‘HE USED DARK FORCES…’
As a human being, Dennis Wheatley was a fake. A fluent chancer, a self-promoting story-spinner in slicked-back hair and a foppishly camp velvet bow-tie. And also an advocate of a hideous and repellently ultra-conservative elitism. Although now neglected and seldom read, lost in time and out of taste, he’s primarily associated – if at all, with novels about Black Magic, spiritualism and occult forces, despite the fact that the major part of his prolific output was clunky adventure-romance thrillers. He preferred pulp espionage page-turners, racy Boy’s Own fiction closer to John Buchan, Rider Haggard, or Ian Fleming than, say, Stephen King or Simon Clark. As a result, for four decades – it’s claimed, his novel-a-year book-sales were second only to Agatha Christie, with 25-million copies sold. If his sympathies really lay with the Devil, it wasn’t so much a pact with demonic forces, as a cosy commercial arrangement.
But he did his research. He was acquainted with Aleister Crowley – the ‘Great Beast’ himself, seeking out an introduction through promiscuously gay politician Tom Driberg. He used the connection to authenticate elements of his ‘The Devil Rides Out’ (1934) by basing it on Crowley’s ‘Moonchild’, filching sections intact. And Wheatley’s style and values are apparent from its opening pages. The Duc de Richleau is first encountered in the library of his West End flat, resplendent in a ‘claret-coloured vicuna smoking suit’, drinking ‘wonderful old brandy’ and smoking one of the long Hoyos de Monterry that were ‘his especial pride’. Wheatley was not averse to exploiting the kinkier elements of Satanic ritual when, discovering that ‘an age-old evil’ was stirring in St John’s Wood, he and Rex van Ryn, a ‘virile and powerful’ young American intervene. Then on to a pagan ceremony on Salisbury Plain. The salacious content appealed to what he calls ‘The Old Adam’ in him. Yet the results are ponderously lumpy stuff. While he sniffs patronisingly at ‘sensational novelists’, among his own wackier literary preoccupations were witchcraft, the Astral plane, hypnotism, Atlantis, Walpurgis night, the Great God Pan, Devil-worship in the crypt, and furtive intrigue in dark corridors and locked rooms.
All apparently harmless flim-flam, until he confides to a youthful Melvyn Bragg straight-faced that now ‘the Devil is operating through the Communist States’. Bragg, fronting the ‘Read All About It’ TV-show (1974), looks politely amused. Elsewhere, a 58-minute DVD ‘Dennis Wheatley: A Letter To Posterity’ has been rescued from ‘The Book Programme’, another vintage Literary screen-slot, with a round-table invocation of various oddball talking-heads discussing aspects of Wheatley’s bizarre career-path, from an occult devotee (Mogg Morgan), to a publisher (Kate Bradley), to an oldster who seems to share Wheatley’s more eccentric and extreme political views (Anthony Lejeune, ‘friend and critic’). There’s even some rare interview sequences with Wheatley himself, some movie excerpts and formally-posed historical footage.
I first discovered Dennis Wheatley on holiday in Bridlington in 1966, when I encountered his shot at SF, ‘Star Of Ill-Omen’ (1952), on my cousin’s bookshelf. I’d already read better stuff by better writers and wasn’t greatly impressed – especially by the sequence detailing the physics of his Martian UFO’s non-grav lavatory! Hero Kem (misprinted as ‘Ken’ a couple of times in the ‘Arrow’ paperback), is an Agent with British Special Intelligence (SHAEF) on a mission to discover nuclear Weapons of Mass Destruction in Buenos Aires, when he’s bagged by giant aliens who use his ‘bedding as a big sack’ by gathering ‘its corners together’. In the big sack with him there’s overnight girlfriend Carmen, and her cuckolded scientist husband Estévan (a graduate of Von Braun’s Peenemünde missile project). He’s along to explain – at tedious length, in a dry and (now) factually incorrect four-page planet-by-planet teach-in dissertation on the likelihood of life in the solar system – citing Percival Lowell, or the principles of motion and propulsion in space. The dominant Martian bee-beetles with their giant humanoid slave-species plan to use Estévan’s nuclear expertise to conquer Earth. Only the Argentine WMD-programme was as much a sham as Saddam Hussein’s. Estévan knows how to moor ‘a static airship’ in the stratosphere as an ‘aerial raft’, but not how to build a nuke! Yet if the Martians are dangerous – until Kem provokes an insurrection against them, it’s the three brutal Communist abductees who ‘held life cheaper than among any race of savages’, who are stranger still, animalistic, politically deluded, and humourless – they continue the devious Cold War antagonisms into their planetary exile, and even attempt to nuke London on their return to Earth. Wheatley does score some lucky hits – mentioning ‘greenhouse’ in relation to the atmosphere of Venus. And the book does accurately predict Argentina’s threat to seize the Falklands, albeit crediting it to Dictator General Juan Peron.
