‘You fool,’ he thundered. ‘I’d rather see you dead than monkeying with Black Magic.’

The Devil Rides out, by Denis Wheatley

After Don Quixote I wanted a bit of readable nonsense. Something light and easy to dip into that wouldn’t require meta-anaylsis and constant attention, much as I enjoyed all that with Quixote.

Dennis Wheatley is one of those authors who were once household names and are now barely remembered. He wrote a mixture of spy/action thrillers and books about strange Satanic cults threatening the UK. Often he used the same characters in both. He’s perhaps best remembered now for the classic Hammer House of Horror movie that was made based on this novel.

As a teenager one of my relatives was a Wheatley fan, and I read quite a few of them. He seemed sinister and worldly, not least because of the famous Author’s Note in this particular book. There he talks about the pains he’s taken to ensure the accuracy of the magical practices he describes, and then goes on to say:

All the characters and the situations in this book are entirely imaginary, but, in the inquiry necessary to writing of it, I found ample evidence that Black Magic is still practised in London, and other cities, at the present day.

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 practise of the Secret Art in any way. 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.

Now that’s an author’s foreword! Did he believe any of it? Who knows? But if we assume as I think we should that anything written by an author between the pages of their book is part of the book, what’s happening here is Wheatley hooking his readers before they even get to the first page proper of his story. He was a bestselling writer for a reason.

devilridesoutfront

What follows is a highly entertaining mix of the sinister and the prosaic, all written in that rather portentous style used in the foreword with its capitalisations and emphasis on how evil lurks under the surface of the everyday.

Simon Aron, a “frail, narrow-shouldered Englishman” misses a reunion with his old friends American adventurer Rex Van Ryn and “elderly French exile” Duke de Richleau. Rex and the Duke have had adventures together before (in previous books) fighting the Russians, but now they’re worried that something may be wrong much closer to home.

They drive to Simon’s house, where they discover him hosting a curious party with a strangely international guest list. When they arrive they’re taken by most of the other guests as having been invited, but that puzzles some for with Rex and Duke there are now fifteen people present, two surplus to requirements…

All this is beyond Rex, but not the Duke and he soon realises that what menaces Simon is far worse than communism, it’s Satanism (though in other books Wheatley, deeply right wing, directly linked the two). Wasting no time they knock out Simon and flee with him, but not before they encounter a beautiful young woman named Lilith who catches Rex’s eye and a “fleshy, moon-faced man” with “unsmiling eyes” named Mocata who appears to be leader of this curious band.

What’s wonderful in all this is the incredible snobbery which pervades the book. This next quote comes just after all I’ve just described and more – Rex has found himself near in love-at-first-sight with Lilith, has discovered that one of his oldest friends is trafficking in some bizarre black magic cult and has just fought a mute manservant and eluded vicious satanists. He’s now back at the Duke’s with Simon:

As Rex laid Simon upon the wide sofa he glanced round him with an interest unappeased by a hundred visits, at the walls lined shoulder high with beautifully bound books, and at the lovely old colour prints, interspersed with priceless historical documents and maps, which hung above them.

I’m as much a sucker for a well-bound book as the next man, but in those circumstances I have to admit it wouldn’t be the first thing I’d be thinking about. The whole book’s like that. Later when Rex and the Duke slip back into Simon’s now empty home to look for clues they take the time to note his preferred brands of champagne and foie gras before finding themselves attacked by a malevolent spirit lying in wait for them.

Writing that I realised I’d seen that odd combination of danger and high-end living once before, in Ian Fleming’s Bond novels. Perhaps it’s a genre thing. The adventure genre is fairly vicarious by nature, and Wheatley wrote more Bond-esque fiction (much of it starring the Duke) than he did black magic tales.

I’m probably making it sound terrible. The thing is though, it isn’t. It’s oddly effective. Wheatley litters the text with asides from the Duke on his knowledge of black magic and it all sounds so matter of fact that it becomes strangely credible. The Duke knows there won’t be a dog at the house, because ‘Dogs are simple, friendly creatures but highly psychic. The vibrations in a place where Black Magic was practised would cause any dog to bolt for a certainty.’

What follows is a duel between good and evil. On one side is the Duke and Rex, fighting with white magic, prayer, fast cars, a good right hook. On the other is Mocata with his curious powers of mind control, telepathy and summoning baleful spirits. Simon is the prize. If he can be made to sign his name in the Devil’s book on May Day Eve his soul will be lost forever, and he lacks the strength to resist Mocata’s influence on his own.

