My grandmother was a horror novel aficionado. She loved scary stories. She welcomed Stephen King and complained about Dean Koontz. She could explain where the movie The Exorcist veered away from the book and avoided 72nd Street after Rosemary’s Baby went from pulp to celluloid.
There was one movie and one book that scared her. The film was London After Midnight, the silent thriller starring Lon Chaney that is now sadly lost and only reimagined through stills that have survived. The book was The Devil Rides Out by Dennis Wheatley.
I can see why. Released in 1934, it was the scariest thing to hit a mass audience since Dracula by Bram Stoker. Like Dracula, the thing that scared my mom and her mom was the dead baby sacrificed to an undead and uncaring force of nature. HP Lovecraft wrote his own mythology, which today has taken on a scholarly life of its own, but Wheatley wrote as an informed insider. He detailed the discordant music and the bitter herbs that should be burned in rituals that would summon the devil itself.
Wheatley knew the players. He was personally acquainted with “the wickedest man in the world” Aleister Crowley and the most renowned occult expert at the time, Montague Summers, who translated the Malleus Maleficarum. Wheatley himself authored several scholarly non-fiction works for his collection The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult. He was also a member of London’s The Ghost Club, a paranormal investigative society formed in the mid-1800s. A born storyteller who was more than comfortable in a multitude of genres, Wheatley knew how to scare.
That’s because Wheatley was scared. He was a student but not a fan of the Left Hand Path, or anything on the left for that matter. It was more than sinister to him. It was communistic and evil in ways that transcended spirituality. Wheatley warned the reader not to dabble in the occult to get any answers or fill any curiosity that might come out of the book. Wheatley already made the sacrifice. He looked into the eyes of evil and pulled back, so the reader didn’t have to. Wheatley was performing a social service, saving weaker souls that might be pulled into the sensual magnetism of dark magic.
“Should any of my readers incline to a serious study of the subject, and thus come into contact with a man or woman of Power, I feel that it is only right to urge them, most strongly, to refrain from being drawn into the practice of the Secret Art in any way,” Wheatley warned in the introduction. “My own observations have led me to an absolute conviction that to do so would bring them into dangers of a very real and concrete nature.”
How could you not be scared? And how could you not be seduced? This was real and dangerous and happening in all the best places.
The sinister Mocata exerted a hypnotic and sexual charisma to all who crossed his path. He was intelligent, persuasive and he surrounded himself with characters who were also strong with dark magical powers that went back to ancestral lands and ancient, forbidden knowledge. Wheatley sprinkled in just enough of that taboo trope to tantalize the reader without fully corrupting them. But he knew he got us hooked. He hated himself for it and that makes it even scarier.
Wheatley “spared no pains to secure accuracy of detail from existing accounts when describing magical rites or formulas for protection against evil, and these have been verified in conversation with certain persons, sought out for that purpose who are actual practitioners of the Art.” The author learned more about the occult from his time in the British Secret Service during WWII, including vetting and putting Crowley to use.
When he got home he found aristocratic British society dabbling in dubious deviltry. While Wheatley “never assisted at, or participated in, any ceremony connected with Magic-Black or White,” Wheatley wrote that he “found ample evidence that Black Magic is still practised in London, and other cities, at the present day.”
With all this as background, readers were happy to take Wheatley at his word and fully immerse themselves in the seemingly forbidden dimension that he was showing them. They knew they were getting a glimpse into a society that had never been unearthed before. They took it at face value that evil more easily occurs when Mars is in conjunction with Saturn, as opposed to Venus.
The eastern magic Wheatley spoke of had its roots with Apollonius of Tyana whose knowledge passed through the heretical sect the Albigenses until they were exterminated in the twelfth century in France. The magic was practiced by the Order of the Templars and Alchemists, who weren’t just interested in turning metal into gold but transfused matter into light in a search for eternal life.
The anti-villain, Duc de Richleau, represents old England, queen and country, fish and chips, a stiff upper lip and the once proud owner of the best naval fleet since the Spanish Armada. He’s kind of a youthful Commander McBragg. He’s seen it all and was left unimpressed by anything that didn’t wear a Union Jack. He mourns the day the sun set somewhere in a land no longer part of the British Empire. De Richleau understands the sadness of rising Nazism and the horrid misrepresentation of the mystical significance of the Swastica from its Hindu symbology. But he is wary of Eastern ways, except maybe the curry. This leads to the inescapable racism that comes from some of the most suspiciously studied colonialistic superstitions.
