is freighted with arcane rules and a decided Catholic superiority. Even to the rational it can be insanely frightening. As I read Martin’s account, I frequently found myself puzzling over the unseen world he so meticulously describes—after all even the Bible has little to say about it. And Martin is a great lover of verbosity, detailing more than the reader needs to know about the five exorcisms he elaborates. If you want to know what a dying priest looks like, in great detail, you’ve come to the right place.
Perhaps the most jarring aspect of reading such a book is how such obviously intelligent people can come to such diametrically opposed worldviews while looking at the same evidence. Here was Malachi Martin, convinced that demons lurk about the world in great numbers. There is Richard Dawkins, convinced that we are nothing but particles and proteins walking around. Manhattan—the haunt of countless demons, or the febrile accident of firing synapses that means ultimately nothing? Although much of what Martin describes could probably be mental illness, one has the distinct impression Dawkins has never attended an exorcism. Both write with great authority and even greater conviction.
Hostage to the Devil is not an easy book to read. Martin’s style is smooth, like a novelist, but the length of his book keeps demons on your mind for a protracted period. Rationality can be worn down by attrition, and even the non-believer can be made to wonder. Would priests and their chosen attendants lie? Do the possessed really levitate, and contort, and cause objects to fly around the room in defiance of the physics so highly valued by atheists? For over 450 pages Martin will keep you wondering. You’ll also find out what an exorcist ate for his boyhood breakfast back in Ireland decades before facing the Prince of Darkness. Hostage to the Devil is a deeply disturbing book where the monsters we’ve all learned to shove deeply into the closet come springing back out. And the only effective help in the known world is the Catholic priest who happens to be an exorcist. And who can argue with that?