Dennis Wheatley’s work is defined by his occult writing, but his books and stories often incorporated the work of the devil alongside Wheatley’s staunch political beliefs. KB Morris explores the writer’s work and life in the first of three essays…
By the time Dennis Wheatley (1897–1977) was considering delving into occult writing, he was already a best-selling author. His first published novel, The Forbidden Territory (1933) was an instant hit; reprinted seven times in seven weeks. His next two, published in the same year, also sold well and Wheatley searched for a new theme, as he wrote in his autobiography,
‘I tried very hard to think of a subject for my next book that would hit another high spot. It then occurred to me that, although in Victorian times there had been a great vogue for stories of the occult, in the present century there had been very few so I decided to use the theme of black magic.’
In an effort to learn more about the occult in the UK, his friend Tom Driberg introduced him to Aleister Crowley, an infamous occultist and magician. Wheatley met Crowley in May 1934, and they went for lunch at the Hungaria restaurant on Regent Street. Wheatley did not describe the lunch nor Crowley further, though Crowley did send him a copy of his book Magick in Theory and Practice (1929), with an inscription referencing their lunch. Further correspondence indicates that Wheatley was using work as an excuse not to see Crowley again, and their acquaintance developed no further.
According to his autobiography, Wheatley also met the Reverend Montague Summers around this time. Summers, who wrote The History of Witchcraft and Demonology in 1926 and was the first to translate the Malleus Maleficarum into English in 1928, was an eccentric character. He designed his own ecclesiastical outfits, which made him look like an 18th-century cleric and it was rumoured that he not only wasn’t ordained but was in fact a practising Satanist.
An acquaintance of Summers called Anatole James who met him in 1918, recounted attending a Black Mass at Summers’ instigation. He also spoke of Summers’ enjoyment at corrupting young Catholic boys. However, in 1923, an incident seems to have happened that turned Summers against Satanism, and he began to passionately advocate against it. The History of Witchcraft and Demonology, is, therefore, an anti-witchcraft and Satanic book. Summers believed that witchcraft and Satanism were not only real but were a Bolshevik conspiracy and that the ‘cult of the Devil is the most terrible power at work in the world today.’
Unlike his association with Crowley, Wheatley was keen to continue his acquaintance with Summers. He and his second wife Joan visited Summers at one of his houses in Alresford, Hampshire. Wheatley tells an anecdote in his autobiography of how they saw an enormous toad and Summers told them that it was the reincarnation of a dear friend. Later during their stay, Summers tried to sell Wheatley a book and when Wheatley declined, Summers fell into a rage and flung the book to the floor, whereupon Wheatley and his wife beat a hasty retreat.
Wheatley was also introduced to a friend of Crowley’s called Rollo Ahmed, a master of Raja yoga and Voodoo. Wheatley was very fond of Ahmed, describing him as one of the most unusual men he had ever met. Wheatley would tell an anecdote of how a man from the Society for Psychical Research met Ahmed and after Ahmed had gone, asked Wheatley if he had noticed the little black imp that stood beside him.
In 1936, Hutchinson, Wheatley’s publisher, asked him to write a non-fiction book on the occult but, feeling unqualified to do so, he recommended Ahmed who wrote The Black Art (1936). In his introduction, Wheatley described the book as one of the best he’d read on the subject.
Wheatley also met with Harry Price, a psychical researcher and ghost hunter who had opened the National Laboratory of Psychical Research in 1926. By the time Wheatley was researching The Devil Rides Out (1934), Price was a household name after having carried out several high profile events. One of these was a medieval ritual in the Harz mountains in 1932, where Price attempted to turn a goat into a handsome young man. It was this incident that perhaps led Wheatley to seek him out. Price believed that there were many Satanists in England and that their headquarters were in France. He also spoke of having attended a Black Mass in Paris.
As well as meeting various members of the occult and psychical sciences, Wheatley read both fiction and non-fiction books on the subject. He had an extensive library of 4,000 books and put so much factual information into the novel that he was worried, ‘the data was overwhelming the plot.’ He was so concerned that he included a questionnaire at the back of the first edition, requesting reader feedback. He needn’t have worried, however, since the book’s extensive factual bent quickly became a selling point and aided its reception upon publication. Reviews were largely favourable, with one proclaiming The Devil Rides Out as, ‘The best thing of its kind since Dracula.’
The Devil Rides Out was published in instalments in the Daily Mail, beginning Halloween 1934 and, subsequently published as a book that December. It is no coincidence that Wheatley’s novel was serialised in the Daily Mail which was, at the time, pro-Mosley and had much praise for the Black Shirts. Wheatley was anti-Communist and his book was largely anti-Communist propaganda. Wheatley saw Satanism as a Communist plot to control the world with Stalin as an agent of the Devil.
