1980 Dell reprint, Paul Caras cover art?
Happily for me, Possession is interesting: it's set in the Manhattan of the late '60s and early '70s, and is quite convincing at what it does. Stewart's depiction of the city, from the Upper West Side enclave in which our narrator Norah Benson lives to the rough-and-tumble neighborhoods of immigrants, is vivid, lived-in, and sympathetic but not overwrought or sanitized. Akin to Blatty's iconic novel, Stewart lays down a bedrock of normalcy and realism as Norah describes her life in plain terms in the opening pages: It's when I'm skating along on smooth ice that the dark crack splits open at my feet.
Back cover gives you the low-down,
good so I don't have to waste time rehashing it
The voice she provides for the story is refreshingly confident. Norah is self-aware, intelligent, and self-possessed, without an ounce of self-pity for her past. Our family hadn't been the cheery thing of children's books: her youth was made difficult by her wayward, somewhat grifter of a father and a mother who committed suicide leaving Norah to mostly raise her decade-younger brother Joel. She married a professor and left for the University of California, and feels lingering guilt about abandoning her brother. Now divorced, she maintains a civil relationship with her ex, raising two citified children with the help of Veronica, her Puerto Rican maid (this detail will become important).
Dell Books 1980; Kirkus review here
Certainly, the night the trouble began with Joel, I had no prickling sense of the extraordinary. When Joel doesn't show up for dinner, she calls him but when the phone is answered no one is there, just music and a stranger's strangled voice. Concerned, she rushes to his downtown apartment, in an unsavory neighborhood ("Sure this is the place you want?" inquires the cabbie) and finds Joel on the floor, his face contorted like a man in a nightmare. He's off to the hospital, then Bellevue, you know it's the late '60s, maybe he's taking LSD. Norah speaks to the building manager, glimpses into his apartment: she recognizes an Espiritismo shrine, a religion invoking water and air spirits.
This will play a large part in the "possession" angle of the novel, as Norah investigates Joel's increasingly bizarre behavior with the help of a psychiatrist friend and a couple of professors. Together she and the reader learn about Tonio Perez, who lived in Joel's apartment before him, an immigrant teenager with a terrible childhood and a murderous hand, who suffers a ruthless death and who has struggled back from the other side... "There's a supernatural city all around you," Dr. Reichman said. "Belief working on thousands of psyches."
Dell Books 1981; Kirkus review here
There are several comparative religion lectures as a couple scholars talk about the long history of religion, possession, exorcism, and the occult in general dating back to ancient days. I'm always up for that!
Dr. Reichman seemed embarrassed. "My dear Mrs. Benson, it is not so simple. The history of exorcism is largely one of failure. Not only does it often increase the state of possession but the exorcising priests risk falling victims to the state themselves.... Even the spectators are liable to it. All over the world, in every culture, this is considered dangerous."
film version a few years later, with a perfectly-cast Shirley MacLaine as Norah, amps up the Fire Island climax to an unbelievable, uncomfortable degree but also offers some authentic scares. As a novel, Possession of Joel Delaney is an enjoyable minor work of mild occult thrills and a lovely window into vintage NYC city life. It is in no way better than Rosemary's Baby, nor The Exorcist, but as I said, Stewart's writing is clear and captivating and the backstory of the serial killer is heartbreakingly horrifying. Those readers who appreciate the quieter vibe of pre-Stephen King horror might dig it.