I won’t spoil the plot, though if you’ve seen the movie you already know it. I will say though that it contains at least two great set piece passages, one where the Duke and Rex interrupt a grand sabbat at which Satanists from across the UK and beyond are gathered, and another where they find themselves besieged by spirits in a lengthy night during which Mocata exercises the full force of his power against them. It’s a fun read that does precisely what it promises to – Wheatley was never a great writer but he was a very reliable one.

Part of Wheatley’s appeal back in the 1970s when this stuff was huge was that he had supposedly researched all this in minuscule detail. Wheatley created an image of himself as a man who knew much about dark things most were unaware of, and perhaps he did. There are after all plenty who do believe in black magic and all that, and it’s entirely possible Wheatley did research them.

It’s that sense of veracity which makes this work. The characters aren’t exactly subtle, the plot hardly complex. Wheatley’s prose is often stilted in tone and there’s an awful lot of exposition. For all that, Mocata and his cult seem convincing. There seems to be some form of underlying logic to their powers, a sense of a greater cosmology underpinning it all. Wheatley’s vision of evil forces lurking just under the surface of (then) contemporary British life seems all too persuasive.

In the end it’s the detail, the exposition I just cited as a potential fault, that pulls it all together. Take the following rather dry passage where the Duke erects some magical defences:

Then, taking five long white tapering candles, such as are offered by devotees to the Saints in Catholic Churches, he lit them from an old-fashioned tinder-box and set them upright, one at each apex of the five-pointed star. In their rear he placed the five brand new horseshoes which Richard had secured from the village with their horns pointing outward, and beyond each vase of holy water he set a dried mandrake, four females and one male, the male being in the valley to the north.

There’s no real drama to any of that. It’s a mix of dry explanation and Wheatley making sure that his research is visible on the page. I’m back to that sense of veracity again though. He renders the extraordinary, ordinary and in doing so makes it very easy to imagine. In that sense he’s very cinematic.

All this ordinariness makes it all the more chilling when something truly macabre does occur,  such as when someone observes of Mocata that “‘He is walking in the sunshine–but he has no shadow!’”. Most of the book is conversation, preparation, more conversation. Then there’s an action sequence, or a shadowless man on a sunny day.

Is The Devil Rides Out a good book, whatever that means? Ultimately, yes, because you have to take books on their own terms. This isn’t literary fiction. It’s not intended to be beautiful or to challenge. It’s an entertainment, a piece of thrilling nonsense designed to while away a dull afternoon or train ride. It does that very well.

It’s dated, both in terms of style and certainly in terms of attitudes, but so’s Ian Fleming and that doesn’t stop people reading him. In his heyday Wheatley’s main output was his pure spy stories, but his black magic tales are the interesting ones because nobody else wrote this stuff quite like he did. As if it were all real. He’s now being rereleased on Kindle, which is how I came across this title, and I think he deserves a place in the British horror canon.

The ultimate test of any author is whether, having read them, you plan to read more by them. I’ve already bought Wheatley’s To the Devil a Daughter. I don’t expect it to be well written, I don’t expect it to be remotely credible, but I do expect it to seem credible just for the time I’m reading it – that’s Wheatley’s secret.

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17 Comments

Filed under Horror Fiction, Wheatley, Denis

17 responses to “‘You fool,’ he thundered. ‘I’d rather see you dead than monkeying with Black Magic.’

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I remember these knocking around our house in the 1970s when I was young – I suspect it was my dad that read them, and there was always a bit of a mystique about them. Hokum always works if it’s convincing hokum and Wheatley sounds like he certainly manages to convince!

  2. I think I would certainly enjoy this.
    The foreword reminded me of those 19th Century novels in which the author writes that he found the mansucript that follows or someone gave it to him. The novel then also starts with the foreword, which is clever, of course. He just adapted it a bit.

    I haven’t even seen the movie yet, so the whole book would be surprising.

  3. I read a couple by him years ago when they were popular thanks for reminder of him I seem to remember he was involved in so spy work during ww2 I once read

  4. Carol S

    I think this is dangerous stuff even though deeply silly Bad writing bad content bad subjects contaminate. And black magic is real. Absolutely leave it alone.