“Heaven and Hell are only symbolical of growth to Light or disintegration to Darkness,” de Richleau explains. “There is no such person as the Devil, but there are vast numbers of Earthbound spirits, Elementals, and Evil Intelligences of the Outer Circle floating in our midst. But anyone who accepts Satanic baptism does exactly the reverse. They willfully destroy the barrier of astral Light which is our natural protection and offer themselves as a medium through which the powers of Darkness may operate on mankind.”
Wheatley wrote about mystics and adepts seeking the Eightfold Way in London. Aristocratic dowagers like Madame D’Urfe, who took her name from a notorious witch from the time of Louis XV, lining up to kiss the ass of satan. But it was the descriptions of the ritual that was the most tantalizing and terrifying, an outdoor Gnostic rite done exactly backwards from a Roman Catholic mass in a “frightful parody of the things [believers] had been taught to hold sacred in childhood.”
The revelers drank first and conjured the devil later. They did it naked under the illumination of a burning cauldron and candlelight. They danced anti-clockwise to “a harsh, discordant jumble of notes and broken chords,” while the devil, who appeared as a huge goat, “rattled and clacked its monstrous cloven hoofs together and gave a weird laughing neigh in a mockery of applause.”
The celebrants wash it down with a bit of cannibalism, munching “a stillborn baby or perhaps some unfortunate child that they have stolen and murdered.” That was a lot to digest for readers in the thirties. It was an epiphany to horror writers and fans who followed. It was unspeakable and yet so plausible it became a nightmarish daydream. It was as ancient as the dawn of belief and as modern as a sports car.
The film adaptation is one of Hammer’s best movies. It’s my personal favorite Hammer film but I probably can’t separate the love I had for the book since I secretly read it at seven. Although Wheatley was also pleased with it and Christopher Lee said in interviews that it was one of his favorite onscreen performances. That could be because he was the anti-villain rather than the villain. The Devil Rides Out was directed by the legendary Terence Fisher, who made The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) and The Mummy.
The movie was renamed The Devil’s Bride in America because Hammer figured The Devil Rides Out sounded like a western movie. The screenplay was written by Richard Matheson who wrote the 1954 novel I Am Legend that spawned Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price, Omega Man with Charlston Heston and I Am Legend with Will Smith, as well as screenplays for the films House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), and The Raven (1963). Matheson was the guy who booked William Shatner on a flight with gremlins on The Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and then ripped him in half for the Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within” (1966). The film was scored menacingly and beautifully by James Bernard. The movie stays as close to the book as was possible, which is why it works so well.
Christopher Lee’s Nicholas, Duc de Richleau, is as omniscient as god, but not quite pure enough to stand against the devil during a blood rite. He is a completely capable man, an expert on many things and a lover of the finest of them. A former soldier, he is disciplined and commanding and Lee is utterly convincing. We know he’s right. Even when he’s wrong, he’s right, just like Wheatley himself. He’s done it all, researched it extensively, rolled it over in his brain and decided what is right and what is wrong. And that it is wrong to allow the young rapscallion Simon to be baptized a Satanist. Oh, he understands the allure, but no, it’s just not proper.
All that time passing through the six stages of matriculation, Probationer, Neophyte, Zelator, Practicus, Philosophus and Dominus Liminis, that he’d have to go through before becoming an Adeptus Inferior. And for what? To pass the Abyss?
But the best thing Lee brings to Richleau is vulernability. He is sometimes so resolute in how things should be done that he is forced into inaction when confronted by the direst of circumstances. He isn’t entranced by the evil, like his friend Rex is paralyzed by the eyes of the African magician, but immobilized by possibilities until the last possible second, like the scene where the young daughter of his friends is about to be sacrificed. He won’t be held back by the gathered coven of believers, he just won’t move forward blindly into disaster.
It isn’t cowardice, though Lee’s eyes are filled with terror. It is timing. He knows it is up to him to live to fight another day.
Besides Lee, the movie starred Niké Arrighi as the sexy satanic neophyte Tanith Carlisle and Sarah Lawson as Marie Eaton, who resists powerful temptations and comes to the spiritual aid of Du Richleau. Rex Van Wyn (Leon Greene) is enthusiastic. He’s keen to do whatever Richleau suggests in order to save Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) from the deathly grip of dark magic. He’s quite pleased to tour the countryside with the lovely Luciferan trainee, but he sees everything in her world as alien. He cannot fathom her reality and therefore can never get near her, for salvation or seduction.
Tanith has to come into his world as he doesn’t have the imagination to give a passing thought to her daily existance. The grinning Goat of Mendes in the film was played by Eddie Powell, who was Christopher Lee’s stunt double in Hammer’s 1958 adaptation of Dracula.
