A look back at Dennis Wheatley's black magic novels
Dennis Wheatley's books have been out of print for years, but a reissue means it's time to revisit the master of occult fiction...
Of all my favourite authors, Dennis Wheatley is the only one whose work has been largely out of print throughout my lifetime. I've scoured second hand bookshops, fought white-knuckle bid wars on eBay and wasted hours of my life tracking down tatty old paperbacks from my grandparents' era but now, at last, he's getting the re-appraisal he's always deserved. Bloomsbury UK are releasing the majority of Wheatley's fiction for e-readers alongside sleek paperback reissues of key titles and I can't stress enough what a serious treat this is for fans of genre fiction.
I remember when I was a little kid, one of my hobbies (and, bear with me, I was kind of a weird kid) was browsing the racks of my local newsagent at all the pulp horror covers. Anyone who's seen some of these from the 80s will know that quite often the blood-soaked, titillating, psychedelic paintings on the front were often far better than the lacklustre words inside. Although Wheatley himself was long dead, a few of his occult novels had resurfaced to cash in on this horror boom. I remember seeing the cover for The Devil Rides Out for the first time. It had the title in stark white print beneath a glowing eyed goat skull. The words at the top read "A BLACK MAGIC STORY" and something about that struck me. Now, don't laugh but you know that thing kids do, when they let their imaginations run away with them? I had it in my tiny head that this line meant it was official. That Black Magic itself had somehow sanctioned Dennis Wheatley to write its stories... and that stayed with me.
Sadly, by the time I was old enough to actually buy or read one of his books, even the handful that had been reprinted were now long gone. I forgot about Wheatley until years later, in my early 20s, when I stumbled across a job lot of old paperbacks on eBay going cheap and gave them a go. Bear in mind, I knew nothing about him at this stage and when I got the books I was delighted by the author photograph on the back. A cadaverous old man in a blue smoking jacket, sat in front of a shelf of antique occult hardbacks with a massive glass of deep red wine in his hand. He looked exactly like I'd always dreamed he would; precisely the kind of man that the Devil would indeed ask to write his biography.
The books themselves didn't disappoint. I started with The Devil Rides Out and couldn't believe it had been written as far back as 1934. It was brilliant. I flew through the pages overjoyed by every twist of its plot. It was simultaneously batshit-crazy and heart-stopping. One of Wheatley's recurring characters, the Duc De Richeleau, and his dandy mate Rex van Ryn (these names, people! these names!) pit their wits against a Satanic cult in a perfect blend of adventure and the supernatural. What really made it, however, was the straight face with which it was written. Wheatley had an encyclopedic knowledge of the occult and loved to take his impeccable research to its logical extremes within his stories. What if these bonkers inter-dimensional summoning rituals ACTUALLY worked? How weird that would be?
In his day, he was enormously popular and there's no doubt that Wheatley's exciting, genre-bending prose was decades ahead of his time. The more I started to read of both his thriller and horror work, the more I realised how influential he was. His contribution to the sculpting of the modern genre novel is undeniable and it's a testament to this how well his books still read alongside modern peers. Which begs the question as to why the bulk of his work has remained consistently out of print for so long now, right?
My favourite of his books, The Haunting Of Toby Jugg (1948), is also perhaps the most problematic and goes some way to answering the question. Toby is an airman who becomes paralysed from the waist down after a war injury. Stuck in a gothic mansion with very little company and traumatised by what he's seen in the war, Toby begins to slowly lose his mind, convinced that the Devil himself is rapping on his window at night trying to get in. The problem is that the story is told in first person perspective (and it's hard not to hear Wheatley's own voice in it if you've done your research) from someone who is an upper-class jingoistic fighter pilot. As a result he's something of a gung-ho, pro-war, xenophobic, sexist jerk... which is kinda tough to deal with as a modern reader who knows better.
If you can get past this, The Haunting of Toby Jugg is a masterpiece. I have frequently cited it as the scariest book I've ever read and I stand by it. The first time Toby hears the "Devil's" rapping at his window is a masterclass in how to write suspense. The atmosphere, the mounting sense of insanity and evil, all of these things are handled so well throughout the novel, I still find myself breaking out in a sweat even writing about it. I think while it's important to view the protagonist's (or indeed the author's) politics with an appropriate level of critical thinking, it's a crying shame to miss out on such flawlessly written, timeless horror as a result of them.
Admittedly, it's reductive to dismiss it all as "well, that was the era, right? everyone thought like that!" because this hand-waves away some pretty unpleasant attitudes. On the other hand though, a story about a character such as this would feel inauthentic if he wasn't portrayed this way. Wheatley's heroes are all headstrong flag-waving lunatics willing to lay down their bodies, minds and souls for Queen and Country. They're obviously not going to be the most enlightened bunch. But then, James Bond is very much cut from the same cloth as Gregory Sallust (Wheatley's spy hero whom Fleming acknowledged as a big influence) and people are fine with him as a character...
Still, Wheatley's attitude didn't soften with age. The Satanist (1960) looks at the burgeoning sexual revolution in London with a sense of mounting terror, depicting all artists as communists and sexually liberated youth as children of the Devil. There is, of course, a sense of embarrassment to think of such attitudes but, at the same time, these very real fears of the author and his obvious secret attraction to them makes for fascinating reading.
Although Wheatley always expressed a puritanical fear of the occult and prefixed his stories with earnest warnings about its dangers, there's no doubting his fascination with it. As much as he abhors the idea of surrending one's immortal soul to the forces of evil, he (like the majority of his readership no doubt!) still gets tempted by the glamour of naked nubiles dancing around a pentagram, cavorting with goats, lighting black candles, drinking blood from skull goblets and all that other good shit. This feeling of playing with fire adds a theological torment to his work sometimes. His writing feels like the only way he has of purging these unthinkable desires to explore the darkest regions of the spiritual unknown and this adds a feverish edge. In his own repressed British way, the author is wrestling with similar demons to his protagonists.
It's a shame that Wheatley's style became known as old-fashioned because, while there are (inevitably) elements that date, the stories themselves remains fresh and exciting and he still explores the occult in more depth than the vast majority of fiction writers. Towards the end of his career, Wheatley made a last ditch attempt to keep up with the changing trends of horror fiction and The Irish Witch (1973) is something of a misfire, pitting Roger Brook - the hero of his swashbuckling Napoleonic Wars novels - against a sultry Satantic temptress. Wheatley seems uncomfortable with increasing the sex and violence so much and the book feels ironically prudish as a result. It's interesting because so many of the books he was trying to keep pace with have aged badly now and appear comical in their attempts to shock, whereas the classics Wheatley wrote in the 30s, 40s and beyond continue to endure and read well.
With such a prolific and controversial writer, there will always remain an element of his work that's pleasingly hard to track down (and I highly recommend his beautifully illustrated non-fiction study of the occult, The Devil And All His Works, if you can find the 70s hardback edition) but this unprecedented mass re-release of the bulk of his novels will hopefully introduce a new generation to the joys of Dennis Wheatley and the exploits of his many characters. It only takes a few hours in the company of Roger Brook, Gregory Sallust, the Duc de Richeleau or Molly Fountain to get hooked. They have a certain timeless quality that beckon you to an open fire, invite you to pour a wine, don a smoking jacket and get lost in adventure.
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