Wheatley’s earlier genre-stabs include ‘Such Power Is Dangerous’ (1933), ‘Black August’ (1934) – in which the English Price Regent defeats the forces of totalitarianism, ‘Sixty Days To Live’ (1939) where a rogue comet destroys civilisation, and ‘The Secret War’ (1937). Further short ventures into fantasy are collected into ‘Gunmen, Gallants and Ghosts’ (1943), while an extenuating exception can be made for the creditable ‘A Century Of Horror’ (1935), a massive genre anthology which he edited. He also edited and wrote the introductions for the ‘Dennis Wheatley Library Of The Occult’ paperback reprint series for Sphere Books during the seventies, reintroducing works by Crowley and Madame Blavatsky.
His own ‘lost-world’ SF begins with ‘The Fabulous Valley’ (1934) and ‘Uncharted Seas’ (1938) set in a dense Sargasso of lost ships, later extravagantly filmed by Hammer as ‘The Lost Continent’. Then ‘The Man Who Missed The War’ (1945) visits an Antarctic Viking realm, while ‘They Found Atlantis’ (1936), involves a cast of irritating aristos and wastrel playboys taking time out from their busy social calendar to descend via bathysphere using a Euphrates scroll found in Eridu to guide them. It’s a poor and confused narrative, with pages of diversions into the simultaneous development of the Phoenician and Maya phonetic alphabets as proof of a mid-Atlantic cultural connection, as well as various race-myth-memories of deluge, flood, and sunken realms. Meanwhile, stranded fathoms deep by pirates they encounter mermaids and cannibalistic sub-men before reaching the idyllic subterranean island of the last twelve Atlanteans, who spend their years telepathically ‘spirit-travelling’ the surface world. Wheatley then loses whatever slight plot potential this entails in pointless romantic intrigues. Until, expelled for the murderous disruption they’ve brought with them, the disparate characters finally use explosives to clear disused tunnels and return to Pico, in the Azores.
Despite such inpetitude, Wheatley’s success and wealth from such stuff bought him a Georgian-style mansion in Lymington, Hants. And it was here he wrote his ‘Letter To Posterity’ (dated 20th November 1947) ranting against the ‘anarchists and agitators’ of what he calls ‘the all-men-are-equal’ school. Insisting ‘all men are NOT equal’. He opposes what he calls ‘the coming of the machine-age’ and the ‘baleful influence’ of equality, which is causing the ‘destruction of the Old Order’. This attack on the ‘ruling elite’ – represented by the ‘socialist planning’ of Atlee’s Labour Government of 1945, is a betrayal of all he claims to value. He advocates setting up Mosley-style Secret Societies of Gentlemen’s Clubs and Country Houses, Right-Wing Aristos intent on launching a coup, an insurrection – what he euphemises as ‘extreme measures’ against the ‘unjust tyrannous officials’ responsible. ‘If need be, die for it’ he declares boldly – then squirrels the document away in his mansion where no-one can find it. Until now.