But it is Charles Gray, the neckless fuck of a narrator in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, who steals the picture as the head of the devil cult. Mocata is Wheatley’s take on Crowley, and Gray brings enough charisma to light a city block’s worth of Christmas trees and almost withstand the 91st Psalm. Canon Darnien Mocata was an officiating priest at some church in Lyons when he was young but was a pain in the ass to his superiors and left after a scandal. He went on to become a somewhat experienced practitioner of the Magic Art.
The magic began in ancient Egypt with Set, the brother of the king and god Osiris. Set fell in love with his brother’s wife Isis but couldn’t spill divine blood so he took advantage of the Egyptians’ preoccupation with death and ceremonial burial. He made a “beautiful sarcophagus of fine cedar wood with the figures of the forty-two assessors of the dead … and every requisite line of ritual from the great Book of the Dead.”
Set threw a banquet for Osiris, invited the youngest nobles, presented the coffin as a gift and chopped his brother into pieces to ensure a perfect fit. Then Set scattered Osiris’ body across the kingdom. Isis, in great mourning over her one true love, was able to find all but the slain god’s penis.
Mocata believes that magic is neither good nor evil. It is “only the science of causing change to occur by means of will.” He seductively explains that the only reason it got a bad rep is because it was practiced behind closed doors and “anything which is done in secret naturally begets a reputation for mystery.” When he conjures entities into actual being he sees it as no more than a “qualified electrician … adjusting a powerful electric battery from which a child, who played foolishly with it, might receive a serious shock or even death.”
Duc de Richleau turns down the lights by conducting counter-magic. He plans the rescue of Simon’s soul like a general readies his troops for battle. He measures off a perfect circle of seven feet and marks it in chalk and draws a five-rayed star with geometrical accuracy, otherwise the pentacle could be dangerous. On the rim of the inner circle he writes the exorcism “In nomina Pa + tris et Fi + lii et Spiritus + Sancti! + El + Elohym + Sother + Emmanuel + Sabaoth + Agia + Tetragammaton + Agyos + Otheos + Ischiros + along with other ancient symbols including “Cabbalistic signs taken from the Sephirotic Tree; Kether, Binah, Ceburah, Hod, Malchut,” the Eye of Horus and ancient Aryan script.
The book details how de Richleau seals the windows with asafretida grass and blue wax and makes the sign of the Cross in holy water over every entrance and doorway. He sets five white tapering candles at each apex of the five-pointed star along with five horseshoes with their horns pointing outward and five dried mandrakes, four females and one male, in a vase of holy water. He binds Simon’s wrists and ankles with asafcetida grass and strings garlic for everyone.
Hammer slams at the righteous combatants with the very best special effects they had to offer at the time, from giant spiders to disembodied spirits, but it is really sold by the camerawork and the horses. Lee is marvelous, keeping himself sane as all the world around him is spinning into the abyss. Everyone around him is weaker than he is and more easily drawn into the Mocata’s workings. The weakest link is Richard Eaton (Paul Eddington), the skeptical member of the reinforcements. Lee keeps him in line by admiring the fearlessness that comes from ignorance and admitting that he is too scared to work alone.
Mocata hits back by kidnapping the young Peggy Eaton (Rosalyn Landor) and striking down his own neophyte, leading Lee to do a resurrection spell. The spells are really first rate in this movie, made completely believable by Lee’s steadfast commitment and the gravitas of his van dyke beard. When all seems completely lost, he conjures a Lord of Light nearing perfection after many lives who drives the adversary back to the dark Halls of Shaitan. In the book, De Richleau is left with a shrunken, mummified phallus, the Talisman of Set, that had just taken off the brow of a monstrous Goat they encountered in the dreamworld of the fourth dimension.
The Devil Rides Out hit theaters the same year as Rosemary’s Baby and between the two movies, the full spectrum of the satanic horror genre is displayed in full. From birth to possession to death, one movie hides its evils in the dark corners of adjacent apartments and the other films from the shadows themselves. I have often wondered whether Sidney Blackmer’s Roman Castevet, which was an anagram of his real name Steven Marcato, was a reference to Wheatley’s Mocata. Both artists are referencing the “Great Beast” of the 20th Century and both the director and novelist Ira Levin, a native New Yorker who who also wrote the horrifying play No Time for Sergeants, must have been familiar with Wheatley’s works.
In Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski builds the suspense by cloaking the evil in dark hallucinogenic dreams. Terence Fisher brings the frights to The Devil Rides Out by concentrating on the minutiae of the workings of black magic. Both films were made in 1967, the year of the first publicized Satanic baptism in history, when three-year-old Zeena Schreck, now a tantric Buddhist yogini, heralded the summer of love. The same year as The Rolling Stones’ sympathetic album Their Satanic Majesty’s Request and The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, almost twenty years, to the day, that the man who brought new parts to play, Aleister Crowley, died.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol is an old school geek who cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.