While fantasy forums and websites frequently gravitate to the newest and hottest titles, I have a serious soft spot for the classics, especially Pulp-Era fiction. Readers today have been able to categorize everything into neat micro subgenres, but there was once a period which was more like the wild west of fantasy, where anything goes, and stories were constantly forging new ground. And though authors like Lovecraft and Howard were certainly the most remembered trail blazers, they were hardly alone. Among them was Dennis Wheatley.
I first became aware of Wheatley when my wife and I were visiting some older friends of ours. While discussing writing and my love of Lovecraft, our hostess mentioned that when she was growing up in New Zealand, her favorite horror author was Wheatley. I’d never heard of him, and quickly picked up a copy of his most famous horror novel The Devil Rides Out (1934).
The Devil Rides Out is the first of Weatley’s Black Magic series, but also a sequel to the extremely successful novel Forbidden Territory (1933), which was an action/adventure novel. Please take a moment to appreciate this. Wheatley followed a normal and extremely popular adventure story with a supernatural horror. This is pretty much the equivalent of Liam Neeson fighting vampires in Taken 2. Having not been aware that this was a sequel, I was very happy to see that the novel was written so that a newcomer like myself would quickly be brought up to speed on the characters and their histories.
The story follows five characters, their leader the Duke de Richeau, is pretty much Christopher Lee. Seriously. Take Christopher Lee, the most bad-ass Renaissance man alive and just call him de Richeau. Being that Wheatley wrote the character in the 1930’s we can assume that one of the following happened: A) Wheatley had access to a crystal ball and modeled the Duke after the future Lee, B) The universe was so impressed with what a bad-ass the fictional Duke was that it immediately aligned the stars to make a then 11 year old Lee into the Duke, or C) A young Christoper Lee read the about the Duke and said, “Holy shit, I’m going to be this guy,” and promptly succeeded at it. Given what I know about Christopher Lee and of Wheatley’s extremely thorough research into the occult, all of these are equally possible. In fact, Christoper Lee enjoyed the novel so much that he played Duke de Richeau in the 1968 film version when he was finally old enough to play himself.
“Now the circle is complete.”
The heroes find themselves at odds with a group of Satanists who have kidnapped their friend in order to find an artifact of unspeakable evil: The Talisman of Set. That doesn’t sound so bad, until you find out what exactly that is. I’m not spoiling it for you, but trust me, the Talisman is kinda gross. Armed with their wits, their devoted friendship, and the Duke’s formidable occult knowledge, the heroes endure hellish horrors as they chase the Satanists across Europe.
I found the story a lot of fun. Yes, it’s dated. But it’s also a fascinating time-capsule of pre-war British horror. Wheatley gives a good jab at the Nazis at one point and it was interesting to see the thoughts about them so far before the start of the war. It’s obvious that Wheatley did some incredible research for this book. I even read somewhere that he interviewed Aleister Crowley about it. However some of the thorough occult information Wheatley pumps into the novel skates a narrow line between absolutely fascinating and boringly tedious. But the histories and debates the Duke gives when convincing his friends that magic is real are simply wonderful.
The eternal 15 year old in me snickered several times through the book. Not just the use of “ejaculated” as a means of speaking, but several strangely uncomfortable moments that they sort of charged through without the least acknowledgement of how weird that would be. My favorite was when the heroes encounter a Satanic rite and they have to ward all of their bodily orifices with sanctified holy water to keep the evil out (Nine for men, ten for women). For some reason you can not do this yourself and your friends have to apply the warding water to all of your holes. I’m immature, I admit it, and if I ever found myself lurking in the woods outside a sabat with a hundred cannibalistic Satanists performing their evil before Baphomet himself, I doubt I’d have a single scruple in dropping my pants and ordering my best friend to ward my openings for protection.
“I’ve changed my mind. Please seal my holes from evil.”
Another thing I enjoyed was the American character of Rex. Being a proper British author, Wheatley made Rex the most steretypical loud-mouthed gung-ho kinda dense but lovable character he could. It’s pretty clear that Rex epitomized Wheatley’s opinion of Americans and I found it quite entertaining. I also wanted to reach into the book several times and choke Rex out. He’s a nice guy, but damn he’s dumb. Best to think of him as a huge lovable dog.
Being a 80 year old book you can also expect some racism. I’d been warned before hand and I didn’t find Wheatley’s racism to be that bad (I cannot say this about the next book, Strange Conflict). But be warned.
Racism and awkwardness aside, I thoroughly enjoyed The Devil Rides Out. I even used some of it in my Call of Cthulhu games. I recommend it for anyone that enjoys classic horror or might be interested in something a bit different than the standard tropes we find in today’s Horror and Urban Fantasy stories.
After reading the novel I picked up the sequels. I read Gateway to Hell(1970) and Strange Conflict(1941) out of order by mistake and am happy that I did. Gateway to Hell was an OK sequel. The first half was a tedious and boring travel guide to 1950’s South America, but the second half did a fine job of redeeming it (The book gets good the moment the Duke finally shows up). Still, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you LOVED the Devil Rides Out. Also…bit more racist that the first book. The second book, Strange Conflict, was terrible. Fucking awful. The setup was great, brilliant even. It was awesome to read a story about the London Blitz that was written during the Blitz. Then we find that the Nazis are using occult powers to locate British ships and sink them. It started out so good, but much of the Duke’s dialogue was recycled word for word from Book 1, the beautifully set up plot plot fell absolutely flat and devolved into plain silly, and the incredible racism expressed was difficult for me to get through. Seriously, please don’t think this is a call to act and see how bad it is. It’s bad. Best to avoid it. Also, with the incredible research Wheatley did on European occult in the first book, he did extremely little research into Haitian Voodoo, and pretty much latched on to the horror tropes that were coming out at the time.
The versions that I read were the Audible editions read by Nick Mercer. Mercer did a fine job narrating and it greatly added to my enjoyments of the books. If you want to try some classic British Horror, check out The Devil Rides Out.