Dennis Yates Wheatley was born (8th January 1897) in the south London suburb of Streatham, his father a remote authoritarian figure. He was unhappy in the ‘detested’ Dulwich College, preferring to escape into the fiction of Dumas or ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’. Following expulsion from Dulwich he completed his schooling aboard the naval training vessel HMS Worcester, from which he was commissioned into the Field Artillery regiment. He started World War I by wallpapering his billet in a ruined French chateau until it was ‘really top-hole’, only to be invalided from the front as a victim of a gas-attack during the Ypres Salient. But coincidentally he happened to meet a certain Eric Gordon Tombe in the army. Tombe – gentleman crook, charming fraudster and colourful con-man, helped broaden his intellectual, literary – and sexual horizons, using what he terms a potent combination of ‘drink and ink’. Introducing him to the works of Proust, Nietzsche, and Joseph Conrad, fuelled by an in-debt hedonism of champagne, nightclubs, and ‘hectic nights’ with women. By age 31, Wheatley was deep into a troubled second marriage and bankrupted when the family wine-business he’d inherited was wiped out in the 1929 Crash. So he tried his hand at writing a book. ‘The Forbidden Territory’ (1933) in which Simon Aron, Richard Eaton, and Rex van Ryn – his own rebranding of ‘The Three Musketeers’, relocate Dumas’ high-action exploits to Lenin’s USSR. It immediately became a best-seller, and Alfred Hitchcock bought the film-rights. But as early as his 1936 novel ‘Contraband’ he was seeding his books with right-wing ideas, claiming that ‘Communism is the new face of Satanism’. His heroes – like charming egoist Gregory Sallust, are all decent square-jawed chaps with patriotic motives, flawed by often-sadistic sexism and now-comic jingoism. Heroes who are up against sinister figures such as the twisted Lord Gavin Fortescue, and devious ‘Johnny Foreigners’. In ‘The Devil Rides Out’ de Richleau finds himself facing what he calls ‘a most unprepossessing lot’ of racially offensive stereotypes, a mandarin ‘whose slit eyes betrayed a cold, merciless nature’, a ‘fat, oily-looking Babu in a salmon-pink turban’, a ‘red-faced Teuton’ with a hare lip and a mute Madagascan who was ‘a bad black, if ever I saw one’. Even accepting the different sensibilities of the time, such pulp-magazine caricatures suggest at best limited literary powers, and at worst, a snobbish xenophobia. At first Wheatley merely seems content to live vicariously through his characters and their high-action romantic adventures. Then, faced with a second global war, he found himself at the heart of the British Establishment. As the King’s favourite novelist, he was seconded to the Joint Planning Staff, tasked with preparing theoretical strategy papers, such as those which recommended misdirecting invading forces by switching rail-station names and spinning signposts around to face the opposite direction.
Once the war was over, of course, the novels continued. ‘To The Devil, A Daughter’ (1953), was made into the final Hammer horror film in 1976. ‘The Satanist’ (1960) fictionalised Hitler’s involvement with Satanic cults. They were given added gravitas by the addition of ‘health warnings’ about the power of Black Magic, designed to elevate their dramatic power. His Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee) is cautioned ‘in magic there is neither good nor evil. It is merely a science. The science of causing change to occur by means of one’s will. The sinister reputation attached to it is entirely groundless and is based on superstition, rather than objective observation. The power of the will is something that people do not understand. Attributing to it mysterious qualities that it does not posses.’ But it’s in that dangerously slippery interface where the Fascist ‘Triumph of the Will’ elides with Occult mysticism that Wheatley unexpectedly found his place in the anti-rationalist coven-revival of the late-sixties. Even raising his profile into the early-seventies despite the advent of ‘The Exorcist’ (1973), which made his witchery seem posed and stale, something better left to shock-rockers Ozzy Osbourne’s Black Sabbath, or more lately, the likes of Cradle of Filth. By then the writer had grown to resemble one of his own characters, living a ‘suburban baronial’ existence of the smoking-jacketed connoisseur in his Grove Place mansion, until his death on 10th November 1977.
Although it was the very-great Christopher Lee who first advocated Wheatley to Hammer Studios, and is therefore instrumental in getting ‘The Devil Rides Out’ onto the screen (scripted by Richard Matheson, 1968). And – admit it, the film is among the best of the highly variable Horror output. Yet Wheatley remains a deeply unpleasant snob, a rascally social-climbing popinjay, a nouveau riche fantasist who began to believe his own fantasies – not the harmless Black Magic ones, but the far more dangerously offensive class superiority ones.
Based on a review of DVD: ‘DENNIS WHEATLEY: A LETTER TO POSTERITY (THE BOOK PROGRAMME)’ (ARC / BBC Scotland / Lion Television – 2005)
Additional research from:
‘THE DEVIL IS A GENTLEMAN: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF DENNIS WHEATLEY’
by Phil Baker (Dedalus, 2009) Review by Luke Jennings in ‘Observer’ 8th November 2009
Original Review Featured on:-
‘ZONE-SF’ website www.zone-sf.com/screenscene/dwheatley.html (Nov 2005)