Hands up who remembers Dennis Wheatley? Nope? No one? Hm. Ask your granddad perhaps. He’ll probably say, “Dennis Wheatley? What-ho! Isn’t he the smashing old fellow who wrote the Roger Brook novels?” or some such. See, Wheatley churned out jingoistic spy thrillers by the dozen in his 1930s/40s hey-day – many of which featured an insufferably smug dandy adventurer called Roger Brook – but these were interspersed by far darker works, reflecting Wheatley’s secret obsession with the Occult. Pretty much all of these are long out of print now and his controversial ‘Black Magic Story’ series may well only be remembered for The Devil Rides Out and To The Devil, A Daughter (both of which were made into Hammer films), but there are far scarier treats lurking in the bibliography if you’re willing to look.
The most terrifying of them (and probably the creepiest book I’ve ever read) has to be 1948’s The Haunting of Toby Jugg. It’s written in the first person, from the point of view of the eponymous protagonist, an airforce pilot who was shot down in the war and lost the use of his legs as a result. Bedridden and recuperating at the family home somewhere in the Welsh countryside, Toby finds himself haunted by strange dreams and night terrors. Raised as an atheist, Toby finds it difficult to reconcile his lack of spiritual belief with the mounting feeling that he is being terrorized by a demonic presence. As the fear grows, this presence starts to manifest itself as a dark shadow tapping on Toby’s window and trying to find a way into his room.
His carer is unsympathetic and doesn’t believe Toby’s assertions that something is tormenting him, so a large portion of the first half follows Toby’s utter terror as he’s forced to lie immobile in a room that he feels is under threat from dark forces. This is by far the most horrifying section of the book and Wheatley writes it up into a maniacal crescendo of fear. I really found it hard to sleep the first time I read this and there are few books to which I’d attach that accolade. You feel you’re right there in Toby’s cracking mind, which helps lend him your sympathies in the second half where the inevitable Satanic conspiracy is revealed. The Occult aspects are impeccably researched and even the obligatory sanctimonious caution at the end that you shouldn’t mess with evil spirits can’t shake the overwhelming darkness that permeates throughout the rest of the book.
Admittedly, Wheatley’s jingoism mars the prose a little. It’s a pity that the book is dated and occasionally uncomfortable to read thanks to Toby’s politics or it may still be in print and regarded as a classic. A naïve young lad, Toby espouses the virtues of rather extreme Conservatism and he has a pretty reprehensible view of the “lower classes” that makes you blush just to read it. That said, in a way, these dubious (and mercifully only occasional) political rants help to make Wheatley’s character more believable, given the time period and his social standing, so it’s certainly not an insurmountable issue. What’s important about this book is the horror and this is beautifully crafted. In spite of his flaws, I defy anyone to deny Wheatley’s uncanny ability to capture that awful fear of lurking horrors in the dark that we’ve all felt at some point. The Haunting of Toby Jugg is a forgotten gem and worth a read if you’re sat at home this Halloween with only that strange shadow tapping on the window for company …
Plug time: Craig’s own scary book, Filth Kiss, will be launched at Memorabilia at the Birmingham NEC on November 24th. Go along and he’ll even sign it for you.