A staunch conservative and imperialist, Wheatley wrote A Letter to Posterity in 1947 and hid it in an urn with the intention of it being discovered posthumously. Found when his former residence was being demolished in 1969, it contained many of his world views that can be found in his books. In it, he discusses how post-war socialist reforms will abolish the monarchy and how working rights will pamper the lazy working-class and create national bankruptcy. He didn’t believe in equality but in a class system and elitist hierarchy: ‘The doctrine of ensuring every child a good start in life and equal opportunities is fair and right, but the intelligent and the hardworking will always rise above the rest, and it is not a practical proposition that the few should be expected to devote their lives exclusively to making things easy for the majority. In time, such a system is bound to undermine the vigour of the race.’
We have already met some of the characters in The Devil Rides Out and his subsequent books. Damien Mocata, a Satanic leader, described as a, ‘…pot-bellied, bald-headed person of about sixty, with large, protuberant, fishy eyes, limp hands, and a most unattractive lisp.’ reminiscent of a ‘large white slug,’ is physically based on Crowley though some of his characteristics, such as his fastidiousness and penchant for expensive perfume and sweets, are those of Summers.
Summers plays a larger role in To the Devil a Daughter (1953) as Canon Copley-Syle. He’s described by Wheatley as, ‘dressed in a black frock-coat, ribbed satin vest, clerical collar, breaches, gaiters and black shoes with silver buckles…,’ which is how Summers presented himself. It has been suggested that Copley-Syle’s Egyptian servant may have been based on Rollo Ahmed. Other references to Ahmed surface in the Duke’s expertise in Raja Yoga as well as a demonic imp which appears in The Satanist (1960). It has also been suggested that a Voodoo High Priest called Dr Saturday in Strange Conflict, may be based upon Ahmed.
The Duke de Richleau, Simon Aron, Richard Eaton and Rex Van Ryan are also known as ‘Those Modern Musketeers’ after one of Wheatley’s favourite books, The Three Musketeers (1844) by Alexandre Dumas. Simon is fashioned on Mervyn Baron a good friend of Wheatley’s and, Richard Eaton is Wheatley himself.
The Duke is French and lives in a gentrified world unsullied by socialism and modern democracy. His friends are an idealised version of what Wheatley considered the best of the 1930s. The Duke is in exile forced to flee after his attempts to restore the French monarchy failed, and features in eleven novels. He is described by Wheatley as, ‘a slim, delicate-looking man, somewhat about middle height, with slender fragile hands and greying hair, but with no trace of weakness in his fine, distinguished face…and grey ‘devil’ eyebrows…’
The Duke and his friends, appear in three of Wheatley’s Black Magic series: The Devil Rides Out, Strange Conflict (1941) and Gateway to Hell (1954).
Many of the Satanists in The Devil Rides Out are foreigners, some with disabilities, and they are sometimes described in appalling terms that concur with current racial stereotypes. For example, ‘A grave faced Chinaman…whose slit eyes betrayed a cold, merciless nature…’ and ‘He’s a ‘bad black’ if I ever I saw one.’ There are an albino and a Eurasian with one arm who make up the Satanic meeting at the start of the book. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Wheatley has been criticised for being disablist and racist, amongst other offences to modern sensibilities.
Wheatley drew from many literary sources for the series. He was particularly influenced by two short stories of William Hope Hodgson, The Gateway of the Monster and The Whistling Room, both published in 1910. He may also have drawn upon The Magician by W. Somerset Maugham (1908). The Magician or Haddo, is based upon Crowley whom Maugham met in Paris in 1903. The novel has similar themes to both The Devil Rides Out and To the Devil a Daughter.
Alexander Cannon’s The Invisible Influence (1933), features an Angel of Death which those familiar with The Devil Rides Out will recognise. The Duke makes a reference to the ‘invisible influence which is all around us,’ and Cannon is described as, ‘A very eminent mental specialist who holds a high position in our asylums.’ Wheatley owned many rare and limited edition books, one of which was Down There by J K Huysman (1891) within which the protagonist discovers Satanism is thriving in France and contains a detailed description of a Black Mass. Wheatley believed France was a hotbed of Satanism which is reflected in Mocata’s half-French background.
The Esoteric Doctrine, the Duke espouses in Chapter Three of The Devil Rides Out, is repeated in various guises throughout his Black Magic series. His ideas of Light and Darkness, the Order of the Templars, the Catholic Church et al, can be found in Witchcraft, Magic and Alchemy by Grillot de Givry (1929); a comprehensive exploration of Medieval sorcery, possession, alchemy and the Kabbalah. Other sources are The Return of the Magi (1931) by Maurice Magre and of course, Summers’ History of Witchcraft and Demonology.
