As is now a tradition, Mr. Kaggsy has volunteered to provide a guest post for our club reading week, and he’s providing one of his long-form looks at a book I would probably never want to go near – The Omen, by David Seltzer.

Hardback Arthur Baker 1976, UK (without “The”); paperback Futura 1976, UK.

Probably most people have heard of the “Omen” movie, or novel, or both; the franchise also gave rise to a host (no pun intended) of ‘sequels’, which can be ignored for the purposes of this review. The original paperback details stated (punctuation as written): “One night in Rome Robert Thorn, American diplomat, exchanges his still-born son for a new-born orphan. Only Thorn and the priest who arranged the unofficial adoption could tell the difference. Kathy and Robert Thorn called the child Damien. Five years later in England Damien’s Nanny dies tragically … a ferocious black dog and an officious new Nanny mysteriously appear, to guard the child … Kathy Thorn is badly hurt in a fall and a wild-eyed priest tells Thorn that Damien is the spawn of the devil. In an agonizing and frenzied search that takes him to Rome, Jerusalem and back to London, Robert Thorn begins to unravel the horrible truth A powerful, spell-binding story of a child who is not a child and a man who must become less than a father and more than a man.”

Briefly on the subject of the movie, the child Damien was played by Harvey Stephens, then aged five; he would reappear, thirty years older, in a lower-rated 2006 version under the same title. The 1976 original starred Gregory Peck (with royalties, by far the highest paid performance of his career), Lee Remick, David Warner, Billie Whitelaw, Patrick Troughton and several other well-known actors. The production and cast became reportedly ‘cursed’, owing to a spate of misfortunes. This did not hurt the film’s reputation and the 666 “number of the beast” phenomenon entered popular culture as a result of high box office figures and publicity. The essence of the plot was to leave open whether the boy was truly evil, with supernatural forces in play, or whether his father was becoming increasingly unbalanced. Equally it could be argued that events manage to dispose of certain ‘enemies’, without the boy necessarily ‘commissioning’ their deaths. On that note, no major spoilers will be given here on in, as to the movie or the book, both script and ensuing novelisation being by David Seltzer, who also wrote the 2006 remake script and novelisation.

The 1976 book was penned after the first film production. Seltzer reported being asked to write a story similar to “The Exorcist” (1973), a movie he had seen. He also admitted to having done work with scholars on the Book of Revelation and amassing political knowledge for a documentary on JFK. However, he expressed having no belief in the supernatural, merely setting out to produce a tale of evil goings-on, in effect a hellish fantasy. Other writers had trodden a similar path: Ira Levin’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (1967; movie 1968) and the aforementioned “The Exorcist” (William Peter Blatty, 1971). However, Seltzer’s concoction was not to be directly about demonic possession, more a scary piece of fiction relying on building a sense of dread. Thus the central character Robert Thorn is presented as an American ambassador, as such a well-rounded figure, knowledgeable in worldly matters and supposedly resistant to fancy. However, Seltzer paints him as “an instinctive speculator”, his early in-flight musings showing his fertile mind willing to explore metaphysical possibilities:

At any given moment there are over a hundred thousand people in airplanes in the sky. It was the kind of statistic that intrigued Thorn, and as he read it in the skyliner magazine he instantly cleaved the human population between those on the earth and those in the air… What the statistic meant was, that if suddenly the earthbound population were to be annihilated, there would be over a hundred thousand of them left aloft, sipping martinis and watching movies, unaware that all had been lost.

Thorn is on his way to join his wife Kathy in Rome, she being about to deliver a child, having so far been unable to carry a pregnancy to term. Although a birth occurs, the new arrival does not survive for long, Thorn’s visit becoming one of support and sadness, particularly as Kathy will be unable to bear a child again. Their lifelong partnership and strong desire to be parents influences Thorn’s mind when he learns of a foundling in the hospital needing a family. And so Seltzer sets the scene of a mystery infant being ‘adopted’ by the bereaved couple and taken out of the country with no questions asked. The diplomat is posted, with his wife and new child, to London and given a historical country residence with staff.

Paperback Signet 1976, US; Editions J’ai Lu 1977, France.

By the time Damien, so-named by his parents, reaches his fourth birthday, a party is arranged and some interested press representatives attend. One inquisitive paparazzo is curious about the boy and begins a personal campaign to discover any family secrets. His inkling introduces the theme of all being possibly not what it seems, a state of mind which will gradually infect Thorn as well. At the party a horrific fate befalls a staff member, witnessed by all, and in due course an unexpected nanny arrives to look after the child, at a time when his parents are busy with international duties. The apparent mental imbalance of the recently deceased person might also be seen as a convenient occurrence, allowing the ‘replacement’ to take up her position; more such coincidences will follow.

A rivalry between mother and nanny begins to develop and the boy seems to be more fond of the new woman’s company. At a later point, Damien is taken for a walk in the nearby woods by his carer and at night Thorn believes he can see two lights like eyes among the trees. These could belong to a fearsome dog which it becomes known is owned by the nanny. Kathy herself is from Russian immigrant parentage, her father having killed himself, and she feels neglected, helpless, while her son does not give her maternal joy and her husband is a pressured diplomat. Presently there is a funeral, giving rise to a dramatic incident with the young boy being terrified by a church. In another more normal setting, swans on a pond being fed appear to swim away when he approaches. Against a background of relations deteriorating with the nanny, Thorn suffering guilt about his original dark deed with the baby in Rome, and the increasing interest of the press photographer, the pace of the story builds. A new figure might be about to reveal the sinful birth circumstances, while the photographer’s prints seem to show a mysterious blemish above Damien.

Paperback Futura 1978, UK; movie poster 1976.

Thorn has to travel to the Middle East and in an unoccupied moment reads a bible, learning of a “contemptible one” who will steal the Earth and bring universal conflict. The brief interlude introduces biblical prophecies, although Thorn’s own visions and nightmares might be a product of his troubled mind. Nevertheless, events build up, with manifestations of warnings and possibly connected grisly deaths. As an aside, a scene of Damien on a wheeled toy moving quickly towards Kathy balancing on a stool is a memorable sequence in the movie.

A birthmark on the child may reveal a demonic link. Possibly his time of entry into the world and planetary alignment at that point may be revelatory, or no more than simple astrology and coincidence. Thorn’s further religious researching, a biblical storm, a pack of ferocious dogs, all seemingly point to satanic prophecies. Secret writings, an excavation in Israel and a hidden city of caverns, suggest hallowed ground. The Good versus Evil aspect extends to Thorn’s own perceived predicament, whether he should – or even could – kill his ‘child’, especially if his fears are in his imagination. Either way, events build inexorably to a climax.

Nowadays it is said that “things were different in the Seventies”. Back then strong demonic, psychic or religious horror was a growing phenomenon in the cinema, the era starting off with “The Devils” (1971), or the abovementioned “The Exorcist” (1973), and stretching towards the end with more mainstream “The Sentinel” (1977) and “The Fury” (1978), along with more “Omen” offerings. Seltzer’s story poses the question whether the child whom Thorn took as his own could actually be the Antichrist, the Devil’s own son. Ultimately the book, at under 200 pages, could have been more absorbing and intellectually stimulating, had it been longer, perhaps allowing the suspense to build Hitchcock-style. Of course the book was simply a novelisation, a movie tie-in, but the story and events could have created a classic horror novel.

Phew – thanks (I think!) Mr. K. – I shall probably have nightmares now…