  5. Kaggsy, convincing hokum, great phrase. I wish I’d thought of it actually as it’s spot on.

    Caroline, my only warning would be that it is of its period. It’s views on sex and race are from our perspective very out of date, but then we have to take it in the context of when it was written. The quotes should give you a decent sense of the writing – it’s not one to read for the prose.

    Stu, somebody mentioned that on twitter too. I guess that’s where he gets his sense of veracity from in part, on the spying side at least he’d lived this stuff.

    Carol, Wheatley always held that black magic was real, though whether he believed that or whether it was showmanship to sell books I have no idea. Still, he was very consistent as per that foreword – his strong advice was not to meddle with it.

    The depiction of black magic, Satanists, evil generally here is one that I think most Christians (even US Evangelicals) would be pretty comfortable with (the depiction of good arguably less so since the Duke utilises magical protections rather than simply prayer). Mocata is a toadlike man, utterly despicable. Evil here is profoundly dangerous, and those ensnared by it are pitiable but still to be feared.

    The Satanists here are people who have literally traded their immortal souls for worldly advantage – money, occult knowledge, the odd orgy. They get what they paid for, but at such a price that the bargain is one only an idiot would make. Playing with black magic is portrayed as being similar to playing with nitroglycerine, but infinitely more dangerous.

    There’s a trend in much horror fiction to give the bad guys the best lines. To make the vampires beautiful, the werewolves ruggedly sexy. This isn’t that kind of horror fiction. If you met Mocata and his crew in real life you’d be repulsed by them, and if you had any sense you’d run a mile. In a way that’s part of what works with the book – evil here isn’t misunderstood, it’s not some angry adolescent posture, it’s an ancient malevolence that delights in harm. In other words, evil here is actually evil.

  6. I’ve had this on my to be read list for so many years that my interest in it has waned, so I’m grateful to have your review to help revive it – and to know that the book is available as an ebook (I’ve watched the price for a used print copy go up and down and up again from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars, even for a mass market paperback edition).

  7. I always knew there was link between Communism and Satanism! Proof at last!
    Joking.
    Well these dated books can be a lot of fun but not for the reasons the author intended. Not my thing but I still admire the spirit of enjoying these old time novels and savouring them for what they are.

  8. Scott, glad to help. Let me know what you think if you read it. It’s fun, but definitely not worth spending too much on. It’s an afternoon’s entertainment.

    Guy, now the truth is out!

    I think you have to take them on their own terms if you try them. I’m not big on the whole enjoying things ironically concept. I prefer simply to enjoy things or not.

  9. Tredynas Days

    I think I read one or two of his novels in my youth, and saw some of the movies: nothing has survived in my memory, though your spirited (no pun meant) piece brought some of it back. I suppose he’s in the tradition of Poe, MR James and maybe Le Fanu, but there’s a strong whiff of cheesy 70s soft porn (sex and occult) – though maybe I’m thinking more of the film genre pieces, Hammer, etc. It’s good to see you mixing up the high and low brow stuff, Max. I’m reminded too of the adventure yarns of Buchan and Household, also, like Fleming, with rather up-market heroes defending empire and class values.

  10. Poe and MR James is good company to be in, but in part yes. Buchan is absolutely on point. I’m not a Buchan fan but there’s a definite family resemblance in terms of style and content. I suspect Wheatley would have been happy with the comparison. Household I don’t know (he didn’t write Rogue Male did he? If so that’s supposed to be a slightly different league than the others we’re discussing).

  11. Great cover. I love vintage, painted/drawn pulp art. And, while I haven’t had the greatest luck with spy fiction, black magic is my cup of tea. I enjoy all the “hokum,” as one of your readers called it. I found an old book from the 60s on my mother’s shelf called The Forgotten, which looks like a black magic/ghost story of sorts. I’ll have to give it a go. (The cover is also very melodramatic, with a young damsel in distress looking oh-so-frightened, running away from whatever horror the author has concocted.)

  12. It’s been many years since I read either book, but I remember To the Devil a Daughter as being even more entertaining than The Devil Rides Out, if that’s possible. There’s a Wheatley short story in this vein, The Black Magician, that’s worth tracking down as well (I found it in The Satanists, a Peter Haining anthology). I read a fair bit of Wheatley when I was younger. The Gregory Sallust WWII spy series is another highlight.

  13. Alan Smith

    As a DW aficionado, who nonetheless views many of his political and social ideas with revulsion, I have to say I found your review extremely fair and entertaining.

