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.
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.