April 19, 1976 12:00 PM

When Frank De Felitta was a little boy, he asked his father, a lapsed Catholic, “What happens when we die?” “He told me we go to sleep and don’t wake up,” says De Felitta. “It sent me into a frenzy. All I could see was an eternity of nothingness. I rushed into the Catholic Church and became an altar boy. It only worked for a while, though.”

Five years ago, De Felitta, now 54, found an answer he liked better: reincarnation. He has used it as the theme of his best-selling Audrey Rose, published last December by Putnam’s (after Doubleday turned it down). The novel is a horror story that reminds some readers of The Exorcist. In Audrey Rose, a couple’s 10-year-old daughter is kidnapped by a stranger who believes her to be the reincarnation of his own child killed in an auto accident.

De Felitta insists that he read The Exorcist only after his own book was under way but agrees that there is a similarity. “He’s got a girl going crazy. I’ve got a girl going crazy. I always had the girl in mind. I felt it would be wrong to use Raymond since I had gotten all this input from him. Maybe that was superstitious.”

Raymond is De Felitta’s son, and through him the author first became interested in reincarnation. As De Felitta tells it, he and his wife, Dorothy, were relaxing on the terrace of their Los Angeles home in the summer of 1971. Suddenly they heard piano music in the style of Fats Waller coming from the house. “We went in and there was Raymond at the piano, going like the devil. We were shocked. In fact, we were scared. Raymond said his fingers were doing it.” The boy, then 6, had never before displayed any hint of musical talent.

De Felitta consulted a Los Angeles occultist named Barbara Ryan, who explained Raymond’s mystifying talent as “an incarnation leak.” “She told me that Raymond was one of those souls who had been through many lifetimes,” De Felitta says. “They have innate memories of past lives, and they pick up where they left off in a past life.” Fascinated, Frank began to read American mystic Edgar Cayce, Hindu texts on reincarnation and the works of a University of Virginia psychiatrist investigating the subject.

“In this country when you talk about reincarnation, you get cynical looks,” says De Felitta. “But I believe what 500 million people believe in—and they include Plato, Spinoza, Goethe and Ben Franklin.” Believers or not, Americans are apparently fascinated by the supernatural. To dale Audrey Rose, a Literary Guild alternate selection, has sold 35,000 copies and brought $300,000 from Warner Paperback Library and $600,000 for the film which De Felitta will write and co-produce.

A pilot during World War II, De Felitta came home to New York in 1945. While his mother and sister supported him, he loafed around the house for two years, listening to the radio. Finally he decided to write a script for a program called The Whistler, a popular weekly thriller. On his first try he earned $350 and began a new career. He also married Dorothy Gilbert, a neighborhood girl who was working as a bookkeeper in her father’s small leather goods factory. The De Felittas’ daughter Eileen was born in 1948 and is now a TV actress named Ivy Jones.

De Felitta continued to write radio scripts and comfortably switched to television, as writer, producer and director. In 1963 he won an Emmy for a documentary, Emergency Ward, and another in 1965 for Battle of the Bulge. In 1972 he decided to try a novel.

It was no best-seller, but the $70,000 paperback sale of Oktoberfest, a murder mystery set in postwar Germany, financed the year and a half De Felitta devoted to writing Audrey Rose. Now, with his newfound wealth, he hopes to spend a year in India. “I’m on the threshhold of a very religious phase of my life.” And he’s already planning his next novel, about “soul mates or kindred souls.” His view of the future is serene. “I think I have many more lifetimes to go. This is a religion we’re talking about. People have a right to believe in reincarnation as much as they have a right to believe in the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth. Grant me the same right to have an inner conviction. I don’t have to prove it.”

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