    I find reading him a bit of a guilty pleasure. Many of the “givens” in his stories – that the poor should know their place, the English are a superior race, communism and socialism are evil and that ugliness equates with evil (your review did not really go into the fact that the villains are all mutilated, amputees or otherwise afflicted, except the beautiful Tanith, who of course ends up on the side of good) – all of these can make a modern reader feel quite uncomfortable. In “Gateway to Hell” (The worst De Richleau book he wrote) he even links the Black Power movement with Satanism.

    Yet if one is able to look past his assumptions, it’s hard not to see why he was a best selling author in his day. Quite a few writers can do convincing stories about the supernatural, and many can do exciting thrillers. How many can do both at the same time? His writing is not especially “Literary” but it’s lucid, fast-moving, and sucks you in. The term “page turner” could almost have been invented for some of his novels.

    I find the best way to read him is simply to accept that he was a man of his time and class, and take the “information” dumps with a grain of salt. Instead, concentrate on the amazingly exciting stories, admire the superb way he links real history into his character’s lives (The Sallust works demonstrate this best of all) and escape into a fantasy where, even when ip against ab-human entities from the outer circles of hell, there’s nothing a good vintage wine or foie gras sandwich won’t put right!

  14. Alan, thanks for the detailed comment, and I’m glad you liked the review.

    I’m not a huge believer in guilty pleasures. I liked this book, it’s not perfect but it’s fun and since it was intended as entertainment I think that makes it a success. His givens are pretty dodgy, and deeply out of line with my own politics, but the adventure genre generally tends I think to be a bit right wing as you say he sucks you in. For the duration of the novel I can put up with that stuff, or more accurately I don’t notice it enough while reading for it to really bother me.

    Truth be told I didn’t pick up the bit on mutilation and so on, good point though.

    I agree completely with lucid, fast-moving and sucks you in. I think sometimes literary readers, of which I’m one obviously, can downplay the talent it takes to write a page-turner. It’s a different sort of talent to a deeply literary novel of course, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a talent. Plotting, pacing, these are real skills. Wheatley had them in spades.

    Definitely agree on your final paragraph. Ab-human, are you a William Hope Hodgson fan by any chance? I have a review of his Carnacki stories here.

    Literary and Berkley, I missed your comments for which apologies. It is a great cover isn’t it Literary? It’s definitely hokum, but good hokum. Do let me know what The Forgotten is like. Berkley, I’m pleased to hear To the Devil is better, because that’;s my next Wheatley. I’ll look out for the Black Magician as well. Not sure if I’ll try the WWII stuff, I’m sure you’re right but I’m not a huge thriller reader, it’s the horror angle that attracted me here rather than the action element.

  15. Alan Smith

    Max, I am a Hodgson fan, and really enjoyed the “Ghost Finder” stories and your review. Of one of the many tragedies war causes, robbing us of such a great author, who I am sure had many more great works in him was one of the saddest. “House on the Borderland” which I reread a few months ago must surely be one of the best books of its kind ever penned.

    But the phrase “Ab Human” I’m sure I picked up from Wheatley some years before I read Hodgson… or did I misremember? :^).

  16. I’m not sure Hodgson is underappreciated, since those of us who know him tend to appreciate him, but I do think he’s underknown if I can make up a word. House on the Borderlands is pretty special I agree, incredibly strange and powerful.

    You could well be right on abhuman. I got it from Hodgson so assumed it came from him, but on reflection I’ve no evidence for that at all so there’s no guarantee it’s true.I do love it as a term though, not inhuman, abhuman, other.

    Are you into the usual suspects? Chambers, Machen? Lovecraft? My personal favourite of the weird writers, Clark Ashton Smith?

  17. Alan Smith

    My point about Hodgson was that he died in WWI – and would have written many more books had he survived. If his major works I love “The Ghost Pirates” and “The Boats of the Glen Carrick?” (If I recall the last title correctly) and hated “Night Land” – the weird semi 17th century prose turned me against it.

    Lovecraft? Smith? Totally and absolutely. Bierce, Poe? Oh yes, yes! Machen I am not 100% on board with… tends to be a bit over sentimental at times. Chambers, I admit I have not read enough of to form a judgement.

    Dion Fortune is another underknown that us well worth checking out. She was a genuine occult practitioner, and her knowledge is even greater and more accurate than Wheatley’s.

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