The ethos that infuses Wheatley’s writing is Manichaeism, an ancient religion that divides the world and everything in it, into a struggle between a spiritual world of light and a material world of darkness. Wheatley’s world is comforting in a way because there are no shades of grey. His Black Magic stories provided a window through which his readers could witness Satanic rituals and the forces of darkness, safe in the knowledge that good would prevail.
Wheatley presented himself as a gentleman writer, wearing a smoking jacket and sitting in a large library full of beautiful books. He was one of the first writers to use brand names in his work and, those familiar with the Duke will know of his penchant for Hoyo de Monterrey cigars and other luxuries.
In between the great wars, Britain was a very dreary place and Wheatley believed his readers wanted to be transported away from the everyday. The Devil Rides Out contains scenes in exclusive London locations and large country houses. The Duke owns a flat in Curzon Street with, ‘walls lined shoulder high with beautifully bound books, and…lovely old colour prints, interspersed with priceless historical documents and maps.” Other books in the series also have glamorous locations such as, To the Devil a Daughter which begins on the French Riviera.
A prolific writer, Wheatley wrote over 70 novels, many short stories, publications and even invented games. Before becoming a writer, he tried his hand at the family grocery and vintner business, but fell into debt during the Great Depression and had to sell. A natural storyteller, Wheatley wrote his first novel, The Snake with Diamond Eyes (1910), when he was thirteen. His first published work and foray into the occult, was a short story called The Snake (1933).
Before his ‘overnight success’, Wheatley had been rejected many times for publication. Although he believed he was born to write, it wasn’t until he was on the brink of bankruptcy that he set out to create a bestseller. Although his first attempt, Three Inquisitive People, wasn’t initially accepted for publication, his second The Forbidden Territory, was snapped up. Experienced in networking and publicity from his business days, Wheatley arranged for two thousand publicity postcards to be distributed. He also visited bookshops and libraries, asking them to stock his book. Unheard of at the time, this paid off and one bookshop in Kings Cross alone sold seven thousand copies of his novel.
Although never a darling of the literary critics, Wheatley was very popular, selling over 40 million books in his lifetime, that were translated into 29 languages. One reason for his popularity was his appeal to both sexes. His books were adventurous but also sentimental with strong love stories. Wheatley received a lot of fan mail that he personally answered and from which he could gauge his reader’s reactions to characters and storylines.
One such letter was from a woman in Essex, claiming to have been sold to the Devil by a parent. Wheatley met the woman and described her as being a ‘focus for evil’. She told him that she was unable to go near churches without feeling sick and that she had to be careful about her thoughts because bad things would happen to those she wished ill. She, of course, became Christina Mordant in To the Devil a Daughter.
Although Wheatley wrote about the occult, he strongly advised against getting caught up in it. Indeed, The Devil Rides Out carries this warning,
‘I desire to state that I, personally, have never assisted at, or participated in, any ceremony connected with Magic – Black or White…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 practice 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.’
Nevertheless, Wheatley gave lectures and talks on black magic and eventually wrote a non-fiction book, The Devil and All His Works in 1971. From 1974 to 1977 he curated a series of 45 paperbacks for Sphere called The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult. He wrote a two-page introduction to each book, which included both fiction and non-fiction titles. Some of the titles were well known, such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and others were more obscure such as You and Your Hand (1937) by Cheiro, a once-famous palmist and astrologer. Included in the library were several collections of short stories called Uncanny Tales, that feature works by well-known writers such as Poe, Sheridan Le Fanu and Wheatley himself.
Six of Wheatley’s books have been made into films; three of them from his Black Magic series: The Devil Rides Out (1968), To the Devil…a Daughter (1976) and The Haunted Airman (2006) which is an adaptation of The Haunting of Toby Jug. In the next part of this series, we will take a look at The Devil Rides Out, which was made by Hammer Film Productions and starred Christopher Lee in one of his best performances, as the Duke de Richleau.
– Drink and Ink 1917 – 1977 The Time Has Come – The Memoirs of Dennis Wheatley, Hutchinson, 1979
– The Devil is a Gentleman, The Life and Times of Dennis Wheatley, Phil Baker, Dedalus, 2009
– The Dennis Wheatley Museum
– The Enduring Horror of The Devil Rides Out By Tony Sokol, October 18, 2019
– The Devil Rides Out – Dennis Wheatley by Charles Beck, Lounge Books, 19 October 2017
– Dennis Wheatley, Writer on Occult, The New York Times, 12 November 1977
– The Devil Rides Out: When Dennis Wheatley met Torquay’s Aleister Crowley, Weare South Devon, Kevin Dixon, February 12, 2018
– Dennis Wheatley: The Man Who Monetised The ‘Beast’ Paul Spalding-Mulcock, 29th May 2020, Yorkshire Times