Sex, Jingoism & Black Magic:
The Weird Fiction of Dennis Wheatley
Jessica Amanda Salmonson
Dennis Wheatley wrote some of the best & some of the lamest weird novels of his era, a long writing career beginning in 1933 & lasting until his death in 1977. He also wrote swashbuckling historicals, novels of international intrigue, autobiographies, & nonfiction occult. But it is likely that the supernatural horror is what will be longest collected.
Wheatley was a sadist & inserts sadism into the majority of his books, especially in the Gregory Sallust adventures. These are mostly not fantasy except at the margins (if that) yet the whole series could be regarded supernatural by right of Gregory seeming really to be an avatar of Satan. The exceptions that make broader use of the fantastic are a novel of Oriental mysticism The Island Where Time Stands Still (1954); two novels of black magic They Used Dark Forces (1964) & The White Witch of the South Seas (1968); & a fantasy-warfare novel Black August (1934).
But throughout the whole of the long-running series Gregory himself is a demonic figure often described in terms of an elemental. As heroes go, he's a nasty fellow. If you like protracted scenes of torture (mainly the torture of women) there's much to enjoy in most of Wheatley's books & particularly in the Sallusts. Sallust was Wheatley's altar ego & an idealization of his own sexual feelings. I stopped reading Wheatley before I got through much of Sallust but he did have a revolting appeal & if the books had been less about international intrigue (which bores) & more about Gregory's disgusting character, I'd've read on.
More dated than his violent sexism is his jingoism, at times so laughable it can be "accepted" for high camp value, though he never intended it to be campy. The high end for campiness is Star of Ill Omen (1952) which reads like a script for a propagandistic red-baiting flying saucer B-movie, more Hollywood than British. To the Devil -- A Daughter (1953) is the one that pits a golem & an army of homunculi against evil Satan-worshipping commy bastards -- hardly high art, but as riveting as many a thrillingly cheesy comic book story. In the Gregory Sallust adventure, They Used Dark Forces, Hitler uses black magic; Neil Baron in Horror Literature regarded it his best postwar novel.
The Haunting of Toby Jugg (1948) is extremely imaginative & ultra-weird. Enjoyed that giant spider! Barclay in The Anatomy of Horror declared it "Wheatley's best occult story" which is pushing it, but it's at least his best wartime book. His best over all is almost certainly The Devil Rides Out (1935), a minor classic. Black magic, demonism, evil sorcerer, ghosts, astral journeys, mummified penis talisman, revival after death -- quite a colorful item, declared by Lost Horizon author James Hilton, "The best thing of its kind since Dracula." The Devil Rides Out was in fact one of Wheatley's absolute best sellers in both the USA & England, probably the most successful horror novel apart from Dracula at any time in the first sixty years of the 20th century. It shaped many persisting beliefs about Satan worshippers.
The Devil Rides Out was the sequel to his first novel, the nonsupernatural thriller Forbidden Territory (1933) having the same Doc Savage type of hero cluster, reprinted seven times in seven weeks -- a propitious beginning to his writing career. Featuring the same heros is Strange Conflict (1941) using such themes as astral journeys, evil adept, voodoo, appearance of Pan, with our heros being pitted against Nazi black magic. Four of the novels with those "modern musketeers" Duke de Richleau, Somon Aron, Richard Eaton & Rex van Ryne were issued in the omnibus Those Modern Musketeers (1954); the first in the contents was original to this fat volume: Three Inquisitive People, The Forbidden Territory, The Devil Rides Out & The Golden Spaniard, the last-named another non-supernatural thriller first issued in 1938. His next-to-last supernatural novel Gateway to Hell (1970) was the culmination of this series.
Uncharted Seas (1938) is in imitation of William Hope Hodgson's weird sea tales. The Man Who Missed the War(1945) is a wild Lost Race extravaganza, very good but then I'm enamored of lost race stories, & he pulled it off when the theme had pretty much died out of adult literature. Pygmies are lorded over by a bad-apple Russian in a hidden valley of Antarctica. They're preyed upon by a nearby community of survivors of Atlantis who practice evil magic. The Atlanteans by long-distant mind-control are responsible for the Nazi movement. They Found Atlantis (1936) was written at the height of Wheatley's youthful powers. It, too, uses the Lost Race theme, & is rather more kindly disposed to the Atlanteans. Worlds Far From Here (1945) is an omnibus of these three fantasy novels.
Of his postwar fantasies The Ka of Gifford Hillary (1956) is so laughable a combination spy thriller & weird tale that it actually scores highly on camp value, thereby easily recommended. Killed by a death ray, Gifford's astral body continues the great adventure! The Satanist (1960), loose sequel to To the Devil -- A Daughter, is about an occult secret society. Neil Barron thought it one of Wheatley's liveliest novels, while Bleiler in his Guide to Supernatural Literature called it, "Probably the best of Wheatley's later thrillers."
Other weird novels amidst his enormous general output are Such Power is Dangerous (1933) about witchcraft; the catastrophe novel Sixty Days to Live (1939); & The Irish Witch (1973) about a femme fatale evil witch, the only one of the historical novels featuring Roger Brook to incorporate the supernatural.
Wheatley's knowledge of weird fiction was extensive. His anthology A Century of Horror (1935) is a superior, hefty tome which the Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror calls "One of the finest anthologies of all time; no collection of this genre should be without it." He also edited Shafts of Fear (1964) & Quiver of Horror (1964), besides a line of occult novels. With his interest in the short form it is surprising he did not write more in the way of the short story himself. His collections are Mediterranean Nights (1942) & Gunmen, Gallants, & Ghosts (1943), the latter a mix of criminist, swashbuckling historicals & supernatural shorts, including four tales of occult detective Niels Orsen in imitation of William Hope Hodgson's Carnaki. Wheatley dashed these collections together mainly from vagrant writings to meet contracted deadlines at a time when he was too busy with war service to compose novels. Some of the tales are nevertheless worthwhile, with "The Snake" rightly his own favorite, a tale of African magic.
Dennis Wheatley, like Edgar Wallace or E. Phillips Oppenheim, was a mainstream powerhouse whose best sellers relied on genre conventions. But as the posthumous reputations of Wallace & Oppenheim fade with time, Wheatley retains a more lasting interest because of his honest sexual perversity, the imaginativeness of his historicals & horrors, & even for the jingoistic spy novels which by their very exaggeration are ideal popular culture relics to unveil the depths of wartime & Cold War xenophobia in the English-reading world. And the vast entertainment value of such weird novels as To the Devil -- A Daughter, The Haunting of Toby Jugg The Devil Rides Out, They Found Atlantis & The Man Who Missed the War will spare him from sharing the dollar-bin with Wallace & Oppenheim for some while yet to come.
copyright © 2000 by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, all rights reserved
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